League’s most aggressive coach backs down at critical time
DENVER — Just six days after needling his quarterback for not being aggressive enough, Broncos coach Vance Joseph found Denver’s season on the brink and his job on the line.
He backed down.
Trailing the Browns by four points in the waning minutes and facing fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 6, Joseph sent his kicker onto the field to a chorus of boos at Mile High Stadium.
Despite his sound logic, the man who’s gone for it on fourth down 21 times, more than any other NFL coach this season — and seen his team convert a league-high 13 of those — chose the field goal that would leave the Broncos trailing by 1 with 4:35 left.
“We were absolutely surprised they went for a field goal,” Browns safety Jabrill Peppers said after his game-ending sack sealed Cleveland’s first win over Denver in 28 years.
“I didn’t know what they were thinking,” offered Browns defensive end Myles Garrett. “If it was me, I would have gone for the touchdown.”
Joseph explained that he’d rather take the sure points there — Brandon McManus is 37 of 39 from inside 30 yards — than risk coming away empty-handed and then needing a touchdown to win it rather than another field goal.
Forty-eight hours later, Joseph offered another impassioned defense of his decision.
He said it was a fourth-and-a-long-1, the Broncos had just been stuffed on two runs that didn’t look pretty and he had faith his depleted defense would get a stop.
This, even though safeties Dymonte Thomas and Justin Simmons were forced into coverage with cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. (leg), Isaac Yiadom (head), Brendan Langley (head), Jamar Taylor (ejected) and Bradley Roby (lacerated lip) all out, leaving just one healthy cornerback in oft-injured Tramaine Brock.
Left unsaid was the lack of faith Joseph had in his anemic offense led by the lackluster Case Keenum and coordinated by Bill Musgrave, who added to his bucketful of head-scratching calls this season when he dialed up a deep pass on first down moments after the Broncos had lost their fourth and fifth cornerbacks early in the fourth quarter.
Keenum’s pass was picked off by cornerback T.J. Carrie — whom Keenum said he never saw — at midfield. The Browns converted that takeaway into the game-winning touchdown on Baker Mayfield’s 2-yard toss to Antonio Callaway with safety Justin Simmons helplessly trailing him in coverage.
Joseph’s dice roll on fourth down might have paid dividends had the Broncos not surrendered a 40-yard run to Nick Chubb on first down when his cousin, Bradley Chubb, threw his man into linebacker Todd Davis, and Adam Gotsis missed the tackle.
Gotsis atoned for his gaffe when he dumped Chubb for a 2-yard loss just after the 2-minute warning on fourth-and-1 when Browns interim head coach Gregg Williams went for the gusto and came up empty.
“We came up here to win the ball game,” said Williams, who improved to 4-2 and burnished his credentials for the full-time gig. “I don’t think anyone was ever worried about me not being aggressive. We came up here to win it. Offensively, we were going to win it right there. If not, defensively we’re going to come back and do it.
“That’s the aggressive nature of this team.”
It was the Broncos who had been the aggressors all season, and Keenum wanted to go for it on fourth-and-1, although he added, “I can’t complain because I had the ball in my hands with a chance to win the game.”
Denver’s desperation drive, however, started at their 13 with 1:49 and no timeouts left.
They reached the 50 on Keenum’s 15-yard throw to Devontae Booker on fourth-and-2, putting them just 8 yards shy of McManus’ comfort zone. But Keenum rushed up to the line and spiked the ball to stop the clock at 52 seconds rather than getting a few more yards with a quick strike against a backpedaling, winded defense.
That breather allowed the Browns to regroup and they subsequently showed two looks the Broncos hadn’t seen all night, forcing a pair of incompletions before Peppers’ sack of Keenum ended it .
“It’s just a tough time right now,” said Von Miller, whose team hasn’t reached the playoffs in the three years since he led the Broncos to a win over Cam Newton and Carolina in Super Bowl 50.
In other notable calls in Week 15:
—After wearing cleats that paid tribute to the history of protest on Monday night, Panthers safety Eric Reid, who was one of the first players to join Colin Kaepernick in protesting racial injustice and police violence by kneeling during the national anthem when both were with the 49ers, tweeted a photo of his latest drug test notice, writing it was his seventh “Random” test of the season.