Connections landed Vance Joseph as head coach in Denver

With Vance Joseph on his way out, many wonder why the Denver Broncos hired him. The decision had more to do with his connections than his qualifications.

The Denver Broncos hired Vance Joseph to be their 16th head coach in January of 2017. That was 23 months ago, and throughout that time the team’s performance has forced fans to question why John Elway pulled the trigger on hiring Joseph in the first place.

Joseph has accrued 11 wins to 20 losses in his almost two seasons, and the team’s two consecutive losing seasons make up the franchise’s first such streak since 1971-72.

Joseph’s tenure has not been without its upsides, specifically his 3-1 start to the 2017 season and this season’s three game win streak that included wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers, vaulting the Broncos back into playoff contention. The hot start in his first season was followed by eight straight losses and this year’s hot streak came before consecutive losses to the 49ers, Browns and Raiders.

At 6-9, the Broncos are eliminated from playoff contention and it is now a forgone conclusion that Joseph will be one of the many casualties of Black Monday – the NFL’s annual day after the last regular season game when failed coaching stints all over the league come to an end. Some may think it’s long overdue, and I would put myself in that group.

Elway’s decision to choose Joseph as the Broncos next head coach came down to his experience and anecdotes from coaches Elway was close with who also worked with Joseph on other teams. In Joseph’s 15 years of coaching before taking the Broncos’ job, he worked under four coaches who have connections with the Broncos. To boot, Joseph has Colorado in his background. He was a part of the Colorado Buffaloes 1990 National Championship team and played for the team from 1990-94.

Joseph got his first real coaching job at the University of Wyoming in 2002 as their defensive backs coach. He was there for one season and that team was ranked 94th in interceptions and 114th in passing defense.

A year later he returned for a year to Boulder as the Colorado Buffaloes defensive backs coach under Gary Barnett, whom he’d played for during two seasons. There, the numbers didn’t improve as his unit finished 97th in interceptions and 144th in passing defense.

After a season as the Bowling Green defensive backs coach, Joseph finally made his way into the NFL, coaching defensive backs for the 49ers under head coach Mike Nolan. If Nolan’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he spent the 2009 season as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator under Josh McDaniels.

Joseph coached under Nolan for four seasons in San Francisco before Nolan was fired following the 2008 season. Joseph remained with the 49ers for two more years, and in his 6 year stint the 49ers were only in the top 20 in interceptions twice and never had a top 20 passing defense. The important though was that he was welcomed into NFL coaching circles through Nolan.

In 2011, Joseph’s next was hired to be the defensive backs coach for the Houston Texans. The head coach-defensive coordinator pair in Houston at the time? None other than Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips. The two also happened to work together in Denver in 2015 and 2016, winning Super Bowl 50. For three years, Joseph spent countless hours around two men who would later become Broncos legends. To think that fact didn’t have something to do with Joseph’s hiring would be delirious.

 

After a two year stint as the Cincinnati Bengals defensive backs coach – in which he produced by far his best results as an NFL coach – Joseph finally landed a job as the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins. The head coach of that team was former Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Reportedly the Broncos interviewed Joseph after the 2015 season before he came in contact with Gase, but that year spent with yet another man that Elway could easily contact for reviews on Joseph’s ability to coach was key in the hiring.

The thing is: Joseph wasn’t a very good defensive coordinator when he had the chance. His unit’s rankings went as follows: 29th (out of 32) in total defense; 15th in passing defense; 30th in rushing defense; 18th in points allowed. He actually dropped them four spots in total defense. But he got himself another connection to the Broncos.

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So after all that – all those years of coaching and mostly producing mediocre results from the groups he was coaching – why did the Broncos hire Joseph in the first place?

It came down to who he knew. He knew multiple people with connections to Denver, and that led him to his first opportunity as a head coach. These people likely gave raving reviews of Joseph when Elway inquired about him – and with Kubiak still on the staff you have to assume he gave his two cents as well. Elway trusted all these people, and took a shot that didn’t work out.

He shouldn’t be faulted for that. Two things Joseph has are experience and wisdom passed down to him from coaching mentors. One thing he doesn’t have is results.

Vance Joseph might turn out to be a great NFL head coach, but he has a lot of work and learning to do and that takes time. The Denver Broncos simply don’t have time to wait.