DENVER – Vance Joseph made the right decision. It should have been the right decision, anyway.
The Denver defense could have helped their head coach by not allowing a 40-yard run to Nick Chubb on the first play after the coach's decision. The Broncos' offense, which had smartly moved to the 50-yard line without much difficulty, could have come up with just one more completion in the final seconds to set up the game-winning field goal.
The decision almost worked out perfectly.
But Joseph hasn't had much luck in his two years as head coach and because the Broncos would up losing a heartbreaker to the Cleveland Browns, 17-16, here Saturday night, so many will say Joseph's decision to take a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Browns' 6-yard line with 4:35 left was the wrong decision.
Even though the Broncos couldn't run the ball all night, and haven't been able to run it for two weeks as opponents gang up on rookie running back Phillip Lindsay, taking the 3 points instead of making the do-or-die decision with 4:35 remaining when the final result was a loss will reflexively lead to a line of reasoning that Joseph was wrong.
"You trust the coaches' decision and he made the right one there, you know?'' said Broncos' defensive end Adam Gotsis. "We got the stop. Thought we were going to go down there and kick another one. It's unfortunate. But if we go for it there and don't make it we don't get anything.''
Not every Broncos player was saying take the field goal. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said the chatter on the sideline was a mix with some players wanting to go for it.
"I felt confident,'' said quarterback Case Keenum."I wanted to convert third down, that's what I wanted to do. But he felt like the defense could get a stop and get the ball back and they did.They got a stop, we got the ball back. So, I can't complain because I had the ball in my hands with a chance to win the game. It's all I can ask for.''
Here's the set up: The Broncos were down, 17-13 with 7:07 remaining when quarterback Case Keenum converted a third-and-9 by completing a 9-yard pass to DaeSean Hamilton along the left sidelines for a first down at the Cleveland 15.
Initially, Hamilton was ruled short but the spot was overruled after Joseph challenged the call and upon review gained the necessary yard for the first down.
Lindsay, on one of his few productive runs against the Browns' suffocating eight-man box, gained 7 yards to make it second-and-3 at the Browns' 8. Then Lindsay got only 2 yards to make it third-and-1 and a toss play to Lindsay was stopped for no gain.
It was fourth-and-1 at the 6. Perhaps, the Broncos should have used their bigger back, Royce Freeman, on the third-and-1 carry. Give it to him up the middle instead of a toss play to the smaller Lindsay.
"I've got to be a football player and I've got to make plays,'' Lindsay said. "Our coach (Curtis Modkins) says, 'No matter what, it's 1 yard. I got to get that 1 yard. I'll take blame for it.''
Go for it, get the first down and go on to score a touchdown and the Broncos are up 20-17. That's two assumptions, though. For the game, the Broncos gained just 32 yards on 20 carries against the relentless Browns' blitzing defense orchestrated by interim head coach Gregg Williams.
The way the Broncos were running, the odds were stacked against them picking up a yard against a goal-line Browns' front. So Joseph took the sure 3 points with plenty of time remaining and sent in Brandon McManus to kick a short field goal. The Broncos Stadium at Mile High crowd of 71,847 (there were 4,749 no-shows) greeted McManus' successful kick with loud boos.
Nothing personal, Brandon. Some say it was 17-16 Browns instead of 20-17 Broncos. It also could have been 17-13 Browns instead of 17-16.
"I wanted points there,'' Joseph said. "We had about 4:35 to go in the game and we had one timeout and the 2-minute warning. I trust our defense to get a stop there. If we don't get points there, a touchdown has to win it. It was my decision to take the points.''
By taking the field goal, the Broncos only needed a defensive stop and field goal to win it. It almost happened. That it didn't work out will now ignite speculation that Joseph's tenure as Broncos' head coach has dwindled to its final two weeks.
But if Joseph doesn't make it, he will sleep at night knowing in his heart he made the right call.
If only the execution was better. On the very first play after the decision, Nick Chubb, the second cousin to Broncos' rookie outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, exploded through a huge hole to move the ball from the Cleveland 25 to Denver's 35. Eventually, the Browns moved to the Broncos' 10 and had their own fourth-and-1 decision with 1:53 remaining.
The Browns went for it and in what appeared to be the defensive play of the game, Gotsis stuffed Nick Chubb for a 2-yard loss. Broncos ball!
Denver had no more timeouts but 1:49 was plenty of time for an NFL offense, especially since they only needed to get inside the Browns' 35 for a McManus' game-winning field goal attempt. Anybody want to admit the Broncos only needed to get inside the 35 thanks to Joseph taking the 3 points?
Keenum threw to tight end Matt LaCosse for 14 yards and Hamilton for 8 yards. The Broncos were out to the 35. On fourth-and-2 Keenum made a clutch completion to running back Devontae Booker, who spun for 15 yards and the first down at the 50.
Keenum spiked the ball to stop the clock with 52 seconds left. That was good. The only problem was it cost a down. Two incompletions make it fourth-and-10 at the 50.
Uh-oh. Naturally, the Browns' blitzed as they had all night. Safety Jabrill Peppers, who made a terrific end zone interception earlier in the game, shot up the middle and mauled Keenum before he had to think. Ballgame.
"That's what I dream about, that's what I want,'' Keenum said. "I want the ball in my hands with a chance to go win the game. And to get that close and to not, it pisses me off. I know my mom is going to be mad for using that word but it hurts.''
The Browns with their talented young quarterback Baker Mayfield are ascending with their 6-7-1 record. The Broncos with their stopgap, if gritty Keenum are 6-8 and out of the playoffs for the third consecutive year after winning Super Bowl 50.
"It's tough,'' said Von Miller, who registered a sack to give him 98.0 in his career to break Simon Fletcher's 23-year record of 97.5. "I'm very fortunate to be a part of an organization that went to the playoffs and two Super Bowls (since Miller was drafted in 2011). It's just a tough period right now.''
Tough became ludicruous in the second half when the Broncos were down to just one cornerback -- Tramaine Brock, who had missed the previous two games with a rib injury. Another cornerback, Jamar Taylor, was ejected for what officials said was a punch when he used an open hand to whack the facemask of Browns receiver Breshard Perriman. Another cornerback, Brendan Langley, was knocked out early in the game with a concussion. And Bradley Roby missed almost a quarter when a cleat came up and gashed his mouth so that he needed 5 stitches mid-game before coming back in late.
The Broncos countered by having safety Justin Simmons play outside cornerback and another safety, Will Parks, play a slot corner.
All this after the Broncos had already lost Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Harris Jr., Matt Paradis, Ron Leary, Jeff Heuerman, Jake Butt and Max Garcia to season-edning injuries.
Even as he ran out of players, Vance Joseph had his team playing hard. All focus came down to a difficult decision he had to make with 4:35 remaining. He made the decision he felt was right and it would have been, maybe even should have been, had the defense came up with a stop earlier in their series and the offense came up with one more completion.