Denver Broncos fire head coach Vic Fangio after second straight last-place finish

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are on the hunt for their fourth different coach since the start of the 2016 season, and general manager George Paton said he wants the "right leader" to snap the team's six-year playoff drought.

The Broncos fired Vic Fangio on Sunday morning after the Broncos' 7-10 finish. It is the fifth consecutive losing season for the Broncos as Fangio went 19-30 in his three years on the job.

Fangio thanked Broncos president and CEO Joe Ellis, president of football operations John Elway and general manager George Paton in a statement Sunday, saying it "was an honor and privilege" to serve as Denver's head coach.

"To Broncos fans: Thank you for your support, passion and how much you care about the Broncos," Fangio said as part of his statement. "You are the reason Denver is one of the NFL's best football towns. The foundation is in place for this team to accomplish great things. The future is bright for the Denver Broncos, and I wish the organization nothing but the best."

The Broncos also have fired offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and special teams coordinator Tom McMahon, multiple sources said, but Paton would not name those coaches specifically early Sunday afternoon. Ellis said he informed Fangio of the decision during a conversation Sunday morning that also included Paton.

"Our search to find the next head coach of the Broncos will be a comprehensive, collaborative process," said Paton, who will conduct the search and has the authority to choose the next head coach. "We're approaching it with an open mind and look forward to spending time with some outstanding candidates. ... You can't keep recycling coaches and expect to sustain a winning culture. It's hard. We're going to get it right, we're going to get it right with this search, I'll guarantee that."

Paton added that he expected to begin formally asking teams for permission to speak to some candidates on those teams' coaching staffs as soon as Monday.

The Broncos replaced Gary Kubiak after the 2016 season for health reasons, fired Vance Joseph after the 2018 season and now have fired Fangio after seasons with records of 7-9, 5-11 and 7-10. Paton called Fangio the best "coach I've ever been around'' and that Fangio's "football mind is unparalleled."

But both Paton and Broncos CEO Joe Ellis repeatedly stressed the Broncos haven't won enough games and each used the word "leader" or "leadership" multiple times to describe what they hope to see from the new head coach.

"The No. 1 quality is leadership, we're looking for someone to lead this entire organization," Paton said. "Obviously we want the best football coach. [I'm] not worried on what side of the ball, not worried about a playcaller. We want leadership, that's our No. 1 priority."

The Broncos' defense finished among the league's top 10 in most major categories (it will likely finish No. 3 in scoring defense), and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for a career-best 18 touchdowns despite missing the final three games with a concussion.

But Denver's consistently balky offense and inconsistent special teams play ultimately cost Fangio his job. Fangio, 63, finished the third year of a four-year contract he signed when he replaced Joseph in 2019.

Fangio's downfall, beyond his 19-30 record over his three seasons, was fueled by the ongoing search for a long-term solution at quarterback, a change at general manager (Paton was hired to replace Elway in 2021) and an almost constant struggle to score points. There has also been upheaval at the ownership level, which has included a legal battle, with the team expected to be sold in the coming year.

Ellis said those ownership issues would not impact the Broncos' ability to secure the best candidate for the job. "I don't think it will be a factor," Ellis said Sunday, "knowing what's in place here, I really feel we have every opportunity ... to get a great coach."

Fangio also faced some obstacles amid the COVID-19 pandemic for the past two seasons, including a 2020 loss to the New Orleans Saints in which the Broncos had none of their quarterbacks in uniform for the game.

But Ellis and Paton each cited the Broncos' repeated steps backward after almost any successes, as well as the inability to keep themselves in the playoff race down the stretch this season. The Broncos were 7-6 and squarely in the AFC's muddled playoff race with four games remaining.

But the Broncos lost their last four games, including Saturday's season finale. Denver has not played a postseason game since its Super Bowl 50 win to close out the 2015 season and hasn't finished above .500 since a 9-7 finish in 2016, while also going 9-21 in AFC West games over the past five seasons.

Players had often said they appreciated Fangio's honesty and straightforward demeanor. But the turnstile at quarterback, another season of failing to average more than 23 points a game -- they haven't achieved that mark since 2014 -- and more than a few more bobbles on special teams were too much for Fangio to overcome.

Bridgewater was the 10th different quarterback to start at least one game for the Broncos since Week 13 of the 2016 season, a total that doesn't include running back Philip Lindsay opening behind center in the 2020 game vs. the Saints.

Elway, who stepped down as the team's chief football decision-maker after the 2020 season (he has remained as the president of football operations this season) hired Fangio with the hope that his discipline, accountability, teaching and expertise on the defensive side of the ball would be enough to snap the postseason drought.

At the time, Elway called those things "the foundation of football," and Fangio had waited decades for his first head-coaching opportunity. Fangio had promised the details would matter and the Broncos would not suffer "death by inches."

But even his hope of a dynamic pass-rush duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb fueling the defense didn't come to fruition. Chubb missed all but four games in the 2019 season with a torn ACL, and Miller missed the entire 2020 season with an ankle injury.

Chubb then missed nine of the first 10 games this season after ankle surgery, and Paton traded Miller to the Los Angeles Rams in early November.

The Broncos will be an attractive landing spot for Fangio's replacement, with a young roster, about $50 million worth of salary-cap space projected according to Paton and 11 picks already in hand for this April's draft.

"It's sort of become systemic here; we can't figure out how to win games, and that's got to change," Ellis said. "I can sit up here and talk about it, but that's just cheap, it's just got to happen. ... It's got to stop."