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There were six head coaches hired in the offseason of 2017. Five of them have worked out well.
Sean McVay (Rams) won coach of the year. Doug Marrone (Jaguars) and Sean McDermott (Bills) led their teams to unexpected playoff berths. Kyle Shanahan (49ers) and Anthony Lynn (Chargers) led late-season surges. Those teams have no regrets. It’s a great class.
And then there’s Broncos general manager John Elway, who had all of those candidates to look at and ended up hiring Vance Joseph, who might be in danger of not making it to the end of his second season if things don’t turn around.
Over the course of seven days, Joseph’s seat became perhaps the hottest in the entire NFL. The Broncos blew a 10-point lead against the Kansas City Chiefs at home on Monday night, then they were blown out on Sunday by the New York Jets. The Broncos scored the first seven points, then the Jets scored 34 of the next 37. It was a brutal performance in every conceivable way.
“Same s— every week,” Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe said after the game, according to Nicki Jhabvala of The Athletic. “I’m tired of talking about the same s— for two years.
“We had great energy in practice, great energy coming out to the game, started the game hot. Something — something much deeper is happening here that I can’t even really understand.”
The Broncos are 2-3 and what comes next? A date next Sunday against the 5-0 Los Angeles Rams. Uh oh.
Nobody outside the Broncos’ building is putting Joseph on the hot seat. Elway did that months ago. Elway admitted that after a 5-11 finish last season, he considered firing Joseph after just one season. That put immediate pressure on his head coach heading into this season. Everyone knew Joseph needed to produce or there wouldn’t be a third chance for him.
“We thought about different options, but, ultimately, my goal was to stick with Vance and give him that shot,” Elway said at an end-of-season news conference back in January.
Joseph said, at that news conference: “I got the rumors and I got the indecision about bringing me back because it wasn’t good enough. I understand that.”
Joseph’s job security is a constant topic of conversation in Denver. It was talked about everywhere even before the end of last season, before Elway paused before officially retaining Joseph.
Joseph was put in a terrible spot, one that none of the other five new hires last year were in. The Broncos were one year removed from winning a Super Bowl, so expectations were unrealistically high. But they had a terrible quarterback situation and holes on offense, thanks to Elway’s misses in the draft. Elway admitted he didn’t put Joseph in a good position last year.
The Broncos did add talent this past offseason. The draft class is paying off right away, even with first-round pick Bradley Chubb off to a slow start. Second-round pick Courtland Sutton looks like the Broncos’ best receiver. Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay are a good 1-2 rookie punch at running back. And in free agency, the Broncos landed quarterback Case Keenum, who was coming off a very good season with the Minnesota Vikings.
And the results aren’t any better. The defense is a shell of the “No Fly Zone” D of a few years ago. The Jets ran for 323 yards as a team on Sunday. Rookie Sam Darnold threw two pretty touchdown passes to Robby Anderson. Darnold had 198 yards and two touchdowns on only 10 completions.
How much can be blamed on coaching? Keenum isn’t producing, after he looked great with the Vikings. Is that Joseph’s fault? Is it on Joseph the Broncos had no interest in tackling Isaiah Crowell or Bilal Powell on Sunday? Maybe, maybe not, but the coach with the 7-14 record is the most likely one to take the fall.
“This team has too much talent to score only 16 points and give up 34,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. told The Athletic.
Joseph might not get fired after six games no matter what happens next week, but the game against the Rams could go a long way in shaping how the rest of his time with the Broncos will go. An upset win would do wonders. A loss, particularly a lopsided one against a team that can embarrass any opponent, would saddle the Broncos (whose two wins came by four combined points) with a 2-4 record. That mark isn’t a death sentence but Joseph’s job security would become an even louder conversation in Denver. Having Gary Kubiak, the coach who won Super Bowl 50, in Denver’s front office as an easy replacement won’t quiet the screaming.
It was a bad week for Joseph. Instead of a 3-1 start with a win over the Chiefs last Monday, the Broncos blew that game and then doubled down with a horrible outing in New York. It’s hard to make a change during the season, especially early on. That probably won’t happen in Denver either. But unless the Broncos look a lot better against the Rams next Sunday, Joseph’s future with the Broncos might start to look pretty bleak.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Sunday’s Week 5 games:
Sean McVay: Speaking of the good hires from the 2017 offseason, McVay continues to amaze. He might be the biggest reason his Rams are the best team in football.
Not many other coaches have the confidence to make the call McVay did to seal a win over the Seahawks on Sunday. The Rams faced fourth-and-inches with 1:39 left after a bad officiating spot on a Todd Gurley run two plays before. Los Angeles was at its own 42. A punt seemed likely, and the Rams sent the special teams unit out. Then Seattle called a timeout and McVay decided he’d rather not give the ball back to Russell Wilson.
It was risky to go for it. If the play was stuffed, the Seahawks would have needed maybe 10 yards to try a game-winning field goal. Colts coach Frank Reich was ripped for a similar fourth-down decision last week in his own territory. But McVay’s gamble worked out. Quarterback Jared Goff sneaked for a couple of yards and the first down. Game over.
The Rams are 5-0 after the 33-31 win over the Seahawks. And it’s not like McVay is going to take his foot off the gas.
Graham Gano: From one measure, Gano had the greatest game-winning kick in NFL history on Sunday. Or at least it was tied for the greatest.
Gano nailed a 63-yard field goal as time expired to give the Panthers a wild 33-31 win. It is tied for the longest game-winning field goal in NFL history, matching Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard kick for the New Orleans Saints in 1970. Dempsey’s kick stood as the longest in NFL history for decades. Only Dempsey, Jason Elam, Sebastian Janikowski and David Akers had hit a 63-yard field goal before Gano, and Matt Prater stands alone with an NFL-record 64-yarder. Akers, Dempsey and now Gano are the only kickers to make a field goal of at least 63 yards outside of Denver’s thin air.
The craziest thing about Gano’s kick is it wasn’t particularly close. He drilled it. Holder Michael Palardy told the Charlotte Observer that Gano hit it so hard he thought it would have been good from 70 yards, and that seems accurate.
Had Gano missed one of the longest field goals in NFL history, the focus this week would be how the Panthers blew a big lead to the Giants, who fought back from a 27-16 fourth-quarter deficit to take a late lead. Instead, Gano’s clutch kick took the pressure off everyone.
“A wise man once told me a great quarterback is only as good as his kicker. … Gano made a lot of wrongs right today,” Cam Newton said, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Steve Wilks: The Rams and Chiefs are still undefeated, but the Cardinals made sure there are no winless teams left in the league.
It was only four losses to start the season, but it must have seemed like an eternity to Wilks. The rookie coach made some questionable decisions through the first month of the season and ended September without his first career win. He got one Sunday.
The Cardinals’ 28-18 win came against a San Francisco 49ers team that has lost a lot of a steam since Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury and took on more injuries Sunday. The Cardinals didn’t do much on offense, aside from a 75-yard touchdown from rookie quarterback Josh Rosen to fellow rookie Christian Kirk, but the defense played well and scored itself on a fumble recovery.
It wasn’t a thrilling win by any means, but it must have felt like quite a relief to Wilks.
Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen: Aside from one strange, bad day against the Bills, Kirk Cousins has been everything the Minnesota Vikings were hoping for. Thielen hasn’t even had one bad day this season.
Cousins and Thielen continue to be one of the most dangerous connections in the NFL, and on Sunday they led a huge 23-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Cousins threw for 301 yards. Thielen had 116 yards and a touchdown. Thielen is the first player in NFL history to start a season with five 100-yard receiving games in a row. That’s remarkable considering Thielen was undrafted.
The Vikings needed a big win after losing to the Bills and then dropping a game to the Rams. They were facing a 1-3-1 start with a loss at the Eagles, the defending champs. But the Vikings played well and held on late. That gets Minnesota back on track, and the Vikings will go forward with one of the hottest quarterback-receiver combos in the game.
Nick Williams: Williams has a great NFL survival story. He was undrafted as an undersized receiver in 2013 but has hung around since then, through cuts and practice squads. He played 22 career games with Washington and Atlanta before making the Tennessee Titans’ roster this season.
But Williams had a really rough day on Sunday. Marcus Mariota lofted a sure touchdown to Williams in the fourth quarter with the Titans trailing the Buffalo Bills 10-6, and Williams dropped it. It was a wide-open drop, one of the worst you’ll see in the NFL. It was on third-and-4, and the Titans settled for a field goal on the next play. The Titans eventually took a 12-10 lead but the Bills hit a game-winning field goal as time expired to win 13-12. Williams’ drop ended up being a crucial part of the one-point loss.
“That’s all on me. One hundred percent,” Williams said, according to NFL reporter Paul Kuharsky. “It’s pro ball, quarterbacks throw it, receivers catch it, gotta make that play.”
After the game, Titans coach Mike Vrabel also singled out Williams for not running a good route on a slant pass that was picked off. It was a bad loss for the Titans against a Bills team they probably should beat, and it had to be a long trip home for Williams.
Miami Dolphins: For a while Sunday, it looked like the Dolphins were in great shape. Sure, they got blown out last week at the Patriots, but the Patriots do that to plenty of teams. The Dolphins led a good Bengals team 17-0 on the road Sunday, and it looked like they’d be going home with a 4-1 record.
Then the final 20 or so minutes of the game happened. The Bengals had the final five scoring plays as the Dolphins melted down and lost 27-17. That included two defensive touchdowns, one on a Ryan Tannehill interception and another on a Tannehill fumble.
The Dolphins aren’t a bad team. But they weren’t as good as their 3-0 record to start the season either. And after a rough two road games, it’ll be tough for them to rebound.
Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel: We paid so much attention to the Falcons’ offensive coordinator change after the 2016 season, we mostly ignored the change at defensive coordinator. And that one was voluntary.
The Falcons fired defensive coordinator Richard Smith after the 2016 season, a season that ended with Atlanta blowing a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. Quinn said he had decided on that move long before the Super Bowl. Manuel took over as defensive coordinator.
While a ton of criticism has come upon second-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Manuel deserves his share too. The Falcons defense has totally fallen apart. Atlanta has given up 43, 37 and 41 points the past three weeks. The 41-17 loss at Pittsburgh on Sunday dropped the Falcons to 1-4. Atlanta has plenty of defensive injuries, notably to linebacker Deion Jones and multiple safeties, but it probably shouldn’t be the worst defense in the league. And there’s little question Atlanta has the worst defense in the NFL through five weeks.
Quinn deserves blame too. He’s a defensive-minded head coach. He made the call to change coordinators. The Falcons looked like a potential Super Bowl contender before the season, but the collapse of the defense has changed that.
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