Joseph and Musgrave have a winning football formula; sticking to it will be the key in 2018

Oct 1, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos head coach Vance Joseph reacts on the sidelines in the second quarter against the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

There are only seven football games remaining in the 2017 NFL season.

Unfortunately for the Denver Broncos, they won’t be playing in any of them. Their season has been finished for a little over a week.

Even though the 2017 season was one that both the fans and the coaches would like to forget, it provided a number of teaching moments for head coach Vance Joseph in his first year.

Most of those moments came on the offensive side of the football. Joseph saw just how quickly an NFL season can dump someone on their head, and the 2017 Broncos offense was the unit that taught him. The Broncos got off to a red-hot start during the first month of the season, but cooled of significantly afterwards.

“I’ll say this about our offense this year: Our first goal was to run the football,” Joseph said during his final press conference of the season. “The first month of the season we ran the football, we threw it, scored points and moved the ball. But the turnovers were still there and that part I blame myself for, for not addressing that part of our offense.”

Those turnovers, among other things, would eventually play a big part in why the Broncos dropped eight games in a row and ultimately missed the playoffs for the second straight year.

Perhaps what was most discouraging was the fact that the offense never really improved over the course of the season. The Broncos only had two games in which they didn’t turn the ball over at all, and two games where they only turned the ball over once.

A midyear change of offensive coordinators — firing Mike McCoy and handing his duties over to Bill Musgrave, who will return in that capacity in 2018 — helped some. Musgrave built game plans designed to emphasize the run and limit his quarterbacks’ chances of making mistakes.

That was most apparent in back-to-back wins over the Jets and Colts in Weeks 14 and 15, when Denver ran the ball 35 and 46 times respectively and turned it over just once.

“We had a gameplan to play complementary football [in] all three phases and it worked out,” Joseph said of Musgrave’s play calling against the Jets. “To win games in this league, you have to play together. I thought Bill called the game to help us minimize mistakes, he helped call a game to help us keep drives alive and to keep the third downs manageable. It was fun to see.”

Denver’s turnover problem — they ranked 31st in total turnovers (34) and differential (minus-17) — largely stemmed from the revolving door that was the quarterback position.  The Broncos were fortunate enough to have a decent running game in 2017, but too often reverted to a pass-heavy offense after falling behind in games — usually because of turnovers. According to Joseph though, the run game is one thing the Broncos will continue to focus on in 2018.

“Our philosophy hasn’t changed offensively,” Joseph said. “It’s running the football, controlling the game and keeping third downs manageable for whoever’s playing quarterback. That’s the formula of winning football. That hasn’t changed — around playing great defense. We have a team formula that’s won here for a long time in Denver that hasn’t changed with all of the best teams. Running the football helps you control a game and it helps the quarterback play more efficient football when the third downs are manageable, not giving the ball away, playing great defense and keeping the special teams to even or plus. That’s winning football in this league, so that won’t change with our football team.”

The numbers back up Joseph’s claim. The Broncos are riding an NFL-best 32-game winning streak when they win the turnover battle, something they did just twice in 2017. They were  5-2 in 2017 in games they ran the ball 30-plus times; they were 0-9 in games they ran the ball less than 30 times.