Why the Broncos’ handling of Demaryius Thomas trade could backfire
Vance Joseph made costly decisions that put his job security in jeopardy
Head coach Vance Joseph’s decisions in the Denver Broncos’ home loss against the Houston Texans showed that he misunderstands basic game management. He was aggressive when he should have been conservative and too conservative when he should have been more aggressive. He cost his team the game.
Sadly, that might not have been the worst failing of Joseph’s to become public in the past week.
That distinction goes to his alleged behavior surrounding the trade of Pro Bowl receiver Demaryius Thomas to the Texans. A day after Thomas’ new team defeated his former team in the stadium he called home just a week before, Thomas went on Orange and Blue Radio in Denver. According to Thomas, Joseph approached him during the week leading into their Oct. 28 game against the Kansas City Chiefs and fed him an obvious lie. With trade rumors swirling, Thomas’ agent had informed Thomas that the Broncos were shopping him for a fifth-round pick. But, according to Thomas, Joseph told him unprompted, “Don’t listen to the trade talks, it’s not true.”
The cost of mismanaging in-game situations is obvious and can be quantified, leading to criticism from people outside of the locker room. After last week’s on-field performance, Joseph’s fan and media support is all but gone. But teams can still succeed in those circumstances. Some teams can even thrive, using the “us against the world” or “win one for the Gipper” clichés as motivation.
That doesn’t work if the team doesn’t trust the man giving the speeches, however.
On Thursday, Joseph responded to Thomas’ comments by saying he was disappointed about Thomas’ recollection of the conversations. But the damage could already be done.
I am not in that locker room now, but I was. For three seasons, I was a Denver Bronco. Then I was traded. I heard trade rumors after my second season. I was told the rumors were false. I played the entire third season and was traded abruptly before the start of my fourth.
I’ve also been on teams when players were traded, so that gives me some credibility discussing the impact of sudden roster moves on a team.
When my teammates got word of my trade, several of them called me to see how I was doing. Despite being surprised, I had nothing but positive things to say about coach Mike Shanahan because he allowed me to choose between two teams that were offering the same trade. He didn’t have to do that. At that point he was a two-time Super Bowl champion head coach and I was a backup cornerback. Had he not extended me that courtesy, there probably wouldn’t have been much of a price to pay. But he did, and I felt respected.
So, in my conversations with my former teammates, I said positive things about him. And in all my conversations, the phrase “it’s a business” was uttered by someone.
“It’s a business” is the common refrain used by athletes to remind each other and reconcile themselves to the fact that teams can be ruthless. But for non-players, “it’s a business” is a quip used to absolve management of its responsibility to players. Yes, it is a business, but what the Broncos did to Thomas was unprofessional and would not be acceptable in other businesses.
The problem wasn’t that he was traded. The problem is that Joseph and many other coaches, general managers and owners treat the players like the product and treat the game with the respect of a partner, when in reality the game is the product created with the players as partners.
I appreciate the difficult challenge of coaching a player who knows he may be traded. And I understand it’s easier to do what most coaches would do: lie. But, as is often the case, the easy way will cost more in the long run.
When Joseph felt the urge to reassure Thomas of his place on the team, instead of lying, he and/or general manager John Elway should have given him the truth. One of them should have invited him to his office and said:
Look, I thought I owed it to you to let you know that we have been entertaining trade offers for you. This doesn’t mean that you will definitely be traded, but if it does happen, I didn’t want you to be completely blindsided. As long as you’re here, I know I’ll get the same effort and leadership you’ve always given. And as you know, I’ll always be honest and direct with you.
Do you have any questions?
Well, as you know my door is always open, if you need to talk.
Then invite him back to the office after they agreed to terms with the Texans and say:
So, we have agreed to terms with the Texans. I hope you see that this is in both of our best interests. I know you noticed that we drafted two receivers and you’re headed into the last year of your deal. We weren’t going to be able to re-sign you. This way we can get those guys some experience and you can finish strong headed into free agency.
I’m not so naive that I believe those conversations would have gone smoothly. I know it would have been difficult. But it would have been better than the conversations that Thomas likely had with his teammates — conversations that perhaps started with, “I can’t believe this m—–f—– just lied right to my face.”
That type of message, coming from a nine-year veteran who helped bring a Super Bowl championship to Denver and was voted a team captain just a year ago, can fracture whatever trust exists between a team and an unproven coach. The coach of a winning team with a track record of putting his players in the best position to succeed could better endure an assault on his trustworthiness.
But that’s not Vance. And it is a business.
You could succeed in business being a liar who carries more than his weight. You might even last if you’re the opposite. But if your co-workers can’t trust you to be honest or do your job well, then you won’t survive.