Vic Fangio can’t wiggle away from hiring Pat Shurmur
Somewhere, Rich Scangarello is nodding in understanding.
In 2019, the Denver Broncos hired Scangarello, a first-time offensive coordinator with connections to the Mike Shanahan / Gary Kubiak coaching tree, just prior to hiring former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio away from the Chicago Bears. Fangio, a first-time head coach, was saddled with a play-caller that he wasn’t responsible for, and for the majority of the season, he made it abundantly clear that he had no plans of living with that arrangement for any longer than he had to.
Between weekly, passive-aggressive responses to questions about his team’s underwhelming offense to outright criticism and complaints about Scangarello, Fangio made certain that everyone knew that he didn’t feel responsible for the team’s offensive struggles, pinning them squarely on his beleaguered OC. It was obvious by midseason that Scangarello wouldn’t return, no matter what happened.
What happened, however, was that Scangarello had to adapt his offense twice after veteran quarterback Joe Flacco couldn’t answer the bell. He modified it first for journeyman Brandon Allen, and once again for then-promising rookie Drew Lock, who proceeded to lead the team to a 4-1 record to wrap up the 2019 campaign while playing so well that the Broncos would clear the decks at quarterback, handing the team to Lock for the upcoming 2020 campaign.
As expected, Scangarello, after absorbing a season of ire from his head coach, was summarily dismissed. Lock has regressed ever since, to the point which most NFL observers no longer view him as a viable option for the franchise going forward.
Enter Pat Shurmur, Fangio’s choice for offensive coordinator after Shurmur was fired as head coach the New York Giants after a pair of underwhelming seasons and regression from their would-be franchise quarterback Daniel Jones. Shurmur, a longtime offensive coordinator and two-time NFL head coach, came from the same era of football as Fangio, and was expected to revitalize the offense by leveraging Lock’s mobility and arm strength.
It didn’t work out that way. In 2020, Lock tied for the NFL lead in interceptions and had the lowest completion percentage in the league, putting Fangio’s vaunted defenses in bad situations on a weekly basis. The Broncos ended up with a 5-11 record, and it’s possible that only the team’s messy ownership battle ensured that Fangio and Shurmur would be back for the 2021 season.
Prior to the 2021 NFL Draft, new general manager George Paton traded for oft-injured, veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a player that Paton was familiar with during his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings. The notion was that Bridgewater and Lock would battle it out for the starting job. But in reality, Lock had lost Fangio’s faith, and only a series of stumbles by Bridgewater would give Lock a second chance as the team’s starter. For Fangio, a defensive coach through and through, offensive turnovers are the cardinal sin; forcing his defense into impossible situations that too often make low-scoring, close games un-winnable.
Bridgewater provided a significant step in Fangio’s direction for the team. A high-percentage thrower that takes few chances with the ball, Bridgewater wasn’t likely to put the Broncos’ defense into negative situations. He wouldn’t win you many games, but he wouldn’t lose them for you, either, like Lock did in 2020. Armed with a fleet of wide receivers, a first-round tight end and a duo of talented running backs, Fangio expected a mistake-free offense that could, at minimum, score enough points to allow their defense to smother the opposition.
It hasn’t entirely worked that way. Though their 17 giveaways make them sixth-best in the league in that category, the Broncos’ offense, despite its improved talent, has averaged fewer points in 2021 than it did in 2020. Now, Fangio appears to be happy to deflect that negative attention to Shurmur, even if it’s by notable omission.
“We just haven’t been able to get over the top here of late. We haven’t scored a lot of points. We haven’t had rhythm in either the running game or the passing game on the early downs, and we haven’t been able to convert the third downs at a good enough clip,” Fangio said on Monday, following a question about the offense following a humiliating loss to the division-rival Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. “Your question is valid. It’s been a little difficult, but I’m confident that with George (Paton) here, we’re going to find the answers to that moving forward.”
To be fair, Shurmur hasn’t helped himself, either, dialing up a foolhardy, fourth-and-goal trick play on Sunday that will become a staple on blooper reels; another poor choice in a season full of them. How much Shurmur may be hamstrung by the way Fangio wants to play will probably never be fully revealed. But all season long, Shurmur appeared to look for any excuse to abandon Denver’s power running game and start chucking the ball all over the field; it’s obvious that the way the Broncos play isn’t the way Shurmur wants to, which has to be frustrating for everyone involved.
On Monday, Fangio dug into the team’s red-zone woes.
“We need to find the right combination of plays that can get us in there, especially when we’re in there tight. We had two great chances; One, we lined up in an illegal formation which nullified a touchdown, the other one, we didn’t get enough in the run game,” Fangio said, before calling out Shurmur’s folly. “The pass that we tried on the first-down play didn’t work well enough, and then we tried that trick play for the fourth-down play. It was open, but it was too much pressure there on (wide receiver) Kendall (Hinton), and he couldn’t get the throw effectively to Drew, but there’s no doubt we’ve had our ups and downs in the red zone all year.”
Saturday’s season finale will be at home in Denver, but it’s not likely to feel like it. A combination of rowdy Kansas City Chiefs fans and the silence of at least 10,000 empty seats will speak volumes about how the team’s beleaguered fan base feels after five straight seasons of bad football; the last three under Fangio.
Fangio would like a fourth season at the helm, but with the light-years-better Chiefs having everything to play for, a 19-30 career coaching record is all but assured. The Broncos’ second-straight finish in the AFC West cellar already is. The Broncos’ defense, Fangio’s pride and joy, has been effective enough, given injuries and player turnover, but it’s still nowhere near a top-10 unit. They’re tied for 16th in sacks, 18th in takeaways and 27th in allowing third-down conversions; their top talents too rarely make game-changing plays. Fangio — who said that he “absolutely” deserved to return as head coach after the Broncos’ Week 16 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders — needs to make a case to stay.
There are only so many that can be made at the end of a season in which the Broncos will win two more games, yet still finish lower in the AFC standings than they were in the 5-11, 2020 season. Fangio’s best argument is that the defense, when healthy, can become a top-10 unit, and they need only add a star quarterback to become immediate contenders; as if that was something that could simply be willed into existence. Paton, of course, would have to provide that, and by suggesting that the Broncos GM is the solution for the team’s offensive woes instead of Shurmur, Fangio tipped his hand.
History is likely to repeat itself; once again, the Broncos’ offensive coordinator will be disposed of as if he was the sole issue plaguing the team — but this time, there’s a difference. Scangarello and Shurmur may soon share the “ex-Bronco” label, but only Shurmur was hired by Fangio.
The same excuse will ring hollow this time around; Paton and the organization would be wise to pay attention. President Harry Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” slogan is still the gold standard for leadership. Broncos fans will soon find out if the team agrees with it.
Shawn Drotar is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn,” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.