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State of the Broncos: Diagnosing the Solution to the Current Coaching Crisis

Diving into the Broncos' coaching situation reveals more complex factors at play than first meet the eye.
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The Denver Broncos sit at 5-5 going into their bye week, but it's become clear this team has underachieved in the majority of games played.

Although the Broncos are mathematically still in the playoff picture, they have dropped multiple games that are crucial to securing a playoff berth. The remainder of Denver's schedule features five divisional games and one other game that may factor into playoff tiebreakers.

Between the failure to get the job done in multiple games, and the fact that that the Broncos have a steep, uphill climb to get into the playoffs, it's become clear that Vic Fangio and his fellow coordinators are on notice — and this time, they won't get the benefit of the doubt because of the number of injuries.

In this three-part series covering the State of the Broncos, we're going to examine the aspects of the team and what likely may change at the end of the season. The first part covers the coaching staff and what it's going to take for Fangio and company to have any chance at saving their jobs — and if that's even possible.

First, let's consider a question some Broncos fans have brought up: why not just make a coaching change now?

What to Consider in a Midseason Firing

It's easy to say that the Broncos should fire Fangio immediately — and certainly, Fangio hasn't done enough to warrant a fourth season, barring an unprecedented turnaround after the bye. However, one has to understand the rationale a team actually uses when it fires a coach before the season ends, and when doing so, it's simply about public relations.

To be sure, a change right now might make Broncos fans feel there's accountability, but there's no real difference other than the timetable. Furthermore, any firing right now is likely to have little impact, if any, if players sense it's just a PR move.

Broncos fans may remember when Josh McDaniels was fired with four games remaining in the 2010 season. However, ask yourself this question: why wait until then to fire him? Why not do it earlier, given the Broncos played poorly long before his dismissal?

The answer likely comes when you consider the other event that took place at the time of McDaniels' dismissal — the arrival of John Elway to take control of personnel decisions.

It stands to reason that McDaniels was dismissed because he had a lot of say in personnel and Elway wasn't interested in working with him. Furthermore, the man who took over as interim head coach, Eric Studesville, was given an interview for the head-coaching job after the season. 

It appears likely that Elway, CEO Joe Ellis, and late owner Pat Bowlen believed Studesville might be a worthy head coach and, thus, were comfortable with him being the interim HC with McDaniels out. Also, Studesville had to be interested in taking the interim job — if he wasn't, the Broncos would have had to find someone else, or they may have had to ride it out with McDaniels for the rest of 2010, then let him go.

There's no indication that anybody on the Broncos' current staff, other than the coordinators under Fangio, is viewed by GM George Paton as a candidate to be the next head coach, or is interested in taking the job on an interim basis.

Remember, if you have somebody who really doesn't want the job, he's not going to do a good job with it — if anything, you just make things worse.

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What Might Lead to Change Before Season's End

However, there is one possibility: the NFL changed the rules regarding coaching interviews to allow teams to do remote interviews with candidates if they expect to seek a new head coach. The rule change came with the expansion to a 17-game schedule.

Therefore, if the evidence is overwhelming that Fangio will be gone, he could be fired before the Week 18 game. At that point, the coaches on staff won't have much of a choice but to fill in for the final week — and furthermore, one game isn't going to do much to hurt a coach's chance at a future head coaching job, regardless of team.

The other possibility — though it's far from guaranteed — is if something happens that goes beyond on-field team performance. A violation of NFL rules, for example, could get Fangio fired sooner (think back to the taping of the San Francisco practice in 2010, which happened under McDaniels' watch, even though it was without his knowledge, and his failure to report it right away).

There's no indication, though, that Fangio is engaging in any sort of shady dealings — and truth be told, I don't think Broncos fans will hope for such a revelation, because that's far more embarrassing for the franchise. Still, if something did become an issue, Paton is likely to act regardless of who does or doesn't want to be an interim head coach.

Can Fangio & Company Save Their Jobs?

That brings us to the question of whether or not Fangio, OC Pat Shurmur, DC Ed Donatell, and STC Tom McMahon can do anything to garner another shot in 2022. Let's examine their situations.

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Fangio and Donatell: I put these two together because it's clear that if Fangio is gone, so is Donatell, regardless of what he is or isn't responsible for. We'll keep the focus on Fangio.

Before the season started, I believed that Fangio at least needed to have a 10-7 overall record to get another year. 9-8 might be a winning record in a 17-game schedule, but it's the equivalent of 8-8 in a 16-game schedule — as in, it's not enough to save your job if you had back-to-back losing seasons.

Now, I believe that Fangio has to make the playoffs, too, in order to have a chance at staying. And even that is no guarantee because a bad game in the playoffs could still lead to him being fired. Furthermore, the fact that the Broncos lost several games that will be important in determining who gets into the playoffs in case of tiebreakers will be taken into account after the team has played 16 games.

It's not likely that Fangio will gain support if it turns out the Broncos get into the playoffs because other teams stumbled down the stretch. The Broncos will need to win at least five games after the bye week to reach 10 wins, but might need six — and that means sweeping either the Kansas City Chiefs or Los Angeles Chargers is a must.

Shurmur: I tend to put Shurmur in the same boat as Fangio and Donatell, but the performance of the offense down the stretch may come into play.

The Broncos' offense has been average for the most part, but after the Philly game, it's declining. The offense needs to get back on track after the bye, or otherwise, Shurmur will be on borrowed time.

In other words, Fangio keeping his job doesn't guarantee that Shurmur will. It goes without saying, of course, that if Fangio is gone, Shurmur is, too.

McMahon: Because McMahon has been around for four years, I don't think there's anything he can do to get another year. Of course, we've talked about how bad the third phase has been — in particular, kickoff coverage has been atrocious and punt coverage has been mediocre at best. Missed field goals and shanked punts are usually execution issues, but coverage units are more about the coaching.

I have wondered why McMahon even kept his job after 2021, but it's possible Paton believed that Fangio had to win with the coordinators he picked. McMahon was here before Fangio came along, but Fangio chose to retain him.

As with the head-coaching position, it's likely Paton doesn't think anybody in the building who may have an interest is capable of taking over as special teams coach, so he's not going to force the issue with Fangio.

Chris Gould is the current assistant special teams coach and he's been with the organization since 2015 as an assistant. He took his current position in 2016. I have no idea whether he could be a good special teams coach or not, but it's not clear whether Paton thinks he can handle the job, or if Gould is even interested.

Given the circumstances, I'm not surprised a change hasn't been made — and truth be told, even though McMahon has been bad, a change is likely to be purely cosmetic.

Bottom Line

I was forgiving in 2020 because of the injuries and certain circumstances that were beyond Fangio's control. However, there had to be improvement in 2021 and there hasn't been enough.

Regardless, the earliest I see a change happening is after Week 17 — and at that point, we will have a definitive answer about the Broncos' playoff chances.

As far as who should be a successor, I agree with those who say it's better to target a coach who understands how to manage personalities, oversee the locker room, and manage time-outs and challenges well.

It's easy to advocate for a coach who is great with Xs and Os but that doesn't always work out. Fangio and McDaniels are both perfect examples of coordinators who are good with Xs and Os, but in their time with the Broncos, the latter never showed the ability to manage personalities and oversee the locker room, and with the former, that's now in question, not to mention his inability to manage time-outs and some inexplicable challenges.

Again, there are still seven games remaining, and anything is possible, even if a playoff trip seems less likely. But one thing is certain: the clock is ticking on Fangio and company. 


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