ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos stumble to the finish of the 2018 season, John Elway & Co. face a decision about coach Vance Joseph's future.
Joseph, who will complete the second year in a four-year contract Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, is assumed by many, especially those who work the drive-time talk circuit, to be on his way out within hours of the season's end.
And if Joseph is fired, the Broncos will be on the hunt for their fourth head coach in the last six years -- not exactly a mark of the organizational stability that the Broncos have professed to have over the years. When Joseph and Elway sit down Sunday night or Monday morning, the conversation will go one of two ways.
Here's a look at the Broncos’ case for making a change and the case for keeping Joseph.
Broncos make a change because …
History and expectations. Hey, everybody knows what they're getting into with the Broncos, as owner Pat Bowlen has routinely said, "I want to be No. 1 at everything." Elway has consistently said the Broncos have a win “from now on" approach, but the Broncos have just completed their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1971-72. That adds to the enormous public pressure to simply do “something" after three consecutive playoff misses.
Game-day management. Joseph is ultimately responsible for how the team functions in games. And while the team's defense has scrapped its way into the top 12 in scoring defense, Joseph has also faced criticism over his use of timeouts, when he has or hasn’t gone for it on fourth downs, replay reviews and substitution issues. The Broncos have been flagged four times this year for too many men on the field, for example, and gave up a score on a fake field goal while Denver had 10 men on the field.
The offense. Joseph said he learned his lesson about “coaching the coaches" during the 5-11 2017 season, as offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fired in November of that year. And while injuries have certainly played a role, the Broncos' offense continues to be a muddled affair of slow starts and stalled drives, with only slight improvements over last season in scoring (they’re 22nd this year, compared to tied for 26th last year) and passing yards per game (they’re 19th this season as compared to 20th last year) -- two areas the team said were the highest of offseason priorities last spring.
Preparation. Several opposing personnel executives have privately said this season that the Broncos have consistently played hard. But in the public domain, much of that is negated by performances against the Jets (Week 5) and San Francisco 49ers (Week 14). In these two road games, with the Broncos actually holding the talent advantage, they played somewhat emotionless and made plenty of mistakes. The Broncos surrendered 323 rushing yards to the Jets and 210 receiving yards -- in a half -- to 49ers tight end George Kittle. The Broncos' offense scored 16 and 14 points, respectively, in those losses, against teams that are currently 28th and 24th, respectively, in scoring defense, and the losses greatly affected Denver's postseason fate.
Broncos keep Joseph because …
The message. Joseph doesn’t control the roster, Elway does. And Elway traded five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib in the offseason and a five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver in Demaryius Thomas on Oct. 30. The message was that the future “value" received from those trades would clear the way for some younger players to get more opportunities, but neither trade made the Broncos' roster better for this season.
Injuries. They are an inescapable fact of NFL life, and more than one Super Bowl winner over the years has said relative good health played as big a role as winning plays in their success. Running back Phillip Lindsay will be the eighth player who started multiple games on offense this season who will not be uniform Sunday. That number includes the team's leading rusher (Lindsay), its leading wide receiver (Emmanuel Sanders), two tight ends (Jake Butt, Jeff Heuerman) and three starters from the offensive line -- Ron Leary, Matt Paradis and Max Garcia. And that’s on offense alone. Toss in a fractured leg for cornerback Chris Harris Jr. -- when the team had just moved to 6-6 -- and the Broncos’ roster was not, and is not, staffed to overcome all of the tough injury luck.
The schedule. Joseph has actually raised his standing among some in the league who've crunched the numbers. If the Baltimore Ravens or Pittsburgh Steelers make the postseason (and at least one of them one of them will), the Broncos will have played eight games against playoff teams. They have wins over the Chargers, Steelers and Seahawks to go with a three-point loss to the Rams and a four-point loss to the Chiefs. They’ve shown that when they're dialed in, they can compete with the league’s best.
The climate. There are many general managers in the league who believe the list of potential head-coaching candidates is not particularly deep this year -- “just not good" is how one put it. And Denver doesn't exactly look like the easiest place to work right now, with ownership questions that include a lawsuit and plenty of lawyers exchanging filings to go with the fact that, if fired, Joseph would be the third of the Broncos' past four coaches who was on the job for two or fewer seasons. The only coach in that span to last longer -- John Fox, who made it four years -- was let go after four division titles and a Super Bowl trip. So, many in the league who want head-coaching gigs would see a guy fired for success and if, Joseph is fired, a guy let go after 32 games on the job. At the moment, there is work to be done on all fronts for the Broncos to restore their standing among the league's great franchises.