Many fans were surprised the Denver Broncos would even consider hiring Vance Joseph as their defensive coordinator after firing him as their head coach after the 2018 season. The frustration of those two seasons were still relatively fresh even four years later, but those same fans forgot something. Wade Phillips once had two disappointing seasons as a Broncos’ head coach and was fired for Mike Shanahan in 1995.
Phillips made sure to mention that to Joseph when he was re-hired earlier this year.
“He reminded me that he was let go and he came back as a coordinator and won a championship,” Joseph said of his conversation with Phillips. “That was his message to me. Hopefully I can follow his trail.”
Wade Phillips wasn’t even the Broncos first, or probably even second, choice in 2015. In fact, they had tried to hire Vance Joseph for head coach and then Gary Kubiak looked to him for defensive coordinator. In then end, Phillips got the job and the rest was history.
Now that Vance Joseph has returned, he would clearly love to follow the same path with his former team that Phillips had in his return in 2015. First, he had to get past the noise of disgruntled fans.
“For me, it was never that,” Joseph said of the noise in Denver. “It was a fair process. This is a league of winning, so when you don’t win, there is going to be change. It was never personal for me. I came here and I worked my butt off, but it didn’t work. I’m back now, and that’s my focus—playing great defense for Sean [Payton] and win games. I’ve never had that in my heart, even leaving here four years ago.”
Hearing him talk about how things worked out reminded me of all of the qualities I liked about Joseph when he was first hired. Qualities that were soon forgotten after two difficult seasons in the post-Peyton Manning era.
Head Coach Sean Payton doesn’t have to worry about how fans feel or what they remember. This is his team now and his job to bring it back to contention. For him, Joseph was the best fit for the culture he is looking to instill on his watch.
“Well, there’s a calmness to him and professionalism to him that I appreciate,” Payton said of Joseph. “We always found a way to shake each other’s hand after a game or talk to each other. I just think that there’s a poise and a credibility when he presents that’s impressive. I think he’s an extremely good communicator, and I think he’s an extremely good leader. It never gets mentioned but dating back to even 2006 when I first became a head coach, it’s understanding the importance of hiring the right staff. I think we’ve been able to do that. We have guys that are teachers. We’ve got young, and we’ve got old—a lot of different former and experienced [coaches]. I think with Vance [Joseph], there’s that calmness with him, and I think he’s a good communicator.”
That’s all good stuff and in the offseason it is all we can go off of. Joseph, however, will need to prove he can keep his side of the ball operating under top tier conditions. Their 2022 season was excellent, which means the bar is set pretty high heading into the 2023 season.
Joseph’s biggest task will be to keep the unit competitive and that is where his focus is when asked about it this week.
“It has been a very good defense for a very long time here in Denver,” Joseph said on Wednesday. “The challenge for me is to take what they did well last year and continue that and improve. You can always improve in certain areas. It’s a good group. It’s an engaged group. They want to be coached, and it’s an experienced group in the backend. It’s fun to watch those guys talk through concepts and follow my lead. It’s my job to marry the language of both systems and what they’ve done well. [Let’s] keep doing that.”
In 2022, with their backs constantly against the wall due to turnovers or three and outs, the defense overperformed. They finished 15th in the league in scoring, despite giving up the eighth fewest yards and fourth fewest yards per play. That alone shows how poorly they were placed in field position on a consistent basis.
The Broncos defense last year gave up a league fifth-best in net yards per attempt and give up the eighth fewest passing touchdowns. Those are numbers that Joseph’s unit will look to at least match in 2023 if not improve. Areas where they struggled were against the run where they were middle of the pack and the aforementioned scoring.
Overall, I came away more excited about Vance Joseph’s return than I was initially. I, too, was caught up in the recent memory bias of his previous time as head coach. If only I had had Wade Phillips in my ear to remind me of his history in that regard. I could definitely go for a repeat of that timeline with Joseph.