John Elway was very clear when he hired Vance Joseph as the new head coach of the Denver Broncos.
It was as much for the former Miami coordinator’s guidance and collaboration skills as for his football acumen.
“The leadership qualities that [Joseph] has are tremendous,” Elway said in his announcement presser, adding that Joseph would “carry on what was started” first under John Fox and then via Gary Kubiak. “That’s why I believe he’s the perfect fit for us. He knows our weaknesses, and he knows our strengths.”
Most of us likely thought “defense” (strength) and “offense” (weakness) in that statement and probably gave a nod to needing some leadership among the players.
But after comments Elway recently made to Mike Klis of 9News, it appears his quote referenced far more – primarily that the biggest weakness in Denver right now might be the locker room.
In a post Peyton Manning-era, this might have been foreseen, but given veteran leadership on the defense, the “locker room” seemed like the least of Denver’s problems.
Until they started losing. And especially when there was no postseason to bring the team back together.
In a sit-down interview with 9News, Elway acknowledged there were problems. And there had certainly been public indications of dissension – Aqib Talib shoving Jordan Norwood after the wide receiver muffed another punt in the loss to Kansas City; Talib and Russell Okung getting into it after the defense held the Patriots to 16 points and the Broncos offense could barely muster three.
It was easy to brush those off as incidents related to an exasperating game with costly performances. But it appears Elway may have seen a bigger chasm developing if he didn’t put the right guy in place.
“I don’t think it was ungluing,’’ Elway told 9News, adding that it was frustration among a team that wanted to get back to the playoffs and didn’t. “There was a frustration level there that we weren’t playing as well offensively as we wanted to. And it wasn’t because of lack of effort or anything like that. …So people want to say it was offense against defense. No, …the defense was holding up their end and we weren’t playing as well offensively so that creates frustration.”
Elway pointed out that he considers such frustration normal – especially with strong personalities - and it proves the team is still in a good place.
“But to be able to win, and win championships, you’ve got to have those strong personalities,” Elway said. “The thing is that frustration level shows you how much they want to win. That’s why we have such a great locker room.’’
But it also needs better direction. Whether it’s Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas publicly asking for more passing plays, or Von Miller constantly dabbling in Hollywood circles, or Talib getting hot-headed both in the locker room and at a night club...Elway knew he needed a guy that could both allow and corral the egos.
And the best answer for that was not a young Kyle Shanahan, who is still learning his own way relating to players, or Dave Toub, who has not had much experience coaching/calming the stars.
The Broncos needed a smart coach who could also keep big personalities in check. In his presser to introduce Joseph, Elway specifically noted the coach’s combination of knowing defense plus offense (Joseph was quarterback in college) but also having a reputation for good relationships with players. Something Elway noted was a “tremendous” asset – especially now.
“He’s been in the middle of things and has been in the middle of big decisions,” Elway said. “That’s why this job won’t be too big for him. He’ll fit right in.”
More specifically, Elway intimated in his interview with 9News, Joseph will be able to get things back on track.
“[Joseph] understands what we have in that locker room,” the GM said. “That’s why he’s the perfect guy. He’s gotten along with every personality.’’
Peter King addressed this exact issue with Joseph on this week’s MMQB podcast, asking the new coach how he will deal with the strong personalities and “get in their face” if he has to.
Joseph’s first response was to say the focus will always be that the best teams win – not the best defenses or offenses or special teams.
But more than that, while Joseph wants to encourage guys holding teammates accountable, he notes “it’s how we do it” that will be important for the locker room coming and staying together.
“We can have an environment of competition, of guys being held accountable without being bad people,” Joseph told King. “Every good team has checks and balances. I want players to challenge players. But it’s how we do it. …I’ve had experiences with a lot of personalities from Adam Jones to Ndamukong Suh, and they all responded to my coaching style because it’s honest, it’s truthful and it’s consistent.”
The key, says Joseph, for players like Suh and Adam “Pacman” Jones – two great players known for being locker room challenges but who also thrived under Joseph’s leadership – is helping them navigate the fine line between being selfish (which is good for working hard and preparing to play) and being selfless about the team.
And the best way to do that is to let great players be great and find out what they need. For Suh, it was listening to his ideas for the game.
“Most players want a voice. So I gave [Suh] a voice because he worked at it,” Joseph said. “He would bring me thoughtful ideas so I would implement it because he researched it and they were good ideas. Most great players have a button. What’s important to players? Find it out and apply it.”
Perhaps the best indication of Joseph’s ability to lead this Broncos squad out of a frustrating season and into a new start is his view that tough personalities are absolutely needed on the team - but the focus of their energy has to be on the group.
“I tell guys all the time, I welcome selfish behavior when you’re getting ready to be the best player you can be. But as a team it has to be selfless,” he told 9News, adding that he understands selfish guys and they understand him. “I don’t foresee any problems in the locker room at all.’’