Following a disappointing 7-10 finish to the 2021 campaign, the Broncos have entered the most tumultuous offseason in franchise history thanks to Joe Ellis and John Elway’s impending departure, as well as the looming ownership transition. While a new owner can’t be approved by the NFL until March, second year general manager George Paton is busy at work interviewing candidates to replace Vic Fangio, who was fired after posting the most losses by any Broncos’ head coach through three seasons.
The dysfunction in Denver was close at heart as Jeff Essary, A.J. Schulte, and I discussed the 2021 season, the Broncos’ search for a new coach, and what Paton needs to do this offseason on Cover 2 Broncos. What follows are a brief overview of my thoughts, but I hope you’ll tune in to hear our full discussion.
What went wrong with the Fangio era?
- Based on my conversations, it sounds like there were cracks in the foundation from the start. When Elway hired Fangio the Broncos were interested in hiring Gary Kubiak to serve as the offensive coordinator. They balked at the move when it became clear Kubes would want his assistants to join him, specifically offensive line coach Rick Dennison. Elway did not want to lose Mike Munchak and the Broncos pivoted to Rich Scangarello.
Fangio signed off on Scangarello, but there were personality conflicts on the staff throughout the 2019 season. After initially planning to retain Scangarello, the Broncos instead fired him during the AFC divisional round matchup between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. Before the Texans were done blowing a 21-0 lead, the Broncos hired Pat Shurmur.
- Shurmur’s 2020 offense never got off the ground and was a poor fit for starting quarterback Drew Lock due to the way it demanded he make the correct pre/post-snap reads. By seasons end they ranked 30th in the NFL by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Despite this the Broncos retained Shurmur for 2021 in hopes that a year with less disruption from Covid-19, experience for the foundational pieces, and a quarterback competition would fix the issues.
- The 2021 Broncos finished with one of the 12 worst red zone offenses in the league, and they were a bottom 5 unit in goal to go situations by DVOA. Essentially, the Broncos did an okay job moving the ball between the 20s but rarely cashed in. This only got worse as the season went on. They averaged 19.7 points per game, but only exceeded that average 5 times after the 3-0 start against bottom dwellers. Two of their three worst offensive performances of the season came in week 16 and 17.
- Shurmur’s play sequencing was shaky for most of the year and he did a poor job adjusting to the talent on hand. Best example of this is when Jerry Jeudy missed time. George Paton signed David Moore from the Raiders practice squad because Shurmur still planned to go 11 heavy, then the Broncos flailed around signing John Brown when Kendall Hinton was their de-facto WR3 anyways. This period really highlighted how Shurmur didn’t know how to maximize Noah Fant and Albert O, who are both dynamic receiving threats.
- Bridgewater’s numbers plummeted after he suffered a lower body injury in the first Chargers game: 68.73% completion for 2518 yards, 15-5 TD/INT before. 59.77% completion for 534 yards, 3/2 after
- Drew Lock was one of the worst backups in football this year. Looked better once he had time to prep, but still finished as one of the least accurate QBs in the NFL and threw 2 touchdowns in 234 snaps.
- Run game allowed stuffs on 18% of all carries - tied with 7 other times as the 3rd highest mark in the league. This was on the OL as much as the QB and backs
- Injuries were a huge issue for Denver’s defense throughout Fangio’s tenure. Back when he was hired there were hopes that the former Bears defensive coordinator would create a dominant unit around the talents of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, but the duo only played in five games together.
- This season the Broncos’ defense was painfully inconsistent as Fangio and company spent a large part of the season adapting to backups playing at every linebacker spot. By year’s end they shuffled through 8 different players at off ball linebacker and had to manufacture a pass rush after Von Miller was traded. Kyle Fuller showed obvious signs of decline early and got exposed as a boundary corner. It was telling that the Broncos kept him in the nickel in week 18. His long speed became a huge issue and opponents took advantage at every opportunity.
- Special teams were as they’ve always been under Tom McMahon. Horrific.
At this point the fact the Broncos haven't canned Tom McMahon is proof "death by inches" is nothing more than a cute little catch phrase.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
Where do you land on the coaching search?
As I write this Paton is set to interview 10 candidates to be the Broncos’ next head coach:
- Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy
- Cowboys DC / former Falcons HC Dan Quinn
- Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett
- Eagles DC Jonathon Gannon
- Pats iLB Jerod Mayo
- Cowboys OC Kellen Moore
- Rams OC Kevin O’Connell
- Lions DC Aaron Glenn
- Packers QB coach Luke Getsy
- Bengals OC Brian Callahan
As far as offensive systems go, I think it’s worth noting how different they are:
- Eric Bieniemy’s background is West Coast with the Reid air raid blended in, which may be tough to implement with most of the quarterback options in front of Denver this year.
- Hackett / Callahan / O’Connell come from the Gruden/Shanahan tree, which could be good for Lock but may not be an ideal fit for other parts of the roster.
- Moore doesn’t really have a “tree”
As far as defensive systems go, I think it’s worth noting how different they are from Fangio:
- Quinn is from the Seattle style - Cover 3 / Single high, rush 4. He’s moved towards more quarters this year and that’s notable.
- Jerod Mayo’s never been a play caller, but his background is all Belichick, which is man- match heavy. Philosophically the Pats have been a coverage > rush team for years now, which may be a good way to approach the Broncos front in the early goings. The coverage could also be a good fit for Surtain.
- Aaron Glenn’s interesting because we’ve only seen him work as a play caller one year with a ton of talent deficiencies across the defense.
He’s played for Greg Robinson, Bill Belichick, Vic Fangio, and Mike Zimmer. He’s mostly coached under Dennis Allen in New Orleans.
During his time with Detroit, the Lions used some 4-3, but mostly leaned on a 3-4 front (with a ton of nickel and some dime/quarters mixed in) They were mostly hanging around the NFL averages as far as coverage usage. They blitzed less than the average NFL team.
Aaron Glenn's an interesting candidate for the Broncos head coach opening because he's only been a play caller for one year, and the Lions had so many talent deficiencies we may not have an accurate picture as to his tendencies. pic.twitter.com/DmxXqkvAE3— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) January 12, 2022
Do you have a preference?
I want to say that I’m trying to keep an open mind towards all the candidates. At the press conference Monday Paton made a point to emphasize qualities that are going to be hard to properly get a read on from outside the NFL. Admittedly, the skeptic in me believes that may be why he said it.
“The No. 1 quality is leadership. We’re looking for someone to lead this entire organization, to lead this community, and to lead our players. That’s the No. 1 trait we’re looking for. Obviously, we want the best football coach. I’m not worried about what side of the ball, and I’m not worried about a play caller. We want leadership. That’s our No. 1 priority.”
NFL history has shown offensive production tends to be more consistent from year to year than defense. While I know Paton said he’s looking for someone who can lead all phases, I think you need to find someone who can actually fix the Broncos’ broken offense. I personally lean towards guys with a background on that side of the ball because typically if an offense does well, whoever called the plays is going to get offers to become a head coach, so a defensive coach like Dan Quinn, or Aaron Glenn, or Jerod Mayo is going to need to replace his play caller.
Right now there are two candidates who really stand out to me:
- Moore has just four years of coaching experience of any sort (only Jerod Mayo has less), but only 3 candidates (Quinn, EB, Hackett) have more experience as a coordinator/play-caller (3 yrs as OC, 2 as primary play caller)
- During Moore’s time as OC the Cowboys have 2 top 6 finishes by DVOA and they led the NFL in scoring this year.
- The offense was very good when Dak Prescott was healthy in 2020 - in his 4 complete games they averaged 9.6% DVOA, which would have been the 8th best mark if you extrapolate that out over the full season.
- Moore tries to push the envelope as a play caller, which is something that could be a really boon to the Broncos.
- I like that he’s a young offensive mind, which suggests he can grow into the role and there won’t be as much year-to-year instability on offense, which sounds great after the Broncos burned through 5 OCs in the 6 years since Super Bowl 50
Nathaniel Hackett - 42
- Obviously the Aaron Rodgers factor is huge here: Rodgers said Hackett was overdue for a HC job, and called Hackett’s role in Jacksonville’s AFC Championship push “magical”
- It’s worth noting that Rodgers also said: “No one in my inner circle is talking to the media. No one that I trust and care about and have conversations with is talking to any media member, is going to leak anything.” With that in mind, Hackett looks like an intriguing candidate without Rodgers.
- If Hackett comes from a version of the Shanny offense that should help them to maximize most of their personnel, even if the QB is shaky. It could also serve as a strong fit for Drew Lock, who was drafted for a Shanahan offshoot.
- We can discuss why nepotism isn’t great in the NFL, but the fact is Hackett’s a football lifer.
- He’s only 42 and has already served as OC 3 times. Leadership won’t be new to him.
- Matt LaFleur is the play caller in Green Bay, but leans on Hackett around the RZ and the Packers have been a top 10 RZ offense each of the last 3 years
- Hackett’s Jaguars were also pretty good in the redzone: 9th in 2016 and 13th in 2017 with Blake Bortles at QB
Rodgers said the way Nathaniel Hackett helped the Jacksonville Jaguars make it to the AFC Championship game is "magical." https://t.co/3ufAZhSjBG— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) January 11, 2022
Vegas has Dan Quinn as the betting favorite for the job. How does that make you feel?
So I’ve been pretty vocal about my concerns with Quinn, but believe it or not I do see the appeal.
- His previous experience as HC means he should not have the same kind of growing pains you’d expect from the other 9 candidates. (Also - wtf why aren’t the Broncos interviewing anyone else with HC experience?)
- My talk with former NFL GM Mike Tannenbaum and chats with others around the league really shines a light on the way he’s regarded: everyone loves him as a person and speak about how he’s a genuine dude who really cares about his players/coaches.
- His first year as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator was the apex of the Legion of Boom: they allowed the fewest points and yards in the league while leading the NFL in takeaways. In fact, they were the first time a team accomplished the feat since the 1985 Chicago Bears.
- The Dallas Cowboys finished with one of the 10 worst defenses in the league last year, and they finished the regular season second by DVOA. There’s no doubt talent is a big part of the equation, but Quinn’s ability to make the most of hybrid talent like Mica Parsons is notable.
Dan Quinn is the Assistant Coach of the Year. I don’t think it’s particularly close either.— Honest NFL (@TheHonestNFL) January 11, 2022
My concerns center on his time as a head coach.
- Dan Quinn’s full season defensive DVOA ranks during his time as head coach:
- 2015: 18th
- 2016: 19th
- 2017: 17th
- 2018: 30th
- 2019: 17th
- 2020* 14th
* fired on 10/11 after 0-5 start, defense averaged 13.9%, which would have ranked 30th if extrapolated over full season.
- From 2015 to 2020, Dan Quinn’s Falcons blew 14 4th quarter leads, some historic collapses.
- During the time Dan Quinn was the Falcons head coach the defense never finished above 17th by DVOA.
- Their best scoring defense came in 2017 when they allowed 19.1 points per game. Ever other year was significantly worse.
- After Kyle Shanahan left to be a head coach, an offense with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley never averaged more than 25.9 points per game. The RZ O never ranked higher than 15th by DVOA.
The Falcons offense showed notable decline across the board by efficiency metrics once Kyle Shanahan left after the 28-3 collapse in Super Bowl 51.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) January 10, 2022
Beyond coach, what are your biggest questions/concerns about the direction of the Broncos this offseason?
- Ownership is a huge concern, as the wrong person could run the Broncos into the ground. However, it’s such a wildcard I’m electing to try and ignore it ‘til we get a better idea as to what’s coming.
- Beyond ownership, I think it’s telling that a year after George Paton told NBC’s Peter King “franchise cornerbacks are harder to find than quarterbacks,” he told the Broncos’ Alexis Perry that “quarterbacks don’t fall off trees.”
If the Broncos don’t land Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, this offseason looks pretty weak as far as quarterback’s go. The 2022 QB class looks like the weakest since 2013, and the top free agents are Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, and Andy Dalton. Unless you’re an ardent believe in Baker Mayfield, Jimmy Garoppolo, or Kirk Cousins, it could be another rough season under center.
- Beyond the QB conundrum
Right tackle is a huge question both short and long term, which is one reason I hold to the idea that the Broncos screwed the pooch passing on tackles in last year’s draft.
Edge rusher is also first round type of need, which is probably why Paton tried to trade up for Miami’s Jaelen Phillips in the 2021 draft. Bradley Chubb had the worst season of his career and has suffered lower body injuries in three straight seasons. He’s on a fifth year option this year and it may not make sense to retain him. Malik Reed had the worst year of his career and may not be a great fit in a post-Fangio world. He’s a 235 lb. edge rusher who is light at the point of attack and doesn’t bring above average play strength to the position.
The Broncos have 5 picks in the top 100 of the upcoming draft along with $40+ million in cap space. https://t.co/DDdofmvmRY— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) January 12, 2022
Who do you want the Broncos to hire as head coach?
Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy
Cowboys DC Dan Quinn
Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett
Eagles DC Jonathon Gannon
Pats iLB coach Jerod Mayo
Cowboys OC Kellen Moore
Rams OC Kevin O’Connell
Lions DC Aaron Glenn
Packers QB coach Luke Getsy
Bengals OC Brian Callahan