By Bob Morris
(247 SPORTS) – It’s understandable that Denver Broncos fans would be skeptical — or worse yet, pessimistic — about how Vance Joseph would fare in his second season as head coach. After all, a 3-1 start in his first season, followed by a 2-10 finish, is far from impressive.
However, that doesn’t mean that Joseph is getting out-coached to start the season. Though he does have room for improvement, he is getting better with his decisions, and some of that evidence comes with the Broncos come-from-behind win against the Raiders in Week 2.
First, every Broncos fan needs to admit that we underestimated the Raiders. They did lead the Rams at halftime of their opener. Though the Rams took over in the second half, that was to be expected from a team that has the makings of a Super Bowl contender.
But the Raiders coaching staff showed it had learned a few things from its season opener. The Raiders relied more on short, quick passes to counteract the Broncos pass rush.
Their offensive line played well overall (though Donald Penn had a rough day against Von Miller). And they blitzed a number of times to counter for the lack of a pass rush.
Joseph did have an issue with allowing the cornerbacks to play softer coverage against the Raiders wide receivers. That was something he acknowledged the next day — though I will add that much of it came from execution, too. None of the Broncos inside linebackers did well in coverage and Adam Jones, after playing well against Seattle, struggled in Week 2.
There’s also the question about why Joseph didn’t use his timeouts when the Raiders were driving in the final minutes of the second quarter. Perhaps Joseph would have reacted differently if the Broncos weren’t going to receive the kickoff to open the second half. Or perhaps he trusted the defense too much after it held the Raiders to field goals on previous drives.
Regardless, Joseph got it together in the second half. While it’s true he doesn’t have a direct hand regarding the offensive play calling, he is responsible for telling players that they need to execute.
The offense wasn’t getting it done, but it’s clear somebody lit a fire under that unit during halftime. Joseph may not have been the only one to do so, but I think it’s fair to say he played a part.
More importantly, Joseph made several coaching decisions that demonstrated both that he would back players who executed and trust players to come through in crucial situations.
First was his decision to challenge the ruling of an incomplete pass when Case Keenum hooked up with Courtland Sutton in the end zone. Replays were inconclusive as to whether or not Sutton’s foot was out of bounds before his knee hit the ground, but it was still surprising that the officials confirmed the call — an indicator that evidence was conclusive.
Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the call, though, Joseph knew it was worth risking a timeout to get the points. He showed trust in Keenum and Sutton, both of whom were confident it was a touchdown.
The next challenge Joseph made was one I wasn’t sure I would make, given that the call being overturned only resulted in a third-down play for Oakland. Still, I can understand why Joseph did it.
Bradley Roby made a good stop on Martavis Bryant and he was clearly short of the sticks. Joseph wanted to back a player who made a good play.
But the best decision Joseph made the entire game was, when the Broncos trailed 19-10 late in the fourth quarter, to go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. In fourth-and-short situations, teams have about a 64 percent chance of converting it. More importantly, though, the Broncos couldn’t pass up a touchdown opportunity at the Raiders 1-yard line.
Simply put, the Broncos needed a touchdown, extra point and field goal to win the game. Given that the Broncos needed just one yard — even though the Raiders successfully prevented the touchdown on third down — you have to go for the higher scoring play. The only time to go for the field goal on fourth-and-goal at the 1 is if a field goal will win you the game. Otherwise, you need to be aggressive.
Furthermore, getting the touchdown at that point takes some pressure off the defense. If you kick the field goal, you pretty much force the defense into holding the Raiders to a three-and-out, because then the offense needs the touchdown and, thus, has greater need to keep the remaining time outs.
While it’s true that three-and-out remains the best possible outcome for the defense, scoring the touchdown first meant it was easier to recover if the defense gave up a first down. Because once the offense gets the ball back, they can focus on getting in field goal range rather than getting into the end zone.
Joseph needed to play to win, rather than play not to lose. In the situation he faced, kicking the field goal was playing not to lose, while getting the touchdown was playing to win. Forget about the result — the focus should be on the best decision to allow you to win the game.
We saw what happened from there. The Broncos, despite a couple of lapses, moved the ball effectively on their final drive and got the game-winning field goal.
Part of the credit should go back to Joseph, who showed confidence and a willingness to go for the win by going for the touchdown first and risking a turnover on downs. That confidence carried over to the offense — and to the defense, too, after it shook off one first-down conversion and eventually forced the Raiders to punt.
Joseph still has much to prove this season, but the things I saw in the second half were encouraging. Now it’s up to Joseph to build upon what he has learned thus far.
The more he plays to win, and the more he learns from his mistakes, the better the chance he will win over the skeptics and pessimists among Broncos fans.