By Chad Jensen
DENVER (247 SPORTS) – It has been a long and winding road for the 2018 Denver Broncos. A season that began with all the optimism in the Rocky Mountains quickly devolved into a four-game losing streak.
For the second-straight year Vance Joseph‘s Broncos started 3-6. With the ‘lame duck’ head coach perception mounting outside of Dove Valley, inside, Joseph never wavered.
In fact, the Broncos doubled down. And buckled down.
This team never stopped buying Joseph’s message, despite the litany of close losses. When the Broncos entered their Week 10 bye, Joseph rallied his troops with a new philosophy — “small focus with big-picture awareness”.
The Broncos have now won three in a row and sit at 6-6. Joseph’s no longer on the hot seat, according to NFL insider Ian Rapoport.
After playing nearly every hot team in the NFL and falling short to many of them, it would seem those losses offered at least some utility to Joseph and the Broncos.
If more knowledge is gained through failure than success, Joseph at this point has a PhD from the School of Hard Knocks. The Broncos rolled with those punches, and never succumbed to the virulent strain of myopia that had infected an increasingly hopeless fanbase and skeptical media.
Joseph’s Broncos emerged wiser and stronger. Through it all, Joseph’s message has resounded.
Just like several of Denver’s opponents, and almost every analyst under the sun, have said — this team has always been better than its record would suggest. That’s one of the reasons that many, including yours truly, were so incensed over Joseph after the Broncos went on a stretch where they lost six-of-seven games.
The perception was that the coaching had to be the reason this team was consistently falling short. I would argue now that the coaching is what’s ultimately made the difference with the Broncos sitting at 6-6. Live and learn.
Its a miscalculation to chalk Denver’s newfound sense of urgency post-bye with anything resembling ‘panic’. Although I’m sure there were some gut-check moments for Joseph, like following his series of decisions that led to defeat in Week 9, inexplicably, Joseph never lost the belief of the locker room.
“Our tone has never changed,” Joseph said following Denver’s 24-10 victory over Cincinnati. “We were playing good football. We weren’t getting blown out of the building. We never had any issues with guys not playing hard or not believing in the process. We played some of the best teams on our schedule very close, and we just didn’t finish those games. We’re not surprised where we’re currently at, and we expect to win every week.”
Were it not for two plays that didn’t break Denver’s way, we would be talking about an 8-4 team right now. That’s how slim the margin for error is in the NFL, but its also a testament to the competency of Joseph, and the depth of talent of the Broncos.
Had quarterback Case Keenum not missed a streaking, wide-open Demaryius Thomas in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter vs. Kansas City in Week 4, or had Brandon McManus not missed that last-second 51-yard field goal attempt to beat the Texans in Week 9, the Broncos would be 8-4.
If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts…
That’s not the way it shook out for the Broncos, but maybe its time to take on a fatalistic perspective on this team. Some things happen for a reason. I believe that.
If its true in life, its true on the grid-iron. The Broncos were ‘this close’ to beating the Chiefs and the Texans, but losing those two games provided Vance Joseph, his coaching staff and that locker room with the hard-earned lessons that are informing their level of play in the present.
We all continue to marvel at the monumental contribution of the Broncos’ rookie class. Yes, GM John Elway and his scouts did a great job in the draft (and after it), but the production of this class is a credit to Joseph and his staff of coaches.
The will and sense of belief and self-confidence that it took for Joseph to turn this thing around amid a tidal wave of negative momentum and a fanbase calling for his head is nothing short of Herculean. Even if the Broncos finish at .500, it wouldn’t diminish Joseph’s accomplishment — because this team at one point was three games below such a mark.
Throw in all the injuries the Broncos have suffered — losing three starters on the offensive line, their top-two tight ends and now an All-Pro cornerback — and you really have to marvel at the job Joseph has done. Sometimes you simply have to give credit where credit is due.
It might be going too far to say that Denver controls its own destiny, because even if the Broncos win all four of their remaining games, they’d need the Dolphins and Colts to lose at least once, and the Ravens to lose twice, in order to secure the sixth playoff seed in the AFC. The Broncos, however, won’t allow themselves to look that far ahead. The focus remains on the next game only.
“Right now, we’re 6-6 only,” Joseph said on Monday. “We’re trying to get to be 7-6 this week. Without winning, those things won’t matter much. We have to focus on the Broncos, take it day by day and hopefully play our best football on Sunday to win. We can’t chase the highlights and, ‘who’s winning, who’s not winning.’ That can’t be our focus. Our focus has got to be to play the best ball each Sunday. At the end, we’ll see where we are. We’ll see.”
Joseph might be reluctant to start talking ‘playoffs’, but I’m not, and neither should the fanbase. Those in Broncos Country whose memories and roots stretch beyond the Super Bowl success of 2015 — even just as far back as 2011 — know that there’s real power in that thing they call ‘Mile High Magic’. When this team is playing hard and overcoming obstacles, the Football Gods tend to open the way.
Nobody expected Denver to beat the Chargers in L.A., nor the Steelers at home the next week, both of whom were on a six-game winning streak. This team is more confident as the underdog, but last week, Denver proved in Cincinnati they can handle their business as the favorite against an inferior opponent, even when they don’t play their best ball. That’s encouraging.
With the rookie class leading the charge — personified by Phillip Lindsay — and a former undrafted underdog calling the signals from under center in Case Keenum, this particular story almost writes itself. Denver’s turnaround has been a great story, because no one saw it coming and Joseph deserves all the credit in the world for it.
But as the team embarks on the final quarter of the regular season, they have a real shot at writing their own ending to this yarn. They’ll need just a little help from the teams ahead of them in the AFC playoff picture, but if the Broncos win out, their odds of making the playoffs as the sixth seed will be extremely high.
If that were to happen, it would mean the Broncos had won seven straight entering the postseason. No team would want to face such a red hot opponent. And the 1997 Broncos would be the first ones to offer up the reminder that once a team gets to the Super Bowl tournament, even as a Wild Card, all bets are off.