There aren’t three coaches in the NFL more crucial to a team’s success than its quarterback. And the ghost of Vince Lombardi ain’t walking through that door at Broncos headquarters
But unlike John Elway, who wanted his coach to be a hand puppet, here’s hoping general manager George Paton has figured out he needs more than a yes man. From making a tough decision on fourth down to holding the team together before a losing streak spins out of control, what makes a coach successful in today’s NFL are unrelenting people skills and bold crisis management, the very shortcomings that doomed Vic Fangio to failure.
“We’re looking for someone to lead this entire organization, to lead this community and to lead our players. That’s the No. 1 trait we’re looking for,” Paton said Sunday. He’s now searching for the fourth different man to coach the Broncos since John Fox told Elway to take this job and shove it seven years ago.
“Obviously, we want the best football coach. I’m not worried about what side of the ball, and I’m not worried about a play-caller. We want leadership. That’s our No. 1 priority.”
Fewer than 24 hours after a 28-24 loss to Kansas City, Paton fired Fangio because a 19-30 record doesn’t cut it in Broncos Country and somebody had to be the fall guy for the roster mistakes committed by Elway and the lack of accountability that festered in the organization with each passing year since Pat Bowlen’s death in 2019.
What’s wrong with the Broncos is bigger than Uncle Vic. It’s a systemic failure of accountability.
“At the end of the day, Fed-Ex gets judged by how they deliver packages (and) we get judged by how we perform on the field. That’s what our business is. And we have not performed well recently, for a number of years now,” Broncos president Joe Ellis said. “That has to change. It simply has to change in order to win back the trust, enthusiasm and excitement of the fan base.”
It will be Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson who return the Broncos to championship contention. If Paton doesn’t find a way to acquire one of those elite quarterbacks before the first snap of the 2022 season, it won’t make much difference whether he hires Green Bay offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, Super Bowl winner Doug Pederson or young Cincinnati hotshot Brian Callahan as his next head coach.
Gary Kubiak authored the greatest coaching performance in franchise history by bringing a broken-down Peyton Manning back from the scrap heap in time to win Super Bowl 50, and the real genius of Mike Shanahan was how he found a way to harness the headstrong will of Elway.
So rather than some X’s and O’s wunderkind or a sideline presence as overbearing as a Belichickian sneer, what the Broncos need now is a coach who can put up with a prima donna quarterback and manage his ego, as well as break up the occasional fight in training camp.
The beginning of the end for Fangio was way back in August when the summer heat of practice erupted into a fight between offensive tackle Garett Bolles and linebacker Bradley Chubb. After a carry by running back Melvin Gordon during an 11-on-11 session, two of the most prominent members of the team ended up in a tussle on the ground. Chubb was fighting mad. Bolles refused to let his anger go, even after teammates intervened.
“I didn’t see any of it. I was on the other side of the field,” Fangio said at the time. “Don’t know what precipitated it.”
Like all fights between brothers, nobody cares who started it. The problem was Fangio didn’t have the people skills to end it.
Bolles was escorted to the locker room, put in timeout like a petulant child. He did not return to the field until guided by Paton, as well as vice president of player development Ray Jackson. Front-office executives shouldn’t have to deal with such nonsense if a coaching staff is properly in control of the situation.
When a 3-0 start to the season fell apart, Fangio didn’t take decisive action until after the Broncos returned from Cleveland with a fourth straight defeat. Long after it became clear offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had no clue how to get the Broncos in the end zone, Fangio refused to make the tough decision to can him. And during the final quarter of his last game as coach, Fangio kicked a field goal when trailing Kansas City 28-21, rather than going for the gusto on fourth down.
“The one thing about Vic Fangio is he’s the best coach I’ve ever been around,” said Paton, after reluctantly parting ways with a man he genuinely admires. “His attention to detail, his toughness, his work ethic and his football mind is unparalleled.”
As a defensive coordinator, Fangio is Hall-of-Fame worthy. In a sport that breeds workaholics, nobody is more consumed by preparation than Fangio. The spirited performance of the Broncos against the Chiefs is undeniable evidence the team did not quit on Uncle Vic.
And it ultimately wasn’t enough. Fangio failed in Denver because he’s an old-school grinder who would rather hide in the dark, studying film, than step up at a team meeting to rally the troops. What has changed most about the NFL game is the way a coach must summon the gravitas and demonstrate the moxie to deal with all the migraine-inducing hoopla.
Yes the X’s and O’s still count. But in 2022, that’s not how you keep score to determine if a football team has the right leader on the sideline. It’s all about crisis management.
How does a coach heal the emotional fallout of Rodgers pouting about his lack of roster input in Green Bay? What’s the proper response when receiver Antonio Brown rips off his uniform and quits on the Bucs in the middle of a game? How can players be convinced the situation isn’t hopeless when a coronavirus outbreak forces the Broncos to travel to California for a game against the Chargers?
“Win the close ones. That’s what’s going to get us over the hump,” said Denver safety Justin Simmons, burying his biggest regret of another losing season. “It’s not always going to look pretty, but we have to win the close ones.”
What’s missing from the Broncos is a coach who doesn’t wilt in the spotlight’s glare at crunch time and boldly leads when the heat is on.
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