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Paul Klee: Vance Joseph, a risky hire, must first solve one big Broncos conundrum

By: Paul Klee
January 11, 2017 Updated: January 12, 2017 at 8:52 am
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Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph throws the football to free safety Walt Aikens (35) during NFL football practice, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017, in Davie, Fla. Joseph has been linked to coaching vacancies in the NFL, but says he hasn't spent any time thinking about his future while his team is in the playoffs. The Dolphins play the Pittsburgh Steelers in a playoff game on Sunday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

DENVER — Once again, there was no Plan B.

Welcome back, Vance Joseph! How long have you known? The Broncos' job left behind by Gary Kubiak was always Joseph's to lose. A 44-year-old Southern gentleman and former CU quarterback, Joseph knocked their socks off with an interview in 2015. Call him the head-coach-in-waiting-two-years. When buddies are as tight as Kubiak and John Elway, one man's health is the other man's knowledge. Here's a hunch Elway had his guy right about the time Kubiak's health became an issue. "VJ as HC" sat at the top of his list.

The interviews with Falcons coordinator Kyle Shanahan (steakhouse rivalries run deep, apparently) and Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub (my preference, for what little it's worth) were JV games to Joseph's varsity. This now feels like a foregone conclusion.

Is it a good hire? Bad hire? Door No. 3, please: risky hire.

When Elway tabbed John Fox and Gary Kubiak, he sure as shootin' knew what he was getting: veteran head coaches who had helped lead teams to Super Bowls. And both coaches hired by Elway helped the Broncos to a Super Bowl within three years.

How long do you folks give Joseph to get there? Always an assistant and never the top dog, Joseph is just as much of an unknown as Josh McDaniels was, and the beginning of the end for McDaniels was starting a quarterback feud he couldn't win. Joseph must start there, at QB. Too much worry is being spent on the rift between the Broncos and former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, a contract disagreement founded in money and ego. It should be clear by now the Broncos front office doesn't react kindly to contract negotiations when the Broncos fall short of their championship goal. Just ask Fox.

"In talking with Vance, the culture that he believes in and the culture of our organization are closely aligned and focused on one thing: winning," Elway said in a statement.

How Joseph navigates the QB conundrum will set the table for years of success or another mighty McDaniels mess. His first step should be shoring up the offensive staff by hiring former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and retaining quarterback coach Greg Knapp. Way back at Super Bowl XLVIII — the bad one, not the good one — I asked then-coordinator Adam Gase how the Broncos transitioned from the pass-first Kyle Orton to the run-forever Tim Tebow offense without blinking. Gase promptly swiped my notebook off the table. "Wiped (the playbook) clean," he said. Such a radical change takes equal parts humility and confidence — swallowing your pride while believing you can make it work. Denver's "O" could use a bunch of both. Knapp should stay in the same spot. An offensive coordinator with three teams, Knapp got way more out of Trevor Siemian (and, having seen Houston's offense this season, Brock Osweiler) than anyone would have expected going in.

Developing the young quarterbacks is priority No. 1 for the Broncos and their new coach.

It's no shock the Broncos did what they usually do when big decisions must be made. They leaned on familiarity. This time it was Joseph, who was college teammates at the University of Colorado with Broncos executive Matt Russell. Surprise, surprise: It's who you know.

To embrace Joseph as the next coach of the Broncos, you will have to excuse his previous game: Steelers 30, Dolphins 12. Here, let me help.

In 1992, the Broncos lost their regular-season finale, 42-20 to the Chiefs. The defensive coordinator for the blowout? Wade Phillips. The Broncos opened the next season with a new head coach. His name? Wade Phillips.

Joseph wasn't hired as the 16th coach of the Broncos because of his work with Miami's defense or Cincinnati, Houston or San Francisco's defensive backs — the three NFL coaching jobs he held before this one. Joseph is being hired because the Broncos brass believes his firm personality makes him a locker-room CEO. Don't listen to me. Listen to Gase, one of the sharpest guys I've met in sports.

"He brings a leadership quality that you really love about him. He has such a great personality and such a strong personality; he has that alpha-type personality where he demands a lot from players and they give him everything they have," Gase told reporters in Florida.

This hire was about leadership. We remember fondly the Broncos stealing a defensive blueprint from Seattle after Super Bowl XLVIII, but Elway also borrowed and retained another valuable clue to the championship formula: How Pete Carroll managed the volatile personalities inside Seattle's robust locker room and prepared them to win the big one.

Colorado's tractor beam claimed another one. We all come back eventually.

To stick around for a while, Vance Joseph has one job: win the big one.

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Twitter: @bypaulklee

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