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Vance Joseph wants Broncos' schemes 'to fit the players'

Posted Jan 12, 2017

The job is not "broken," but tweaks are coming, and Joseph sent a bold message of willingness to alter schemes and make tough decisions to get the most out of his players.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Vance Joseph's coaching background is on defense. But he grew up playing quarterback, all the way through his years at the University of Colorado.

That makes him well-equipped to handle the task of guiding the entire team and helping imprint philosophies on both sides of the football. On offense, that means building an attack with "swagger." On defense, it means aggression -- and with two All-Pro cornerbacks and a three-time All-Pro outside linebacker who led the AFC in sacks, he has the tools to do what he wants.

But above all, Joseph brings tactical flexibility and a willingness to make drastic decisions when necessary.

He learned some of that through his career as a player and a coach. But he picked up some more lessons in that last year in Miami, when he was a "sounding board" for Adam Gase, the former Broncos offensive coordinator.

Together, Gase and Joseph helped guide the Dolphins to their first postseason appearance in eight years, as they rode an 8-1 run to rise from last place to a wild-card berth. That might not have happened without a series of lineup and tactical tweaks they made on the fly, making the Dolphins the 12th team in NFL history to turn a 1-4 start into a postseason berth.

Gase was involved with one of those other 11 teams -- the 2011 Broncos. That year, he helped rewrite the offense for Tim Tebow; a six-game winning streak soon followed. In 2016, the galvanizing moves involved emphasizing running back Jay Ajayi and waiving three offensive linemen who'd started a combined 37 games the last two seasons after the Titans sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill six times in a 30-17 Miami loss.

Changes were necessary -- and were swift and thorough. Ajayi, who didn't even play in Week 1, went from occasionally-used backup to the league's leading rusher in the final 12 weeks of the season. Miami's sack rate of one every 10.2 pass plays was the league's worst in Weeks 1-5; it was the NFL's seventh-best from Week 6 onward.

It took "courage" to make those moves, Joseph said. But they worked. The bold decisions to fix the glitches paid off -- and for Joseph, the ability to make those choices is critical to success as a head coach.

"Absolutely, it's a trait you have to learn," Joseph said.

"Making those moves and feeling those moves out, it does take courage, because if it doesn't work, then you're [blamed] for it. But that's part of the job -- making tough decisions daily. Adam did a great job of giving me a blueprint of what to follow."

But it's not just about courage; it's about the nimbleness and confidence to follow through on those changes, particularly in scheme and tactical adjustments. That willingness will govern the decisions Joseph makes on his coordinators.

"I want a guy that fits the scheme to the players. I want coordinators that put players first and scheme second," Joseph said. "If it doesn't fit our players, let's not do it.

"My thought is, players first, scheme second."

It is a natural outgrowth of the melting pot of influences from throughout his NFL career. From Mike Nolan, his first boss with the San Francisco 49ers, he learned work ethic.

"He was a detail guy -- a hard worker, and he was a great influence on me," Joseph said.

Seven weeks into the 2008 season, the 49ers dismissed Nolan, replacing him with Mike Singletary, who brought a Hall of Fame playing pedigree to the position.

"He was a great leader of men," Joseph said. "He was honest, he was transparent with players."

From Kubiak, he saw firm, clear leadership. Kubiak was a "black-and-white leader -- it was one way. It was right; it was wrong."

"Kub was a truth-teller, also. He was a guy that if players were wrong, he'd kind of say, 'You're wrong,' and if you were right, you were right," Joseph said. "It's no gray area there. You can push players and again still love them, but Kub was -- it was right or wrong -- and that's clear for everyone in the building. It's no gray area."

In Cincinnati under Marvin Lewis, the league's second-longest-tenured head coach, Joseph learned how to succeed over a sustained period of time after changing the culture of a team that was the league's worst from 1991 through 2002, before Lewis' arrival.

Finally in 2016 with Gase, he saw the "great courage" necessary to make the difficult moves and benchings necessary to electroshock the team out of its early malaise.

"It was a slow start, but it ended up being a fast finish because of Adam's leadership," Joseph said.

Joseph's philosophy is a product of myriad influences and successful operations. In just 12 NFL seasons, he's been exposed to a lifetime of ideas and strategies.

But he's not inextricably linked to any one of them. And his tactical malleability with a talented roster is the trait that gives him a chance at success in Denver.

Vance Joseph