Sophomore Surge? Can Vance Joseph improve…enough?

Dec 31, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos head coach Vance Joseph in the third quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Six days from now, the Denver Broncos will begin their attempt to avoid something that hasn’t taken place since 1972 — experience back-to-back losing seasons.

The Broncos’ 5-9 record in ’72 followed a 4-9-1 campaign in ’71, which followed a 5-8-1 effort in 1970. Perhaps not so coincidentally, those were the franchise’s first three seasons in the NFL, presumably a big step up from the previously occupied AFL. While there have been a few forgettable seasons since then, never – not once – have the Broncos experienced two losing seasons in a row. By and large, Denver has been the beneficiary of one of the finest organizations in all of sports – a practically indisputable fact.

Losing, at least for the Broncos organization and its diehard fan base, isn’t exactly acceptable. That’s why, when fans get to see the 2018 version of the Broncos at training camp on Saturday, they’ll notice upgrades and additions all over the field. Through patience, the Broncos will gain the services of Jake Butt, who is believed to be a major upgrade at tight end. Through the draft, they’ve added Bradley Chubb, who many believe to be the best player in this year’s draft. Through free agency, John Elway added Case Keenum, because the ‘Duke of Denver’ wasn’t about to let another season go by without an honest attempt to improve at the quarterback position.

And those are just the highlights.

If the offseason was successful, the additions (see the aforementioned) will outweigh the subtractions (see Aqib Talib) and the 5-11 Broncos of a year ago will – in theory – morph into something more respectable (let’s say somewhere between an 11-5 miracle turnaround and 8-8 just to avoid the dreaded back-to-back losing seasons).

If you’re an optimist, that’s how you’ll view this year’s iteration. Combine history and Elway’s competitive spirit, and you’ll likely conclude that folks in these parts ain’t about to witness futility twice in a row.

If you’re a pessimist, however, your eyes likely won’t focus between the lines – they’ll be looking outside of them, where you’ll find the Broncos head coach, Vance Joseph.

It’s safe to say that outside of Josh McDaniels, who lasted all of 28 games in Denver, there hasn’t been a coach more lamented than Joseph. And between the two, it’s a toss up. Broncos fans have the luxury of complete hindsight when it comes to McDaniels, who had more power than Joseph in terms of personnel (his first big move was to trade Jay Cutler, you’ll recall), but also began his tenure with the Broncos by going 6-0; his undefeated start included three road wins and home wins over both Dallas and New England. McDaniels limped home that first season, but managed an 8-8 overall record.

Joseph can’t say that, as his debut ended with a thud to the tune of 5-11 – a sickening number, considering the Broncos had won the Super Bowl just 11 months before he was hired in Denver. As despised as McDaniels is now, an objective observer would likely conclude that the fiery disciple of Bill Belichick did more with less in his first season as a head coach, even if things went south after that. Joseph provided optimism by winning three of his first four, but then dropped eight in a row with lowlights that included getting blanked at San Diego (the first time Denver had been held scoreless in 25 years) and a 35-9 loss in Miami that was more embarrassing than just the score indicated.

But that’s all in the past now.

The question, though, is whether or not it’s in the future?

Even John Elway said he “had to sleep on it” with regard to the decision to keep or let go of Joseph. Saying that the first-year head coach didn’t cut it would be an understatement; plenty of people believe his presence on the sideline this season is a mystery.

At left tackle, it’s almost universally believed that Garett Bolles will improve. Most think that Bolles, with a year of experience under his belt, will be a better player – perhaps even drastically. A season’s worth of reps? A summer to watch film? Time to assess and address his weaknesses as a rookie? There’s no way Bolles won’t improve.

Why then, don’t most people afford Joseph the same assumption?

Experience alone should improve anyone, anywhere on or around a football field, shouldn’t it? Experience alone should improve anyone in practically any job, in our outside of football.

But ask quietly, or ask loudly, if Joseph will be a better head coach, and generally speaking, the answer is “no.” The belief that improvement with experience is bound to take place doesn’t pertain to the head coach – not in Broncos Country. Oh, sure, publicly, there will be a nod of confidence given to Joseph by the organization (in particular, John Elway), but outside of that, most would point toward Joseph as the biggest reason for doubt in Denver. You can bet your bottom dollar that Joseph’s leash will be a short one.

“He wasn’t good last season, and he won’t be good now,” the thinking goes.

Or, perhaps it’s a variation: “He wasn’t good last season, and even a slight improvement won’t be good enough.”

Personally, I’m just as guilty. I didn’t like the hiring of Joseph, who guided Miami to the 29th ranked defense as its defensive coordinator. I didn’t like the results from 2017 (who did?). And I don’t think Joseph will be a good head coach even with a year of experience. Could he be “better”? Probably, but I’m doubtful as to how much.

Don’t take it from me, though. Even with the additions of the offseason, Las Vegas believes the over-under number on Broncos’ wins is seven. Losing Talib isn’t good, but with Bradley Roby to fill his shoes, how bad can it be? Can the extreme lack of confidence in Denver be solely attributed to the head coach?

Perhaps it can be. But should it be?

Maybe that’s not fair. After all, if Garett Bolles improves, there will be a line around Mile High Stadium willing to say “told you so.”

If Vance Joseph looks like Vince Lombardi this time around?

Well, nobody saw that coming.

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