This time of year, it's really easy for lazy national writers in search of content to take a look around the NFL, identify the teams under .500, and produce a list of head coaches that could be on their way out come season's end. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to connect losing clubs to head coaches that might have a higher chance of being relieved of duties.
Out of the blue, on Tuesday, a rumor erupted on social media that Vic Fangio is on his way out in Denver. Nothing I've heard has intimated word-one that Fangio is actually on the hot seat
That doesn't necessarily mean that Fangio isn't on the hot seat. But it would be news to me. The closest thing I can come to for a source on this Fangio-Broncos rumor is a generic CBS Sports list published Tuesday morning ranking Fangio No. 3 among 'potential' head coaches on the 'hot seat.' Long-time NFL writer John Clayton also had an article about head-coaching changes, but there was no reporting. It was all speculation.
Who better to turn to, for insider information on the Broncos, than KOARadio co-host of Broncos Country tonight Benjamin Allbright? Allbright was importuned several times on Tuesday by suddenly curious Broncos fans wanting to know if there was any truth to the Fangio rumor.
After telling one tweeter that Fangio being on the hot season "would be the opposite" of what he'd heard on the subject, Allbright went on to tweet the following:
"I wouldn't be surprised to see the Broncos make a coaching staff change or two this off-season, specifically regarding special teams. But Vic Fangio is under contract for two more seasons with a team option after that. Highly doubt they move on from him for multiple reasons," Allbright tweeted on Tuesday.
Fangio makes for an easy target when it comes to lazy national writers putting together a slapdash list of head coaches on precarious footing. The drama of last week's COVID-19 crisis, which saw quarterback Jeff Driskel test positive for the virus on Thursday, leading the NFL to eliminate Drew Lock and every other signal-caller on the roster from eligibility to play the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, saw the league front office refuse to reschedule the game and strong-arm the Broncos into playing an undrafted rookie wide receiver at quarterback.
The Broncos lost to the Saints 31-3, dropping to 4-7 on the season. Instead of viewing the incident for what it was — an unfortunate error on the part of Lock and company and a lapse in mask-wearing discipline compounded by the NFL's over-reaching, unfair, and disgraceful treatment of the Broncos — many voices in Denver media have read Fangio the riot act.
Calls for Fangio's job, and that of his boss GM John Elway, have been ubiquitous on Denver radio and the blogosphere this week. The abomination on the field on Sunday, although it was a low point for the Broncos organization, has to be laid at the feet of Commissioner Roger Goodell. It was a decision made by the league to, ostensibly, single out the Broncos and make an example of them.
Did Lock and company transgress the NFL's intensive COVID-19 mask-wearing protocols? Technically, yes, though it was negligible by all accounts. But the NFL's punitive measures were like that of a judge handing out capital punishment to a kid who got busted on camera stealing a piece of candy.
The kid was guilty of the crime. The video evidence was indisputable. But the punishment didn't fit the crime.
Some people want to indict Fangio, and Elway for that matter, over it and chalk it up as part and parcel of a listless Broncos' leadership. But Fangio isn't omnipotent. He can't be everywhere at once to hold everyone's hand. Blame Lock, Brett Rypien, Blake Bortles, and Driskel — but I can't put that on Fangio.
I get it; the buck stops with Fangio as head coach. But ask any Broncos player and they'll tell you that Fangio and company have been painstaking in emphasizing the NFL's COVID-19 protocols all season long. The QBs simply screwed up, not realizing in the moment the full magnitude of what the repercussions would be.
Fangio coached the Broncos to a 4-6 start. It was less-than-ideal considering all the optimism surrounding this team entering the 2020 campaign but in the final analysis, what could anyone expect from a team that was so unlucky with injuries? That's a rhetorical question because the magnitude of Denver's personnel losses this year has been unprecedented.
Von Miller, Courtland Sutton, Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell, Albert Okwuegbunam, Jake Butt, Andrew Beck — these are the players the Broncos lost to season-ending injured reserve. Three of them are Pro Bowlers, another a starter on the defensive line, and another a young rookie tight end who was struck down by the injury bug just as he was blossoming within the offense.
That doesn't count the injuries to star/Pro Bowl players who've missed serious time this year. A.J. Bouye (Pro Bowler), Phillip Lindsay (Pro Bowler), Melvin Gordon (Pro Bowler), have all missed time this year. And then, there's Lock himself — the starting quarterback — who suffered a serious injury to his throwing shoulder in Week 2, causing him to miss a month of real-time and interrupting what modest momentum he'd built up with new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur coming out of training camp.
Fangio hasn't had a single day-one starter on his defensive line for a month thanks to the injuries to Casey and Purcell and Shelby Harris catching COVID-19.
You can say these are excuses. There's truth to that. But in the case of Fangio, I have serious doubts that any coach in the NFL could have achieved more in the wake of that veritable epidemic of injuries to the Broncos' best players. He's been the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Just when one hole gets plugged, another springs open.
Now, as Allbright mentioned, there are likely to be some coaching changes in Denver this year but barring an unforeseeable collapse of unprecedented proportions, there's no reason to believe Fangio will be among them. Whether you agree or not, the Broncos are inclined to give Fangio a 'mulligan' for the outlier that has been the 2020 campaign.
Maybe special teams coordinator Tom McMahon gets shown the door. Maybe not.
Remember, Elway is now on his fourth head coaching hire since arriving as the Broncos' top football executive back in 2011. Elway's contract runs through 2021. He has hitched his star to Fangio and my guess is that he'd be unable to withstand the scrutiny of standing up on another Black Monday explaining why another head coach had been jettisoned while he remained in power.
With the Broncos' ownership situation up in the air and unlikely to be resolved until late-2021, team President and CEO Joe Ellis is more likely to keep the status quo and see where the chips fall at the end of next year. The Broncos might not roll with Lock as the 'understood' quarterback in 2021 — bringing in a new quarterback is more likely than a head-coaching change.
But more likely than not, it'll be Elway, Fangio, and Lock again in 2021. Nothing is guaranteed for that GM/HC/QB trio beyond.