More On Vance Joseph And Elway’s Thinking

I’ve had more time to think about the reasons why John Elway opted to hire Vance Joseph over Kyle Shanahan for the head coaching position. Many people here (and elsewhere) thought Shanahan would be the better hire because he would keep the same offensive system in place. Upon further review, I think Elway’s reasoning for his choice of Joseph was more than just about keeping consistency.

When we look at the most successful current coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick, there are three things that have allowed him to achieve that success level: Evaluating personnel and getting the final say, overseeing the team and letting his coordinators handle play calling, and having stability at the quarterback position.

On the first point, the vast majority of coaches in today’s NFL don’t get final say on personnel – that falls to a front office executive. The only returning coach who reportedly gets final say in personnel is Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. Kyle Shanahan is reportedly getting that as he starts his first head coaching stint with the 49ers. It remains to be seen how Shanahan will do with that role. Regarding Reid, his track record is roughly comparable to Belichick – neither coach got every decision right, but their hits have been greater than their misses.

On the second point, there are several notable coaches who oversee the team and will let the coordinators call their plays, though they may take final say on situational football (e.g., when to go for it on fourth down). Reid is like Belichick in this aspect, too, but so are coaches such as Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, John Fox, Pete Carroll and Bruce Arians. None of these coaches have reached the level of Belichick’s success, though each of them have been successful to different degrees.

The third point is where Belichick stands out above the rest. He has worked extensively alongside Tom Brady, and the two have been the perfect combination of coach and quarterback in which each person understands what the other expects and is capable of accomplishing. It’s tough to find another example of such a relationship working out so well for so long, in which the quarterback has always worked with the same head coach and it has led to multiple championships. The closest comparison is Sean Payton and Drew Brees, but Brees has played for other head coaches. The same is true with Ben Roethlisberger and Tomlin. Though Joe Flacco has always played with Harbaugh, Flacco is nowhere near the QB that Brady is (though it is worth noting that the Ravens made multiple playoffs trips with Harbaugh as head coach and Flacco as QB). While Russell Wilson has only played for Carroll thus far, they haven’t been together for as long as Brady and Belichick. The same applies to Carson Palmer and Arians, and in that team’s case, the Cardinals have reached the point that they need to think about Palmer’s replacement.

Now, when we look at what Elway seems to be expecting from a head coach for the long term is not somebody who resembles Belichick in the first aspect (final say on personnel) but does in the second aspect (let the coordinators call plays and focus on overseeing the team and making specific situational decisions). I think Elway also wants to ensure that head coach has the same QB to work with to ensure continuity and maximize success.

Elway’s first hiring, John Fox, fits with that second aspect. Fox was the type of coach who preferred to let his coordinators call plays, even in his area of expertise, and focused more on general oversight and situational football. When Elway hired Gary Kubiak, he brought in a coach who wanted to call the plays in his area of expertise. Elway’s motivation at the time was finding the right coach to motivate players and get them to strive for a championship, rather than just being happy to be in the playoffs, a criticism levied at Fox.

When Kubiak’s health issues prevented him from coaching the way he liked, I think Elway believed it was best to go back to the idea of having the head coach oversee the team but not engage in play calling. And that brings me to why Joseph got the job over Shanahan.

I do believe that Shanahan would have been happy to concede getting final say on personnel decisions had the Broncos hired him. But there was little to no chance of Shanahan agreeing to concede play calling duties on offense. If he was to concede on that, he’d certainly push for a greater say in personnel. He shares a trait similar to his father Mike, in that he wants some degree of control over the things he feels comfortable doing.

Thus, with all the reports that Elway wanted a coach who would do more general oversight and not insist on play calling in his area of expertise, that’s why he ultimately went with Joseph, who has agreed to let his coordinators handle those duties. The 49ers, on the other hand, appear comfortable with letting Shanahan handle the areas he wants to handle. Only time will tell if it works out. But I think Elway was looking more at what the likes of Belichick, Harbaugh, Reid, Carroll, Arians and Tomlin have done well, while finding somebody who can do a better job of motivating players than some would say about Fox.

And thus we come to the third point: Elway spent a first-round pick on Paxton Lynch, a pick he traded up to acquire, and is thinking that Lynch can be the long-term guy at quarterback. I imagine his line of thinking is that, because Lynch is still just starting his career, that having Joseph on board as the “general oversight” coach is better for Lynch because, if things work, Lynch and Joseph can establish a good long-term relationship and overcome any changes with the coordinator position. We know that the Patriots have lost several coordinators through the years but Belichick remains successful, thanks largely to having that long-term relationship with Brady. Again, only time will tell if things work out for Elway, Lynch and Joseph, but I can see the reasoning Elway is following.

And this is the reason why I doubt you’re going to see any big-name veteran quarterback who might have a few years left as a starter coming to the Broncos. People who are tossing around Tony Romo’s name are only thinking in terms of Elway’s pursuit of Peyton Manning and the desire to chase after the Patriots, not about the bigger, long-term picture. I think it’s safe to say the Broncos will not trade for Romo and, if he is cut, it’s not likely they’ll sign him, even at a bargain deal. I think Elway would prefer to have the coaching staff work with Lynch and develop a relationship with him, rather than chase after a veteran and hope for a short-term gain.

This does not mean that Trevor Siemian has no chance of starting… while I do believe that Elway wants Lynch to eventually become the guy, that’s because of the picks Elway used to get him. But if Siemian proves to be the better player over the long term, Elway will take it because Siemian is a young QB and it would still allow a situation in which the QB can spend the bulk of his career with the same head coach overseeing the team. And if Siemian doesn’t win the starting job in 2017, he’s a cheap backup with starting experience. Therefore, I wouldn’t expect Siemian to be sent packing unless he stinks it up in training camp. Why get rid of a young, cheap QB with starting experience if he plays well enough to be the backup?

I would not be opposed to bringing in a veteran QB, but I think it’s clear the Broncos will focus on a veteran who is there to mentor Lynch and/or Siemian and to provide competition. The focus will remain on having long-term success, not repeated short-term gains that add up to problems in the long term.

But back to the point about Elway and the head coach: I think Elway was more concerned about emulating the model that the franchises with long-term success have emulated. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions to the “coach overseeing the team and not handling play calls” rule, but I can think of more coaches with long-term success who fit that mold in today’s NFL. Again, only time will tell if things work out with Joseph, but I can see the reasoning why he got the nod over Shanahan.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.