Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: Vic Fangio will be back as the Broncos head coach in 2020. He’s not going to get fired. Nor should he get the ax. He deserves a second season to see if he can build upon the foundation he started to create this year.
That said, anyone who believes Fangio is definitively the right man for the job is nothing more than a homer. There was no evidence put forth this season that suggests that’s the case.
Now, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some positives. There certain were a few.
For starters, the Broncos improved from 6-10 in 2018 to 7-9 this year. While not a huge jump, and not a big enough one for the franchise to avoid a third-consecutive losing season for the first time since 1972, it was a step in the right direction. And not hitting double-digit losses again was big; that makes a huge difference heading into the offseason, as Denver looks like a team that is knocking on the door of the postseason instead of one bordering on a dumpster fire.
In addition, Fangio’s defense performed well, at least statistically. They were in the top half of the NFL in total yards allowed, as well as points surrendered. And in terms of red-zone defense, they were one of the best in the league, a trait that kept the Broncos in plenty of games, including yesterday’s 16-15 win over the Raiders.
Finally, the head coach did a nice job of navigating some tricky waters. During the season, Denver was forced to start three different quarterbacks, two of whom had never taken an NFL snap prior to making their debut with the Broncos. Overseeing the transitions from Joe Flacco to Brandon Allen to Drew Lock wasn’t easy, especially considering the haphazard manner in which the rookie quarterback’s ascension onto the active roster was handled by the front office, so the coach deserves credit for avoiding major drama.
But there were plenty of reasons to be concerned, as well. Most of them were on full display on Sunday against Oakland.
All weekend, Broncos fans have been defending John Elway’s placement on the NFL’s Top 100 list by claiming that the quarterback’s stats would’ve been better had he not been saddled with Dan Reeves as his head coach during the first 10 years of his career. An archaic, run-first, keep-the-score-close offense was what apparently prevented No. 7 from reaching his full potential, at least early in his career.
Ironically, that’s exactly what’s about to unfold with Lock. Fangio is a head coach who wants to shorten the game and limit the other team’s possessions, even if it means giving up long drives on defense and forcing his quarterback to stand on the sidelines. He’s perfectly content to win 16-15 and he’s always going to rely on his defense, which is why he’ll run the ball on third-and-six with a 13-3 lead and settle for the field goal.
On Sunday, Lock was 17 of 28 for 177 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t throw the ball deep at all, as the Broncos were perfectly content to work the short to intermediate passing game, avoiding mistakes and turnovers in the process. The reins were tight on the young quarterback, even in a meaningless game.
That style of play has worked in the past. It certainly did for Reeves, who went to three Super Bowls in Denver and another one in Atlanta. And it did for Hall of Fame coaches like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, who repeatedly won squeakers en route to multiple Super Bowl titles.
But that style of football requires being really good at the little things. It forces a team to avoid the “death by inches” that Fangio talked about when he was introduced as the Broncos head coach in January.
This season, that wasn’t the case in Denver. The same head-scratching decisions, penalties and other mental blunders that cost the team during the Vance Joseph era were still on full display this season.
Sunday was a prime example. Leading 16-9 with less than two minutes to play, the Broncos should’ve been able to run the clock down to one minute, punted and pinned the Raiders deep in their own territory with no timeouts. Instead, a silly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Garett Bolles stopped the clock and an inexplicable choice to try a 57-yard field goal gave Oakland hope.
Working with great field position, Derek Carr drove the Raiders down the field for a touchdown, cutting Denver’s lead to 16-15. And had the quarterback’s pass on a two-point conversion not been knocked down by Shelby Harris, Oakland would’ve strolled out of Denver with an improbable victory.
If Fangio wants to play conservative football, then he needs to stick to the script. Be conservative. All the time. Otherwise, the 58 minutes of old-school, watch-the-paint-dry decisions are undermined by one moment of being a riverboat gambler. That type of inconsistency can be deadly.
Had the Broncos blown the late lead yesterday, it would’ve been the fifth time this season that they’d turned a victory into a defeat in the waning seconds of the game. Fangio’s defense allowed game-winning field-goal drives to Chicago, Jacksonville and Indianapolis earlier in the year, while also blowing a 23-7 fourth-quarter lead in Minnesota. That’s unacceptable.
In addition, the Broncos defense wasn’t very opportunistic in 2019. On the season, they only forced 17 turnovers, barely more than one per game. Only five teams in the entire NFL forced fewer. They also only recorded 40 sacks, despite having Von Miller on the roster; those total put them squarely in the middle of the pack when it came to getting after the quarterback.
If Denver is going to stick with Fangio, which means they’re going to play a win-with-defense approach, then that side of the ball has to be the one that’s clutch and makes plays. Time after time after time this season, however, they failed to hold a lead with the game on the line. And time after time after time, they’d go long stretches without making anything happen on the field, allowing teams to drive the length of the field in five-, six- and seven-yard chunks. That can’t be acceptable if the Broncos are going to be a defense-first team.
Although, that might not be the team’s personality in 2020 and beyond. The high-priced veterans who helped the franchise win Super Bowl 50 are starting to dwindle. If Chris Harris Jr. and Derek Wolfe depart this offseason, only Von Miller will remain from the swarming defense that brought a third Lombardi Trophy to the Denver.
Instead, the team is in transition. The future appears to be built around Lock, Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant and other young stars on offense. That seems like an odd fit for a 60-something coach who wants to win 10-7 if possible.
That’s not to say Fangio can’t be successful in Denver. He definitely can. It just means that there are reasons to doubt that it will happen.
From conservative game plans to rough decisions to an untimely porous defense, the first season under Vic Fangio had some issues. Those things have to be corrected in 2020.