ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The week that was has once again revealed one of the harsh truths of a lost pro football season.
People are going to get fired, and for the Denver Broncos, not only were six assistant coaches shown the door, they were publicly described as part of the problem. Such is life at 5-11 after some with the team had scoffed at preseason predictions that had the Broncos winning “only" 10 games.
And often head coaches have to fire assistant coaches to remain the head coach. But that difficult and often awkward process, for coaches and their families, got a little more awkward this week as coach Vance Joseph said this about firing six assistants (Jeff Davidson, Brock Olivo, Fred Pagac, Johnnie Lynn, Eric Studesville and Tyke Tolbert):
"When you go 5-11, it wasn’t good this year. As far as our football team, you have to make some changes. In my opinion, it was time to move on to change the culture in certain rooms. Obviously Eric and Tyke and Jeff Davidson are all good people and football coaches. They’ve been here through a lot of winning years. In my opinion, it was time to change the culture so we could get back to pushing our players to be the best that they can be and getting our best players to play at their best all the time."
That verbal parting gift has been noticed by many assistant coaches around the league, all of whom have been fired at some point, including some the Broncos will interview in the coming days and weeks. When a head coach drops “change the culture" in a sentence, that isn't exactly thanks for the effort.
Everybody in the league gets the deal -- that teams lose and people get fired -- and everybody in coaching knows what they’re signing up to do. But Joseph used “culture" and “change" more than once.
“It was more about the overall confidence of the offense and getting back to being a dominant unit versus [being] personal about the coaches," Joseph said. “I’m looking forward to bringing in guys who can change the culture and get our offense back to playing good football. It’s as simple as that."
Joseph already has replaced Davidson with Sean Kugler, a longtime offensive line coach in the NFL with stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions before he became a college head coach (UTEP). And the Broncos’ offensive line has been a source of turnover and a question mark overall for much of the past four seasons, so Kugler now gets his chance at the repairs.
But in the big picture, it also hasn’t gone unnoticed in the league that all six of the assistant coaches Joseph and/or president of football operations and general manager John Elway fired were the direct supervisors of rookie draft picks who had some difficulties on the field and may not have progressed as fast as the Broncos would have liked. Davidson with left tackle Garett Bolles, Tolbert and Olivo with wide receiver/punt returner Isaiah McKenzie, Pagac with DeMarcus Walker when Walker was moved to outside linebacker to start the season, Lynn with cornerback Brendan Langley and Studesville with De'Angelo Henderson.
McKenzie, Walker and Langley were all benched during the season -- and were made game-day inactives. Bolles was among the most penalized linemen in the league, having been flagged 15 times, 10 for holding, and struggled to control his emotions at times. Henderson didn’t play until late in the season, other than one carry on a fake punt attempt in the season’s first month.
But the rookies’ struggles were a common narrative throughout the season, as was the Broncos’ veteran players consistently offering that they'd hoped the team’s younger players would pick up the pace. Defensive end Derek Wolfe bluntly addressed the Broncos’ rookie class earlier this week during an appearance on 104.3-FM The Fan when he called it “this entitlement problem around the entire league" and added “you could feel it with the rookies -- every year they get more and more entitled."
Joseph has vowed to repair that divide as well, offering, “I’ll do a better job of assigning guys to rookies, pushing guys to spend more time with rookies and define those roles for those rookies so they know what we expect."
In the end, people remember things. Folks still toss out “there’s no Plan B" to Elway, and he said it in 2012.
The Broncos certainly have their share of football problems to fix, but “change the culture" now may be one of those things that comes back around from time to time to Joseph as he tries to repair the rest.