Behind second-year quarterback Drew Lock, the Broncos appear to have what’s been missing since Peyton Manning and Gary Kubiak left Denver. That is a winning culture.
For the Broncos to return to credibility and have postseason success, the pressure falls on another second-year man, however. That man is head coach Vic Fangio.
In his second season with the Broncos, Fangio needs to build a culture of success. He has to prove himself to be a top coach in the NFL.
It may seem like building a winning culture takes time. That may be true. Unfortunately for Fangio, time is not a luxury for head coaches in Denver.
Mike Shanahan and John Fox both created winning cultures by their second season. And it’s time for Fangio to do the same.
Shanahan and Fox followed an almost identical path in their first three years as head coach of the Broncos. Lucky for Broncos fans, those first three years for each man provided some of the most exciting, successful and memorable seasons in franchise history.
Dan Reeves was fired after the 1992 season. It may not have ended well, but Reeves was wildly successful as the Broncos head coach. Replacing him was no easy task. The Broncos settled on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
From 1993 to 1994 the Broncos regressed. Under Phillips, the team looked unprepared, despite having talent on the roster. The team started 1994 with an 0-4 mark and from that point on, it was clear Phillips was not the guy.
After just two seasons, Phillips was fired and replaced with Mike Shanahan. Shanahan was coming off a Super Bowl winning season as offensive coordinator of the 49ers.
Things began to change with Shanahan in charge.
When Shanahan arrived in Denver, the team had been getting beat up on by the Raiders for years. That was about to change.
In Shanahan’s first game against the Raiders, the Broncos shut out their rival on “Monday Night Football,” winning 24-0. It wasn’t just the score that had fans excited. The Broncos were literally fist-fighting the Raiders on the field. Even the nicest guy ever, Mike Pritchard, was out there letting his hands fly. It was a different team.
That “Monday Night Football” victory was a sign that Shanahan’s team wasn’t scared of anybody. That night, the Broncos beat up on a Raiders team that prior to that season had been dominating them.
In Week 2 of the 1995 season, the Broncos visited Dallas to play the Cowboys. The Cowboys were the eventual Super Bowl champions that year, winning their third championship in four years. The Cowboys were by far the best team in the league. The Broncos lost the game 31-21. They spent the entirety of the game losing, but found levels of success. The game proved that the Broncos were not quite there as an elite team, but they were on their way.
The 1995 Broncos finished 8-8, a one game improvement from 1994. The record didn’t matter. The team looked better and they had young talent emerging from all areas. The Broncos looked like they were ready to take the next step.
In 1996, under Shanahan, the Broncos took off. The team would finish 13-3 and secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Everybody knows the season ended with that awful loss to the Jaguars, but the Broncos were elite again.
In 1997, Shanahan’s third season as head coach, the Broncos won Super Bowl 32.
The 8-8 season in 1995 was the foundation for the following three seasons. Shanahan improved the culture of the team and laid the groundwork for what would become the greatest run in Broncos history.
In 2011, The Broncos hired John Fox after a little less than two seasons under Josh McDaniels. McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan in 2009. Similar to Phillips replacing Reeves, McDaniels was tasked with following in the footsteps of a very successful head coach.
The result was a total disaster. McDaniels didn’t last two seasons. The Broncos were 8-8 in 2009 and then managed to finish 4-12 in McDaniels’ second season. McDaniels created a culture of hostility and mistrust. For the first time in a long time, the Broncos were irrelevant.
That’s why the hiring of Fox will always remain John Elway’s most-underrated decision.
Fox was the antithesis of McDaniels. He was experienced, even keeled, likable, wasn’t a jerk, had friends and most of all, knew how to lead a football team.
Fox’s first season with the Broncos stunned the league. The team doubled the win total from the previous season at 8-8 and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs. The team caught fire in the middle of the season with Tim Tebow at quarterback.
A team that was the laughingstock of the league in 2010 was the most clutch team in 2011. That team won four games in overtime. After a rough 2-5 start, the Broncos team that was blown out regularly in 2010 was playing to the very last second, and winning, in 2011.
Late in that season, the Broncos were blown out by the Patriots, but had some early success. Much like the 1995 Broncos against the Cowboys, the Broncos weren’t quite there, but there were reasons to believe the team could eventually compete with the best in the league.
In 2012, under Fox, the Broncos took off. The team would finish 13-3 and secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Everybody knows the season ended with that awful loss to the Ravens, but the Broncos were elite again.
Many would attribute that big jump, rightfully so, to the arrival of Peyton Manning. It’s important to remember that Fox was a big reason Manning decided to come to Denver. The culture Fox created was perfect for Manning and what he was looking for in his new team.
In 2013, the Broncos were back in the Super Bowl. Yes they lost, but in only three seasons, Fox took a 4-12 team to the Super Bowl. Eventually, the Broncos would win a Super Bowl with Gary Kubiak, but Fox deserves credit for re-directing the franchise. Fox was the perfect guy to replace McDaniels but happened to be the wrong guy win the Super Bowl.
Shanahan and Fox both went 8-8 in year one, 13-3 with a devastating playoff loss in year two, and finally a Super Bowl appearance in year three. The ability to bounce back from the losses to the Jaguars and Ravens were very telling to how Shanahan and Fox lead their teams.
Within one year, both Shanahan and Fox had the Broncos looking and playing much different. From day one, both coaches created an environment built around team play and winning.
Vic Fangio’s first year was incomplete as far as culture is concerned. There were clashes with staff and there was talk of disconnect with players. Neither of those things were discussed in Shanahan and Fox’s first year. Better communication with his staff and players will be crucial for the Broncos to play competitive next season.
With all the bumps along the way, the Broncos finished the 2019 season strong. Much of that can be placed on the emergence of Drew Lock. I think it is only fair to give Fangio credit, as well.
The Broncos were bad to awful for large parts of 2019. Games against the Chiefs and Bills were some of the most embarrassing in team history. However, the team didn’t fold. As much as Lock was the catalyst, Fangio was able to keep the team together long enough for the strong finish.
The Broncos final record in 2019 is irrelevant because Fangio’s squad had one thing in common with Shanahan’s 1995 Broncos and Fox’s 2011 Broncos. The season ended with optimism.
I find it highly unlikely, unreasonable and unfair to expect Fangio to take the big second year leap that was witnessed with Shanahan and Fox. It is reasonable to expect a big jump in the quality of play we see from the Broncos in 2020. Fangio will be in his second season and the roster is vastly improved. If the Broncos play undisciplined and unprepared, there are no excuses.
Fangio’s team needs to take on an identity. Shanahan’s teams ran the ball at will, Fox’s teams played to the strength of Manning and Kubiak’s team beat up opponents on defense. All of this was geared toward winning. Fangio’s team needs an identity beyond losing close games.
Since Super Bowl 50, the Broncos have lacked identity and culture. It starts with the head coach. Fangio needs to prove he can be more like Mike Shanahan, John Fox and Gary Kubiak rather than Wade Phillips, Josh McDaniels and Vance Joseph.
It’s important to note, Red Miller and Gary Kubiak didn’t even need three seasons to take the Broncos to the Super Bowl. They each did it in their first year as head coach. Dan Reeves didn’t coach the team to the Super Bowl until his sixth season, but he had only one losing season leading up to that point.
Next season, Fangio doesn’t need to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl to prove he’s worth keeping around. That’s a big ask. He just needs to prove that one day he will lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
In Denver, head coaches get two seasons to leave an impression on the franchise. If the team is not on the right track by year two, the organization moves on. Fangio must prove it in 2020.
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