Vance Joseph was supposed to be the NFL’s newest version of Mike Tomlin.
Plucked by the Broncos off of the head coaching tree like a green apple, Vance Joseph, at age 44, was coming off his best NFL season as the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator—-his one and only year as a defensive coordinator.
Prior to his one year with the Dolphins, Joseph spent five years as the defensive backs coach for the 49ers (2006-2010), three years and the DBC for the Texans (2011—2013) and two years as DBC with the Bengals (2014—2015).
What stood out about Vance Joseph to many of his former players was the calm, steady and thorough consistency of his preparations, regardless of where his team was in the standings. Per Sports illustrated’s Robert Klemko (May 24, 2017):
Back in 2013, it was an overtime loss to Seattle in Week 4 that sent the Texans tumbling. But people who worked with and played for Joseph say he maintained the loyalty and effort of the defensive backs room, with a rare devotion to his routine. Even after the season was a lost cause, he declined to cut corners when installing defensive game plans, cycling through every formation and every possible coverage and scenario. He pored over practice scripts in morning meetings, covering the formations the offense would show the team and the calls the defense would run, insisting defensive backs would be the group most prepared for practice.
“I learned a lot from Vance that year,” says Perry Carter, a former NFL defensive back who assisted Joseph with defensive backs in 2013. “A lot of guys don’t take the time to do all that. And he never changed. From Day 1, when people expected us to win the Super Bowl, to the final week. I liked that about him.
“They saw that he was all-in with them, no matter what, and they were all-in with us.”
With the Dolphins, defensive standouts Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick described Vance Jospeh in similar terms (per Klemko):
After the 2015 season, new Dolphins head coach Adam Gase hired Joseph as his defensive coordinator. He took the reins of a defense that lost two pro bowlers (defensive end Olivier Vernon and cornerback Brent Grimes) in free agency, and would lose safety Reshad Jones and linebacker Koa Misi to injuries early in the season. Defensive headliner Ndamukong Suh knew little about the first-time coordinator prior to the season, so he reached out to Jared Crick, a former Nebraska teammate who had played for the Texans during Joseph’s tenure. “Ndamukong wanted to know what Coach V was about, and I told him, Coach stays even keeled,” Crick says. “In the best of times and the worst of times, he demands perfection of his guys. He’s never riding the wave.”
Crick found himself making the same call to Suh in reverse a year later, asking the all-pro defensive tackle what Joseph had been like as a coordinator once it became clear Joseph was a frontrunner for the Broncos job. “Talking to Suh, he was saying the same things that I experienced,” Crick says. “A super prepared guy who does everything he can to make sure his guys are equally prepared.” He had been as Perry describes him today: “Demanding but not demeaning.”
“Demanding but not demeaning”—-which fits the Cardinals’ most recent coaching prospectus of adding coaches who are good teachers, who have outstanding work ethics and who treat the players with respect.
Recently, I heard many similar comments about Vance Joseph from a person close to the Cardinals’ organization. He said that the players like Vance a lot because he’s articulate, passionate and consistent in his approach. According to my source (who wished to remain anonymous), the Cardinals’ defense played consistently well and with good energy in practice, but that it didn’t carry over to the field consistently enough on game days, thanks in part to some veterans who were just going through the motions.
One of the Cardinals’ players who appreciates Vance Joseph a great deal is Budda Baker. Budda campaigned very loudly for the Cardinals to retain Vance Joseph, partly because of Budda’s respect for Vance and partly because Budda did not want him and his defensive compadres to have to play for a 4th DC in 4 years.
What the Cardinals liked about Vance Joseph in addition to his passion and work ethic was that as a recent head coach, he could help mentor Kliff Kingsbury. From the start, Kingsbury has lauded Joseph for his help.
The other key piece to the organizational fit was that Vance is a true-blue 34 coach. After one year of switching to the 43 under Steve Wilks, the Cardinals believed their personnel was better suited to play the 34, particularly because Chandler Jones thrives in the role of 34 “Jack”.
Many Broncos’ fans were upset that John Elway didn’t hire Kyle Shanahan as Gary Kubiak’s successor when he chose defensive minded head coach Vance Joseph instead, which coincidentally was akin to Steve Wilks’ situation in Arizona—-a young, rookie defensive minded head coach who struggled primarily because of a sluggish offense led by struggling QBs. Interesting too that both Joseph and Wilks in their first seasons as head coach were paired with the same OC, Mike McCoy, who in both cases was fired during the season.
To be fair, it must be very challenging for recently fired head coaches to jump right back in to another organization as a coordinator. It’s kind of like a starting QB losing his job and having to sign with another team as the backup QB.
The fact is, not too many coordinators on new coaching staffs have immediate success. It usually takes a couple of years for the players to assimilate into the new coordinator’s system. For example, the 2019 Bucs gave up more points per game (28.06) under Todd Bowles that the Cardinals did (27.63) under Vance Joseph.
The Cardinals were statistically the worst defense in the NFL in 2019. But—-when one takes into consideration that Vance Joseph, playing without his two starting CBs and not getting a strong pass rush opposite Chandler Jones from Terrell Suggs, was simply not able to run the defense the way in which he prefers—-which is to play a ton of press man coverage while getting big-time pressure on the QB.
The Cardinals this season are giving Vance and chance to show the true colors of his defense. Steve Keim made it an off-season priority to provide Vance with the personnel he desires by adding OLB/DE Devon Kennard (whom Joseph calls the “perfect SAM OLB”), DT Jordan Phillips (whom Joseph took a shining to when Phillips was a rookie with Dolphins—-a rising player who brings interior pass rushing ability—-9 1⁄2 sacks last year with Bills), WILB De’Vondre Campbell (who has the length and speed to chase down RBs and QBs, and cover TEs—-129 tackles last year with the Falcons), LB/S Isaiah Simmons (who can be used to blanket TEs, chase down running plays, cover shallow and deep in zones and blitz in a flash), DT Leki Fotu (a space eating stud whom Joseph believes can develop also as a pass rusher), DE/DT Rashard Lawrence (a 3 year captain and playmaker for the national champion LSU Tigers ) and ILB Evan Weaver (who led the FCS in tackles and has the background and experience of playing ILB that Joseph has coveted).
A conscious decision was made by Joseph and Keim to retain CB Robert Alford to play opposite Patrick Peterson—-which this year allows Joseph to play a much steadier and more effective diet of press man coverage. Keeping Alford and Peterson in the fold allows Joseph to play CB Byron Murphy in the slot where Joseph believes Murphy will thrive.
Without question, Vance Joseph has his work out out for him, particularly in trying to match wits with three of the best play callers in the NFL all of whom are in the Cardinals’ own division: Kyle Shanahan (49ers), Brian Shottenheimer (Seahawks) and Sean McVay (Rams). No need to remind Cardinals’ fans that McVay and Shanahan led their teams to the last two Super Bowls.
But—-if there was a sign of good things to come from the Cardinals defense—-it was their play in the super upset win at Seattle late in the year.
ROTB member Tommyboy 150 put the win in perspective in responding to the article on Isaiah Simmons when he wrote:
That performance against Seattle late in the year still gives me slight confidence in Vance—-The pass rush was on fire and did a really good job of containing Wilson and the LBs were ready if he was to escape from the pocket. Now imagine what Vance could improve on if he had Simmons in that game. I understand one of his biggest problems was the whole calamity between Suggs and Chandler but now Kennard is in there (Or maybe Simmons if you wish) hopefully that can really help to get performances from Vance similar to that Seattle game.
What Tommyboy 150 is so right about was how aggressive Vance Joseph was in attacking the Seahawks’ defense—-plus, it was combined with superb discipline by the OLBers, Haason Reddick and Chandler Jones to keep contain on Russell Wilson.
That was one game—-but once Steve Keim got rid of the “stealing” veterans which coincided with Patrick Peterson starting to play with much greater intensity—-the progress of the defense was tangible. It also corroborates what past players have said about Joseph maintaining the integrity his routines even when the team is losing.
The late season progress and the excellent job of collaborating that Steve Keim has done personnel-wise with Vance Joseph over the off-season should give Vance a chance and a sense of hope for the Cardinals’ players and fans.
But, as Steve Keim said to Vance after the Cardinals drafted Isaiah Simmons—-”now there is no excuse for not covering the tight ends.”
Keim swore after watching last year’s games week after week that he would do all he could to fix the defense.
Kiem has been good to his word—-and now it’s Vance’s chance to make the most of it.