Broncos’ new motto: In Vance Joseph we trust
Denver’s first-year head coach is a straight talker and respected for it
Few coaches would have spoken so frankly, let alone a rookie play-caller in his first season with a new team. But Vance Joseph only knows one way to roll. The then-Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator laid it out publicly last season, revealing which players weren’t getting it done during the team’s 1-4 start. Joseph’s eyebrow-raising comments surprised many. As it turned out, though, not those who mattered most.
Within the Dolphins’ locker room, no one was caught off guard. Joseph said the same things behind closed doors, explaining what he would do once they opened. Players knew what to expect from Joseph — and respected him for it.
“What they [fans and the media] didn’t understand was that we knew V.J. would answer questions honestly. He had already been honest with us,” Dolphins safety Michael Thomas recalled. “I do get why it was different. You don’t see coaches going there and being so candid, but V.J. is different. He did a lot to help change our culture in the right way. A lot of guys thought the same thing about him: He could be a great head coach.”
The Denver Broncos are counting on it.
The Broncos hired Joseph in January, making him the first African-American head coach in franchise history. They got a top-notch X’s and O’s man, who, to hear some around the league tell it, has been a head coach in waiting from the moment his brief career as an NFL defensive back ended. What may help Joseph most in his new role, however, is that he’s a straight shooter and proven relationship-builder. At every coaching stop, he has earned players’ trust through his words and actions. Now in charge of a talented team only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl title, Joseph has both his greatest career opportunity and challenge. That’s exactly what he wants.
“I could have taken other jobs where maybe the view from the outside was, ‘Well, you should really have three or four years to win.’ Here in Denver, obviously, that’s not the case, and that’s OK,” Joseph said. “With this team, no one will cut me any slack for being a first-year head coach. It’s a good roster. We have a good staff. And, yes, I’m a rookie head coach. But I’m not a rookie coach. We expect to win.”
It’s 7 a.m., and the Broncos’ team facility in Englewood, Colorado, is quiet. Soon, the hallways will be filled by the chatter of coaches and players as they bustle about the building to begin the workday. In his spacious office on the second floor, Joseph is already well into the daily grind.
After his 6 a.m. workout, Joseph has a packed schedule that includes meetings with the coaching staff, addressing the entire team, overseeing practice, more meetings, film review and yet more meetings. The Broncos open the regular season Sept. 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers. There’s always more to do.
Although he’s preparing for his first game as the boss, Joseph seems like he has been in this space for years. He exudes confidence. Not in a cocky way, but in an I’ve-been-training-for-this-for-years-and-I’m-ready way. And Joseph’s core belief on how to best interact with players provides the foundation for his faith in himself.
“In my opinion, being respectful and understanding of the players’ mindset is so important,” said Joseph, seated at his office desk and wearing blue-and-orange Broncos performance gear. “The players … want the truth. And if you can put the truth in a sense of you also care about them, that you’re telling the truth because you want them to be successful and it’s not just business, that’s where you build trust.
“If they get a sense of, ‘This guy cares about me outside of football and he wants me to succeed,’ they’ll give you extra. Then you can be honest more often when they see it helps their game. But you have to be authentic and transparent. It can’t be something that you’re just saying. Players will see right through that. If they see that what he’s telling me works, and it’s coming from a true place, that’s when it makes a difference.”
Clearly, Joseph, in his only season in Miami, got through to the Dolphins.
Miami advanced to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season, becoming only the 12th team in NFL history to accomplish the feat after losing four of its first five games. Joseph had a big role in the turnaround.
“V.J. brought an understanding that everyone has to do his job, but he also wants guys to know why they’re being asked to do what they’re doing,” said Thomas, the veteran safety. “I know that sounds simple, but a lot of coaches don’t do that.
“They just tell you to go out and do something, but guys have no idea what’s going on. To have everyone really get it, coaches have to communicate. V.J. is a great communicator. … When V.J. came in and did what he did, guys didn’t always like it, but you understood.”
Byron Maxwell can tell you all about it. Early in the 2016 season, Joseph benched the veteran cornerback for poor play. Maxwell was an established player with a big contract. Had Maxwell blasted Joseph in the media, players around the league wouldn’t have been surprised. But Maxwell didn’t even sulk. He kept working and contributed to a playoff team. And he’s still cool with Joseph.
“V.J. brought great leadership and taught us the intangibles of being a leader, what all of that entails and how you have to bring it every day with the guys looking at you,” Maxwell said. “He knows how to talk to you. He knows how to communicate to guys in the generation. He’s a leader of men.”
All that from a guy Joseph benched. The most productive players were down with Joseph too.
In every team sport, successful coaches have powerful allies in the locker room. For Joseph, there was no doubt: Ndamukong Suh was the partner he needed. Suh is among the league’s most dominant defensive linemen. After he arrived in Miami, Joseph quickly came to realize that the three-time first-team All-Pro is also football-sharp.
Joseph leaned on Suh, seeking his input on strategy and involving him in formulating game plans. As the Dolphins steadily improved (they won nine of their last 11 games in the regular season), Joseph and Suh developed a lasting bond.
The Broncos “are getting an elite guy who understands defense and understands how things work together, working with a lot of different pieces and puzzles,” Suh said. “He’s a great people person. He’s great dealing with a lot of different personalities. … There is no question that those players are going to definitely be happy with the way that he runs things.”
So far, Joseph has impressed senior management with his demeanor, approach and preparedness. Of course, the games are meaningless until the regular season starts. And even Bill Belichick experienced growing pains on the sidelines. Joseph will hit some bumps. Count on it.
Still, a good start is a lot better than a bad one. Also, the most important player in the Broncos’ locker room is impressed, which, for Joseph, is definitely a good thing.
On the Broncos, outside linebacker Von Miller can best be described as “That Dude.” The three-time first-team All-Pro and MVP of the 2016 Super Bowl is among the game’s best leaders. In Joseph, Miller sees a head coach who “definitely knows what he wants to do and how he’s trying to build everything. He’s just getting started out and it’s a long season. But he has a plan. That’s what you need.”
Joseph, who turns 45 on Sept. 20, rose through the ranks on defense. A former college quarterback and running back at the University of Colorado, the Marrero, Louisiana, native was converted to defensive back in the NFL.
After his playing days ended (Joseph appeared in 17 games combined for the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts in the 1995 and ’96 seasons), he steadily developed a reputation as a defensive backs coach. Although he had never served as a coordinator until last season, one of his mentors predicted a few years ago that Joseph would run his own shop soon.
Joseph worked under Wade Phillips when they were part of the Houston Texans’ staff from 2011 through 2013. During that time, Phillips continually gave Joseph more responsibility. Joseph continually excelled.
“V.J. is a friend of mine, but he’s an outstanding coach,” said Phillips, in his first year directing the Los Angeles Rams’ defense after running the Broncos’ defense the past two seasons. “I told him he was going to be … a head coach pretty soon, and it turned out that way.
“It’s well-deserved. He’s a football guy. He knows football, but he also works with people very well. He is going to do a great job.”
If not for the Rooney Rule, Joseph might never have gotten the Broncos job. Or any job, for that matter.
The rule — named after Dan Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and one-time head of the league’s diversity committee — mandates that teams must interview at least one person of color in searches for head coaches, general managers and equivalent front-office positions. Although there are problems with the Rooney Rule, it has helped improve the hiring culture throughout a workplace where most players are African-American. This season, the NFL will have eight head coaches of color (matching 2011 as the most it has had in any season), seven of whom are African-American.
Thankful that the Rooney Rule has opened doors for him and other black and brown coaches, Joseph believes it’s definitely still needed. “We’re not there yet. We’re not in a place where we should” eliminate the Rooney Rule, Joseph said. “The Rooney Rule allows execs and GMs to interview guys who they don’t know. Ultimately, in any business, people hire who they know. Why? Because they’re comfortable with those people. There’s a trust factor there.
“Let’s say there are two guys who know each other, and they start off as a young scout and a young coach. All of a sudden, 10 years down the road, that scout becomes a GM and the coach becomes a coordinator. Now, the GM is ready to hire a coach. He knows that coordinator’s background. He knows his history. He knows the guy’s family. Who do you think he wants to interview? And if it’s close between him and another guy, who do you think gets hired? The Rooney Rule just gives GMs a chance to get to know more guys.”
John Elway remains an imposing figure. The old quarterback doesn’t get around quite as well as he used to because the human body just wasn’t designed for a 16-year NFL career, but Elway is still on top of his game.
As the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations/general manager, the Hall of Famer has displayed the same deft touch he did while leading the Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl titles in the late 1990s. Elway assembled the Broncos’ 2015 championship team, which was led by Gary Kubiak, his former Broncos backup and longtime friend. But when Kubiak retired from coaching at the end of last season for health reasons, Elway unexpectedly had an opening at the top of the coaching staff. He also knew he had his next guy: Joseph.
After the 2014 season, the last time Elway was in the market for a head coach, he brought in Joseph, who was a position coach with the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I didn’t really know him, and that was the only way I could get him in here to talk to him,” Elway said. “After the day I spent with him, I said there’s no question: He’s gonna be a head coach in this league fast.”
The Elway-Joseph meeting was an excellent example of the Rooney Rule at work. Elway had planned to hire both Kubiak and Joseph, with Joseph becoming Denver’s defensive coordinator. When the Bengals refused to let Joseph out of his contract, Elway scrapped a portion of the plan. Not surprisingly, Joseph was hot. “At the time, I was upset,” he acknowledged. “It was a huge opportunity.”
Joseph soon got another one with the Dolphins. Elway kept monitoring Joseph’s career with an eye toward the future. The future came sooner than Elway envisioned.
“The way things worked out with Gary walking away, and the fact that V.J. had two more years of experience and had become a coordinator after never having that title before … for me, it helped him,” Elway said. “Now, I don’t know if it was the deciding factor. I don’t know if the decision would have been any different for me if he hadn’t had the title [after Kubiak retired], because I liked him that much when I met with him the first time.”
Elway also likes continuity. By hiring Joseph, he knew the Broncos would maintain the successful defensive approach they had employed under Phillips, who had a major influence on shaping Joseph’s philosophy. “That’s been our bread and butter the last couple of years,” Elway said. “So V.J. comes in with the same thing. We’re not changing anything on the defensive side. That was a big part of it.”
Beyond sticking with what’s familiar on defense, Joseph’s overall football knowledge and how well he interviewed, Elway was most swayed by Joseph’s reputation for being a great communicator. There aren’t enough coaches who are capable of getting through to players, Elway said. “Vance, the way he carries himself and the way he’s able to talk to people no matter their background, no matter where you’re from … he’s got the ability to relate to anyone. In today’s game, to me, that’s the most important thing. You have to be able to talk to everybody. You have to be able to communicate and gain that trust, and he’s got that presence about him. He really has a chance to be great.”
That’s why Elway hired him. He’s expecting a whole lot from Joseph. And as a new Broncos era begins, this much seems certain: The head coach will make himself clear.