Denver Broncos fire coach Vic Fangio after 3 losing seasons

Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio walks along the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

DENVER (AP) — The Denver Broncos are looking for a new head coach to lead them out of a six-year playoff drought and a half decade of losing seasons that marks the most protracted plunge by a Super Bowl champion in NFL history.

The Broncos fired Vic Fangio after he went 19-30 over three years, including 7-10 this season despite having one of the easiest schedules and the highest-paid defense in the league.

Had Fangio’s dogged determination, unpretentious personality and first-rate professionalism led to better results on the field, he wouldn’t have been let go Sunday morning by team president/CEO Joe Ellis and first-year general manager George Paton.

Paton sounded more like a man hiring Fangio than firing him when he declared, “He’s the best coach I’ve ever been around. And I don’t take that lightly. His attention to detail, his toughness, his work ethic and his football mind is unparalleled.”

“He put his heart and soul into this job,” Ellis concurred. “I’ve never seen a coach work harder. At the end of the day, we’re judged on one thing, and that’s winning.”

Fangio .387 winning percentage includes a 6-11 mark at home over the past two seasons, the worst two-year stretch in Denver since the team went 4-10 in 1967-68. His teams were just 5-13 against the AFC West.

The Broncos are the first team in league history to follow a Super Bowl championship with six straight non-playoff seasons, half of which came under Fangio’s watch.

Fangio, 63, burnished his reputation as a defensive master during his first head coaching gig in Denver, yet his teams struggled mightily on offense under obdurate coordinator Pat Shurmur and on special teams under Tom McMahon.

Fangio isn’t expected to be out of work long. He will be a strong candidate for a defensive coordinator job in the new round of coaching changes this month.

The Broncos’ head coach opening is the third in the NFL. The Jaguars (Urban Meyer) and Raiders (Jon Gruden) fired their head coaches amid scandal during the season.

Ellis, who will step down later this year, said Paton will have “full authority to select the next head coach.”

Paton said, however, he would consult both Ellis and John Elway, the outgoing president of football operations whose contract expires in 2022.

Paton said he would put out feelers to potential candidates on Monday and that he had no prerequisites regarding offensive or defensive roots or whether they have head coaching experience.

“Obviously, we want the best football coach,” he said. “Not worried about what side of the ball, not worried about a play caller. We want leadership. That’s our No. 1 priority.

“We need someone to take over the whole operation,” Paton said. “We’re not just focused on one side of the ball even though we need to upgrade” an offense that averaged just 19.49 points per game in the six seasons since averaging 30 points a game during the Peyton Manning era.

The new head coach will be the Broncos’ fifth in nine years, something Ellis said pointed to organizational failings rather than any coaching deficiencies.

“A lot of us here are responsible and we share in that accountability over what has happened here over the last several years,” Ellis said. “It’s not just the coaching. There are a lot of fingerprints on this throughout our entire operation. And they include my fingerprints.”

Both Ellis and Paton insisted the uncertain ownership issue facing the franchise won’t deter the Broncos from hiring the best coaching candidate.

There is expected to be an ownership transfer of the $3.5 billion franchise later this year once a court case regarding right of first refusal is cleared, ending a long simmering family feud that boiled over following Hall of Fame owner Pat Bowlen’s death in 2019.

Fangio released a statement in which he thanked the organization and fans and praised Paton as one of the NFL’s top GMs: “Broncos fans, you have a great one in George.”

Fangio said he appreciated the team’s “fight and character you showed each and every week” and suggested the franchise has a solid foundation and is on the cusp of winning again.

Paton agreed but said there’s plenty of work left to do, including finding a premier passer. And he decided to add a head coaching search to his long to-do list in 2022, someone who can keep Denver’s defense top notch while adding excitement to a dull offense and discipline to a notoriously sloppy special teams.

Fangio’s creative schemes helped the Broncos thwart some of the best young quarterbacks even with depleted defenses. The long list of QBs who have had some of the toughest days of their careers against Fangio’s teams include Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and, just last month, Joe Burrow.

The Broncos averaged better than 10,000 no-shows over their final six home games, including nearly 15,000 Saturday when they lost 28-24 to Kansas City.

Losing has “become systemic here,” Ellis lamented. “And that’s got to change.”

Asked Saturday about his poor record against division opponents, Fangio said, “Well those other three teams have top-shelf quarterbacks, which is obvious to everybody.”

Equally clear is the Broncos’ inability to find their own elite QB, churning as they have through 10 starting quarterbacks since Manning’s retirement after Denver’s win in Super Bowl 50.

That includes Teddy Bridgewater, who went 7-7 before missing the final three games with a concussion, and Drew Lock, who went 0-3.

Thanks to his trade of Von Miller to the Rams, Paton has 11 draft picks, including five in the top 100, to either restock his roster or use as chips to acquire a veteran via a trade. He’ll also have more than $50 million in cap space to sign free agents.

Job No. 1 was going to be finding the right quarterback, but now that’s superseded by landing the right head coach.

“You can’t keep recycling coaches and expect to sustain a winning culture,” Paton said. “But we’re going to get it right. And we’re going to get it right with this search, I can guarantee you that.”

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