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Broncos fire Vance Joseph after back-to-back losing seasons

Denver Broncos GM John Elway to lead coaching search after Joseph posted two-year record of 11-21.

Denver general manager John Elway has fired Broncos head coach Vance Joseph.

"I didn't win enough games,'' Joseph said in a phone interview with 9News.

Elway walked into Joseph's Monday morning to inform the coach he was letting him go. The move comes as the Broncos finished up back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1971-72. Joseph’s overall record was 11-21 – 5-11 last year and 6-10 this year.

“I kind of went through both scenarios last night and I was prepared for both,'' Joseph said. "I was prepared to come back and bust my butt and make the right corrections and try and go fix it. I was also prepared for John to tell me he was making a change.

"I do get it. I said last night, the easiest thing for me and my family is to move and go coach somewhere else because of the local scrutiny we received. And I don’t read it all, but I get it from Patrick (Smyth, the Broncos' public relations boss) and I get it from people in the community. Some of it’s fair, some of its not fair. The hardest thing would have been to come back and have a chance to fix it.

"I’m just proud of our staff. I met with the staff this morning and they were great. They said don’t change, I’m doing it right and that’s the assurance you want as a young coach. I know in my heart I did it right. Given the right situation, I can win a lot of games. I believe that. We’ll see. We’ll see where it leads. I told the staff I’m going to work so. I’m going to be on the prowl here, I’m going to work.’’

As Joseph left, he was greeted by veteran linebacker Brandon Marshall.

"It's been a pleasure, man,'' Marshall said as the two shook hands.

Joseph has two years and approximately $8 million left on his contract, but Broncos management will chalk it up as the cost of doing business while attempting to resurrect the franchise from arguably its lowest point in nearly 50 years.

Joseph’s coaching assistants are not expected to be immediately dismissed, although the Broncos and their new head coach are expected to eventually replace offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and defensive coordinator Joe Woods.

Among the assistant coaches the Broncos would like to bring back are defensive line coach Bill Kollar, running backs coach Curtis Modkins, defensive backs coach Greg Williams, receivers coach Zach Azzanni, offensive line coaches Sean Kugler and Chris Strausser, quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan and assistant quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak.

Former Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak may receive consideration as an offensive coordinator, although he’s not a certainty because the new head coach usually picks his own coordinators as well as other assistants.

Elway will lead a comprehensive head coaching search that will include several candidates. The list includes former Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano, who was born and raised in Boulder, Steelers offensive line coach and former head coach Mike Munchak, Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores, and Bears' defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Former Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, former Eagles quarterbacks coach and Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, and possibly current Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh in the longshot event he would become available.

The Broncos are not expected to consider former head coach Mike Shanahan as a candidate, even though Elway considered him at this time last year.

As for the football operations department, Elway is not expected to make changes until after the 2019 draft, if he makes any at all. He is pleased with director of player personnel Matt Russell, who is coming off a terrific 2018 draft when the Broncos had the No. 5 overall selection. The Broncos will have the No. 9 or 10 draft pick in 2019. Elway could look to reinforce his football operations department by adding a person or two.

The Broncos hired Joseph in January 2017 to replace Gary Kubiak, who resigned as head coach after two seasons because of health reasons. Kubiak had led the Broncos to the Super Bowl 50 title in 2015, but the team slipped to 9-7 in 2016, as the coach fell ill in his coach’s dressing room following a week 5 loss to Atlanta.

Kubiak made it through the season but announced to his team following the final game of 2016 that he was getting out of coaching. (Kubiak will not become a head coach again, two sources told 9News, but he is expected to return as an offensive coordinator in 2019.)

After Kubiak’s departure, the Broncos came up with a short list of three candidates: Joseph, Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who is the son of former Broncos coaching legend Mike Shanahan, and Kansas City Chiefs’ special teams coordinator Dave Toub.

The choice eventually came down to Joseph and Kyle Shanahan. The Broncos hired Joseph even though he was coming off just one season as a defensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins in 2016.

Why? The Broncos had a veteran team at the time with a locker room interspersed with outspoken personalities like Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders, Derek Wolfe, Chris Harris and Brandon Marshall. Joseph was considered “a fixer” during his two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015-16, and one season with the Miami Dolphins as their defensive coordinator.

Joseph also came highly recommended by Kubiak, who had Joseph on his Houston Texans’ staff from 2011-13, and Russell, who was Joseph’s teammate for a season at the University of Colorado. 

Joseph’s disappointing two seasons were not from a lack of effort. Through this past week, when Joseph realized his days as head coach were numbered, he arrived at his office at 6 a.m. and didn’t leave until 10 p.m. He was insightful during his press conferences and always respectful of the media, even when the line of questioning was difficult for any coach to endure.

The Broncos started 2-0 in each of Joseph’s two seasons, but the team suffered through an eight-game losing skid in 2017 that was the worst since 1967. Elway nearly fired Joseph after last season, but ultimately decided to give him one more chance with an upgrade at the quarterback position.

But new quarterback Case Keenum couldn’t halt the Broncos from losing seven of seven that dropped the team’s record to 3-6. The Broncos then made a surprising run to 6-6 by upsetting the Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers and defeating the Bengals in Cincinnati.

But then the Broncos lost Harris and Sanders in a four-day span and momentum was popped. The Broncos finished with a four-game losing streak, fall short in games against 2-10 San Francisco, 5-7-1 Cleveland and 3-11 Oakland before getting beat by the 11-4 Los Angeles Chargers in the season finale Sunday.

Joseph did exhibit signs of coaching improvement in his second season as besides the midseason three-game win streak, the Broncos were much more competitive in defeat against such top-caliber opponents as the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams.

As he left, Joseph shook hands with linebacker Brandon Marshall.

"It's been a pleasure, man,'' Marshall said.

Joseph had other people to thank, singling out Smyth, whom he met with every day.

“Patrick, the entire Dove Valley here,'' Joseph said. "They were great. It was the best support staff that I’ve ever experienced. The entire building, even the city. I would go out and I would get support. Obviously, there were some angry fans and I do understand why they were angry. For the most part they were fair with me and they gave me respect when they saw me in public. So I appreciate that. I appreciate the fan base and I appreciate this city who supported till the end.’’

Joseph could immediately get another head coaching job now that the Bengals have finally parted ways with Marvin Lewis.

“I haven’t talked to anybody,'' Joseph said. "I’m about to leave here and give John and those people their space today and go see my wife and my kids.''

 As for the Broncos, removing the head coach automatically enlarges the target for criticism on Elway and the players.

Specifically, the Broncos’ offense was not an NFL winning caliber unit particularly in the final weeks after losing receivers Demaryius Thomas to trade and Sanders to injury, and season-ending injuries to tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Jake Butt, offensive linemen Matt Paradis, Ron Leary and Max Garcia, and now running back Phillip Lindsay.

The coaching search will begin immediately. Elway and Broncos’ chief executive officer Joe Ellis are expected to meet with the press later today.

Credit: KUSA
Denver Broncos GM John Elway at a press conference on Monday, December 31, 2018.
Credit: KUSA
Denver Broncos CEO Joe Ellis at a press conference on Monday, December 31, 2018.