After back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in decades, the Broncos not surprisingly parted ways with head coach Vance Joseph after just two seasons in charge. Though his hiring brought plenty of optimism to Mile High, he could never get things going and the number of close losses piling up made a firing all but assured down the stretch in 2018.
As a result, John Elway faces a huge task ahead of him in finding not only a good head coach, but setting the direction of the franchise going forward and making big decisions on personnel in tandem. Given the Broncos’ ownership situation, Elway figures to be a one-man band trying to find the right fit.
Who could wind up replacing Joseph? Here are 15 candidates to watch that could be the next Broncos head coach:
The NFL assistants
Eric Bieniemy, Chiefs offensive coordinator
The Broncos have seen up close and personal what the Chiefs’ offense can do and while Andy Reid has been the mastermind behind the rejuvenation at a division rival, the success of Matt Nagy in Chicago has made his successor a hot name on the carousel too. Bieniemy was a nine-year vet as a player and is plenty familiar with the area after starring and later coaching at Colorado.
Dave Toub, Chiefs special teams coordinator
Well respected within league circles, his name is going to come up a bit as the next potential John Harbaugh given his work in Kansas City. He’s interviewed for head coaching gigs before but the Chiefs’ success in recent years makes him a bit more attractive this time around.
Ken Whisenhunt, Chargers offensive coordinator
Third time’s the charm? If Elway values head coaching experience and stability, it could make sense to give Whisenhunt a call. His overall 48-71 record doesn’t look great but he did lead Arizona to the Super Bowl a decade ago and has consistently churned out some of the best offenses in the league. Pairing him with the current Denver defense could be a pretty good combo.
Vic Fangio, Bears defensive coordinator
He’s put together some of the best defenses in the league over the years and there’s a Stanford stint on his resume for good measure that Elway can be pleased about. Though he’s on the older side at 60, that’s probably not going to scare off Denver. Having a good offensive coordinator hire lined up will be key to his candidacy gaining traction.
Kris Richard, Cowboys defensive backs coach
He helped beat Denver in the Super Bowl so there’s obviously some familiarity and his recent work with Dallas’ defense has put him on the radar of a number of GMs. He brings plenty of energy and can relate well to young players too. He’s started to interview for gigs more and more and taking a head coaching job is the next step for Richard.
Matt LeFleur, Titans offensive coordinator
His stock has gone up and down but his ties to Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan are the biggest reason his name keeps popping up with numerous searches. If Elway wants to go all-in on juicing the offense to make another Super Bowl run, LaFleur would tick a lot of boxes.
The college coaches
Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach
Campbell has won just about everywhere he’s been and has the “it” factor as a head coach that the Broncos might be looking for. He has a good handle on both sides of the ball and has shown his ability to develop young quarterbacks as well. It might take a leap of faith to hire a guy from Iowa State but Elway has enough pull to do it without breaking a sweat if he and Campbell see eye-to-eye.
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma head coach
Maybe the best play-caller in all of football right now, Riley is going to get a call from just about every NFL team with an opening — especially with how good Baker Mayfield has been. Elway could pitch a lengthy contract in Denver to the Sooners coach and wouldn’t be opposed to drafting another football/baseball player in Riley’s current QB in Norman either. It’s a long shot but it would be a huge coup for the franchise to lock down a bright young offensive mind and pair him with a ready-made defense.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan head coach
Everybody is going to try right? Harbaugh and Elway’s personalities would be an interesting mix to say the least but the former’s track record in the league speaks for itself. Plus, there are plenty of people questioning whether he can really get things done in Ann Arbor so a fresh start in the Mile High city might be more appealing than some think.
Matt Rhule, Baylor head coach
Has some NFL experience and has interviewed for gigs before, including with the Colts just last year. Put together a great resume booster in turning around both Temple and Baylor plus he’s got experience coaching on both sides of the ball. It’s a bit outside the box but there’s s great case to be made that he’ll fit with the Broncos.
David Shaw, Stanford head coach
Every year there will be NFL teams checking in with Shaw because of his lengthy experience in the league and because of what he’s done on the Farm. Obviously Elway knows him well and would do plenty to lure him to Denver but it remains to be seen if Shaw is open to leaving their common alma mater just yet.
Troy Calhoun, Air Force head coach
A former assistant with the team has OC experience from a short stint in Houston back in the days. Two down seasons at Air Force have hampered his stock but he has taken the service academy to double-digit wins twice, which isn’t easy. He might have a supporter in senior advisor Gary Kubiak.
The ex-head coaches
Mike McCarthy, former Packers head coach
Things got stale at the end of his tenure in Green Bay but it’s hard to argue with the resume featuring all the playoff appearances and a Super Bowl ring. His hire would bring plenty of credibility to the organization and he could help groom a young quarterback too. The amount of input McCarthy would have on the roster could be a game-breaker though.
Adam Gase, former Dolphins head coach
Gase was with the organization from 2009-14 and was highly regarded for his work with the offense. Things didn’t pan out in Miami thanks to the inability to figure out the quarterback position, something that is priority No. 1 in Denver so that hampers things a bit, but given the dearth of options out there, he’s a pretty solid fallback candidate if Elway can’t land a top choice.
Gary Kubiak, former Broncos head coach
Kubiak stepped down due to health reasons a few years ago but has remained close with Elway as an advisor and could be open to a return as head coach. He’d be a popular choice after delivering a title not too long ago but the long-term questions about the position would still be there.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.