By Clark Judge | Jan. 11, 2019
With seven of the eight teams in this weekend’s playoffs headed by offensive-minded coaches, it’s no wonder that franchises looking to play into next January are also looking for the next Sean … Payton or McVay.
So what’s the deal with Denver?
The Broncos are the only team this month that hasn’t hired a head coach with a resume built on offense. Instead, they looked to the other side of the ball and hired former Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, an old-school assistant who bucks the current trend.
He hasn’t been a head coach before. He’s not young. He’s 60. Peyton Manning didn’t go to bat for him. And, no, he can’t help Case Keenum cut down on those turnovers.
Talk about an out-of-the-box hire.
With young offensive coordinators the flavor of this month, conventional wisdom says Denver has lost its way. But I disagree. In fact, I’d argue the Broncos may have just found it.
And here’s why: Remember when they last won a Super Bowl? It was three years ago when Manning was the quarterback and Gary Kubiak the head coach. But that team wasn’t built around Manning. He was 38 by then and no longer Peyton Manning, throwing nearly twice as many interceptions (17) as touchdowns (9), missing seven starts and producing a career-low 67.9 passer rating.
Instead, the Broncos were all about a suffocating defense, and they demonstrated it in Super Bowl 50. Pressuring then-league MVP Cam Newton with a furious pass rush, they produced seven sacks, forced three fumbles and one interception, scored a defensive touchdown and pushed Manning across the finish line in a game where Denver had 11 first downs and fewer than 200 yards in offense – the lowest ever by a Super Bowl winner.
But that was the Broncos’ formula for success. This was the same defense that repelled, in succession, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Newton in the playoffs, and that led the league that season in total defense, pass defense and sacks. Moreover, it was the unit that produced the second defensive Super Bowl MVP in 13 years.
That, of course, was linebacker Von Miller, who produced six tackles, two-and-a-half sacks and two quarterback hurries and who forced two fumbles – one recovered for a touchdown and the other that led to a game-clinching score.
So what does that have to do with Fangio? Everything. With his hire, the Broncos landed the guy who headed the league’s stingiest defense in 2018 and whose unit was behind Chicago’s return as a league power. The Bears led the league in takeaways and interceptions, were third in points off giveaways and set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards allowed … and, yeah, okay, so they’re gone from the playoffs.
But don’t blame Fangio and his defense. They didn’t lose their game with Philadelphia last week. But they did win the regular season for a franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2010.
So there’s that.
The idea is that by hiring Fangio, the Broncos make a good defense great again, especially with the talent assembled on that side of the ball, and that Denver returns as a division heavyweight. In essence, it’s all about history: It worked once; it can work again.
Okay, fine. But what about Keenum and an offense that ranked 19th overall and 24th in scoring? Good question. Remember that we mentioned Kubiak coached the 2015 Broncos? Well, he’s back … only this time as Fangio’s offensive coordinator, and talk about a shrewd move. Kubiak has a storied history in Denver, winning Super Bowls as a backup quarterback and as a head coach.
No, he wasn’t there in 2013 when Manning circled the bases, setting all kinds of records before losing to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII. But that’s the point, people. The league’s highest-scoring offense that season couldn’t overcome the Legion of Boom. In fact, it was destroyed by it.
So Denver went to work on its defense, brought back Wade Phillips to run it and the rest you know.
Look, Kubiak isn’t in Denver to turn Case Keenum into Peyton Manning. It’s not going to happen with him or anyone else. But he is there to make enough improvements and adjustments in his quarterback that A) Keenum cuts down on his career-high 15 interceptions and that B) he makes that unit more productive and less destructive.
Then it’s all about Fangio’s defense, and we saw how that worked in Chicago. More importantly, we saw what a Fangio-like defense did three years ago in Denver. So maybe instead of looking at this as an unorthodox and out-of-the box move, you should start to view it as something more.
Something like a smart one.