DENVER — What should be Vance Joseph’s final appearance as coach of the Broncos went down in the same polite and respectful manner he operated with for the past 12 months.
Still thawing out from a 27-24 loss to the Chiefs that kicked off with a game-time temperature of 17 degrees, the fourth-coldest regular-season game in Broncos history, Joseph approached a podium and took three questions on whether he will get fired from the most high-profile job on the Front Range.
That can’t be easy. And he's met every difficult moment with a smile, firm handshake and, "It's a beautiful day." So give the man this much, no matter if you’re holding the door on his way out or hoping he plans to buy instead of rent: It’s too bad Joseph’s team stunk up the joint. He was a class act all the way to what should be the bitter, cold end. Something to be said for that.
And Sunday at Mile High Stadium should be the end. That — whatever that was — was quite enough, thank you. With a roster that’s largely the same from the outfit that won Super Bowl 50 just 23 months ago — and competed for a playoff spot just last year, with the same valid issues at quarterback — Joseph’s Broncos somehow managed to look even worse than their 5-11 record.
I asked Joseph if he expects to return in 2018.
“I do,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Joseph will meet with John Elway on Monday, according to a late report from Denver's 9News. It’s like the straight-to-DVD version of the Super Bowl parade in 1999, the second one, when The Clash serenaded Elway with “Should I stay or should I go?” as the legendary quarterback pondered retirement.
And give the Broncos this: boring is not in their vocabulary. For the third time in four seasons — wow! — the Broncos entered the final game of the season with reports bouncing around the internet that their head coach was on his way out. Happened with John Fox. ("It was 2014, as well, right?" linebacker Brandon Marshall recalled without hesitation.) Happened with Gary Kubiak. Sunday morning, an ESPN report said it could happen with Joseph.
“I saw the report. Obviously our coaches saw the report,” Joseph said. “But what are you going to do there? There was a game to play.”
OK, the New Year's Eve niceties are out of the way: the Broncos must rip off this Band-Aid. No more of the wishy-washy decision-making that’s led to a quarterbacking nightmare for two full seasons as an all-time defense grows gray hairs and aches a little worse on Mondays. Moving on from a good man like Joseph will sting for a minute. But in frigid conditions cold enough that Broncos fans were dancing in the aisles during a home loss to the Chiefs simply to keep warm, Broncos Country gave the team 67,111 reasons to go find the right staff. It’s not this one, Broncos fans know it, and you should never take fans for granted.
As the Chiefs steamrolled through the Broncos’ once-proud defense on an 86-yard touchdown romp to open the game — with rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes II making his first career start, no less — I had to wonder if the players saw the report, too, and did their best to make sure it comes true. Knowing their coach was on the hot seat, the Broncos allowed the longest game-opening drive of the entire season. And yes, the healthy starters were in.
While this gig was too big for Joseph from his underwhelming introductory press conference on Jan. 12, 2017, all the way through an eight-game losing streak the likes of which the Broncos had not endured since 1967, this is a franchise failure that includes almost everyone. Elway and the front office not only have failed to identify a starting-caliber quarterback, it has hamstrung two coaching staffs with the flimsy idea that Paxton Lynch must play when it’s clear as day that he can’t.
“I felt like I played well,” Lynch said.
“I thought Paxton played good football tonight,” Joseph said.
Narrator voice: Paxton Lynch had a hat trick of turnovers. One fumble and two interceptions, the final one headed for a 100-yard return if not for the hustle of lineman Connor McGovern on a saving tackle. The only franchise quarterback on the frozen field wore No. 15 for the Chiefs.
"I wouldn't say he's the real deal," said Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, endearingly defiant to the end. "But he (Mahomes) has a cannon."
As Joseph left the field in a hurry, wearing a gray hoodie and orange beanie, five TV cameras documenting his exit, the Broncos were locked into the No. 5 overall pick in the first round of the draft. It’s where they should select Oklahoma wild man Baker Mayfield or trade down to fortify a roster that has holes all over the offense and is thick with big-money contracts on defense.
But it's the severity of Denver's defeats that should hasten a coaching change. The Broncos lost six games by double digits, sometimes to No. 1 playoff seeds with Super Bowl aspirations (by 39 to the Eagles, 25 to the Patriots) and sometimes to teams that have no business beating them like that (13 to the then-winless Giants, 26 to the Dolphins, 16 to the Redskins). They were more competitive arguing with fans on Twitter than they were on the field against the mediocre AFC West. It's the first time the Broncos finished dead last in the division since 2010. Once they knew, the Broncos didn't wait to fire Josh McDaniels. They made the tough call, and with a new quarterback-coach combo, followed it up with a long run of division titles and wild home crowds.
Sunday afternoon and into the bone-chilling night, I saw much of the crowd snapping selfies and dancing during a defeat, sure signs this was not an audience of longtime season-ticket holders. The diehards have had enough and bailed.
"It's not in my hands," star pass-rusher Von Miller said of the coaching decision. "I'll have to put in an application for a front office position (to have that pull). "
This collapse wasn't solely on Vance Joseph. But when you know, you know.
Too bad, really. It's a bummer when nice guys finish last.