With nobody in Broncos Country in a hurry to forgive the coaching sins of Vance Joseph, what part of making him the defensive coordinator did Sean Payton think was a good idea?
I wanted to know what on earth motivated Joseph to tackle the difficult task of winning back the trust of Denver fans that were glad to see him go in 2018, when he was fired after losing 21 of 32 games as head coach.
“For me, it was a chance to come back and do it right,” Joseph told me, without blinking an eye. “I had no issues coming back and reliving my head coaching time here. I’m OK with that.”
I know for a fact a major reason why Vic Fangio told Payton to look elsewhere when the Broncos went shopping for a defensive coordinator was Uncle Vic didn’t want knuckleheads like me reminding him what a failure he was as the head coach in Denver from 2019-21.
Why did Joseph take a job Uncle Vic wouldn’t touch?
“For Vic, it was just too close (in time) for him to come back. And if it had been that close for me, I think I would’ve done something else and not come back to the Broncos, either.” Joseph said Thursday, as we stood outside the team’s locker room. “But I had four years away from Denver. It was a chance to work with Sean and I love it here.”
After being shredded on the field by a quarterback named Sam Howell and trashed on television by a blowhard named Rex Ryan, Joseph finds himself in the tough spot of trying to convince us a defense that couldn’t get out of its own way in back-to-back losses to open this season is still one of the NFL’s elite units.
“I think we can be a very good defense. And you don’t judge that until after the season, obviously. But we have the players to be a good defense. Absolutely. And I expect that. Coming in here, my vision was to be a dominant defense,” said Joseph, insisting a unit that surrendered 52 points in two weeks to Jimmy Garoppolo and Howell can be much more dominant when the Broncos face Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen down the road.
After interviewing with Payton for the defensive coordinator gig in Denver, Ryan now sits on his rump in an ESPN studio. Without mentioning Joseph’s name, Ryan crucified him on television after the Broncos blew a 21-3 lead against Washington.
“Their defense is supposed to be No. 1 in the league — if I was going to be coordinator; I don’t know what the hell it’s doing now,” Ryan said. “That’s who’s letting this team down. It’s their defense; it’s not the offense.”
OK, let’s get one thing straight. While I think the seat of Joseph at team headquarters should already be too hot for him to stick around, hiring Ryan would be a spectacularly bad idea. The Broncos campus isn’t big enough to house the massive egos of both Payton and Ryan.
But as Fangio puts in late nights this week in Florida, scheming ways to make quarterback Russell Wilson and his former employer look bad in his current role as defensive coordinator for the Dolphins, Joseph is forced to conduct remedial classes in how to avoid dumb penalties. (Here’s looking at you, safety Kareem Jackson.)
While the most popular theory of where it all went wrong for the Broncos against Washington points to a fumble lost by Wilson with Denver ahead by 18 points with 6:34 remaining in the first half, Joseph could barely contain his frustration with a costly mistake on the ensuing offensive possession by the Commanders.
After taking over the football with a short field at Denver’s 49-yard line, Washington was immediately pushed back 10 yards by a holding penalty. A short pass from Howell to Terry McLaurin left the Commanders with 13 yards to move the sticks on second down.
It was a situation Joseph, who has been forced to commit extra pass-rushers to get pressure on the quarterback, regarded as the ideal time to send linebacker Alex Singleton on a blitz. And the strategy worked. Singleton sacked Howell for a seven-yard loss, taking the steam out of Washington’s drive.
The only problem? Before Singleton tackled Howell, teammate Nik Bonitto was flagged for reaching out and carelessly grabbing the quarterback’s facemask.
Eight plays after that dumb penalty, Howell got the Commanders in the end zone with a touchdown pass and two-point conversion that cut Denver’s lead to 21-11, swinging the momentum hard in Washington’s favor.
“If you don’t get that facemask penalty, now it’s third and long, we get off the field and you probably go to the half ahead 21-3, worst-case scenario,” Joseph said.
“There’s good football being played on defense, outside of the penalties. Now, there’s no excuse for the penalties. I will get that fixed. But I can’t say it’s all bad football. And nobody watching the tape would say that.”
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