ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Elway was eager to talk about lessons learned. The Broncos had just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and now he was tasked with finding a new head coach.
So Vance Joseph reached back to the worst year of his football life. In 2013, his ninth season as an NFL assistant coach, his Houston Texans went from preseason AFC contenders to losers of 14 consecutive games.
That was Joseph's last of three seasons in Houston working under Gary Kubiak, Denver's last head coach, who retired due to health reasons. And in that interview, it became clear that Joseph shares Kubiak's calm delivery and attention to detail.
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“We talked about the issue of expectations overwhelming a team, and not having the mental toughness and the leadership to overcome adversity when expectations are high,” Joseph says. “Every year they pick and choose teams that should win the championship, and that can swallow your team if you let it, so you have to go to the mentality of winning every day. How do you go about your weeks? The same, every day.”
It's coach-speak, for sure. But it was just what Elway wanted to hear.
On paper, Joseph, 44, was far from a conventional candidate for arguably the best opening of 2017. He'd been an NFL defensive coordinator for just one season; his Dolphins unit finished 18th in points allowed in 2016. Additionally, the tallest task for the new coach in Denver would be identifying and molding the next franchise quarterback, a task with which Joseph has zero experience. For Elway, Joseph's reputation as a leader of men outweighed that.
Back in 2013, it was an overtime loss to Seattle in Week 4 that sent the Texans tumbling. But people who worked with and played for Joseph say he maintained the loyalty and effort of the defensive backs room, with a rare devotion to his routine. Even after the season was a lost cause, he declined to cut corners when installing defensive game plans, cycling through every formation and every possible coverage and scenario. He pored over practice scripts in morning meetings, covering the formations the offense would show the team and the calls the defense would run, insisting defensive backs would be the group most prepared for practice.
“I learned a lot from Vance that year,” says Perry Carter, a former NFL defensive back who assisted Joseph with defensive backs in 2013. “A lot of guys don't take the time to do all that. And he never changed. From Day 1, when people expected us to win the Super Bowl, to the final week. I liked that about him.
“They saw that he was all-in with them, no matter what, and they were all-in with us.”
The Texans finished that year with the third-ranked pass defense in terms of yards. The success on one side of the ball gave members of the defensive staff hope that they might be spared from the staff overhaul sure to come after Kubiak's in-season firing, especially after defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was made the interim coach. Instead, with Bill O'Brien coming in, the entire staff was let go.
Joseph joined Marvin Lewis's staff in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Kubiak and several of his staff, including Phillips, wound up in Denver, and finished their second season with a victory in Super Bowl 50. Though he wasn't in the organization, the Broncos' 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers provided a measure of validation for Joseph. In his conversations with Kubiak then and since, he understood the coach had changed precisely nothing about his approach to the job.
“I was so excited when Kub came here and won a championship,” Joseph says. “After the game I texted him, trust in the process.
“We knew we could do this somewhere else and could have done it in Houston. It's a hard league and sometimes things go off the rails. They didn't change anything they did and they end up being Super Bowl champions two years later.”
After the 2015 season, new Dolphins head coach Adam Gase hired Joseph as his defensive coordinator. He took the reins of a defense that lost two pro bowlers (defensive end Olivier Vernon and cornerback Brent Grimes) in free agency, and would lose safety Reshad Evans and linebacker Koa Misi to injuries early in the season. Defensive headliner Ndamukong Suh knew little about the first-time coordinator prior to the season, so he reached out to Jared Crick, a former Nebraska teammate who had played for the Texans during Joseph's tenure. “Ndamukong wanted to know what Coach V was about, and I told him, Coach stays even keeled,” Crick says. “In the best of times and the worst of times, he demands perfection of his guys. He's never riding the wave.”
Crick found himself making the same call to Suh in reverse a year later, asking the all-pro defensive tackle what Joseph had been like as a coordinator once it became clear Joseph was a frontrunner for the Broncos job. “Talking to Suh, he was saying the same things that I experienced,” Crick says. “A super prepared guy who does everything he can to make sure his guys are equally prepared.” He had been as Perry describes him today: “Demanding but not demeaning.”
When Joseph got the job, a sizeable portion of the Broncos fan base pushed back on Elway's decision, preferring Kyle Shanahan, one of the league's best offensive minds and the son of former Super Bowl-winning Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. The 37-year-old had been an offensive coordinator in the NFL since 2008 and interviewed with the Broncos before taking the 49ers job later in the offseason. Fans envisioned the coordinator who had just helped Matt Ryan to a career-defining season doing the same with either Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian. But Joseph got the job, in part for his projected ability to command a locker room that appeared to splinter as the team was knocked out of playoff contention in 2016. Reports of squabbles accompanied images of Aqib Talib shoving a teammate after a muffed punt in late November.
Crick and teammates have downplayed the notion of a locker room chasm in 2016. (“I've been on all kinds of teams and seen that kind of thing,” Crick says. “From my perspective there was no big group against another group pointing fingers.”) And Joseph says, from what he's gathered, the issues were blown out of proportion by media reports at the time. Regardless, Joseph has emphasized in the few team meetings the team has held that everyone will have a clean slate.
“To me, what happened last year does not matter at all,” Joseph says.
Says Crick: “He brings that positivity. He's not coming in as a coach after a 2-14 season saying we've got to change the culture. This isn't a team that needs a complete overhaul. He came in and said, Guys, we just need to work, because we have everything we need to be successful.”
Almost everything. There's still the small issue of picking the right QB for the job.