Why It Will Be So Hard for the Broncos to Fire Vic Fangio

Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio's official team portrait.
Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio's official team portrait.
This past weekend was more relaxing than normal for Denver Broncos fans. After all, they didn't have to stress about a Broncos defeat on Sunday, since the team had already embarrassed itself on Thursday Night Football by way of a 17-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns and its second-string quarterback, Denver castoff Case Keenum. But while watching other NFL games play out yesterday, many boosters occupied themselves on Twitter by calling for the head of head coach Vic Fangio, as they've done regularly since the Broncos' three-game winning streak to start the 2021 campaign devolved into what is now four consecutive losses.

Still, it won't be easy for general manager George Paton to give Fangio the heave-ho even if Denver comes up short in its next contest, a Halloween home face-off against the Washington Football Team. That's because the potential candidates for interim head coach are so unbelievably weak.

The reasons for this situation have everything to do with Fangio. He's been allowed to choose the 24 assistant coaches on the Broncos roster, from which a fill-in HC would have to be chosen. And this group is dominated by people either beholden to Fangio and/or very much like him — white guys of a certain age with little or no head coaching experience. Moreover, the coaches in the most powerful positions are essentially damaged goods that would generate reactions every bit as negative as Fangio is receiving right now.

Pat Shurmur, 56, is a case in point. He's the offensive coordinator — one of the key roles on the staff. But since Denver's O has been an absolute catastrophe of late, the calls for his head have been just as loud as the ones for Fangio's. Indeed, Shurmur is likely to be scapegoated sooner than Big Vic, since he'll be easier to replace. Mike Shula, the quarterbacks' coach (and son of NFL coaching legend Don Shula), is an iffy candidate for interim head coach; his last time at the helm was his failed 2003-2006 stint at the University of Alabama, shortly before Nick Saban took over. But Denver loyalists would probably accept him more readily than Shurmur, who at this point is essentially a Dead Assistant Coach Walking.

Likewise, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell is unlikely to get the nod, since he's too closely associated with the man everyone wants out. Fangio is in charge of the defense, leaving Donatell, despite many decades of experience, to essentially hold his clipboard.

What about special teams coordinator? That's the position Rich Bisaccia held when he was chosen to take the reins of the Las Vegas Raiders after head coach Jon Gruden resigned amid a scandal over racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails. But Bisaccia's equivalent with the Broncos is Tom McMahon, who's richly deserved a pink slip for his terrible work over recent seasons. Boosters would storm Empower Field at Mile High if he was chosen.

A similar lack of success would taint offensive-line master Mike Munchak, who was beaten out for head coach by Fangio three years back. Munchak is a member of the Hall of Fame, with an impeccable career — until he got to Denver. This year, the O-line has been such a flat-out disaster that giving Munchak a promotion would invite a public-relations Armageddon. The same goes for assistant offensive line coach Chris Kuper, a former Broncos player now tainted by association with a unit that will deserve every ounce of blame the next time quarterback Teddy Bridgewater limps off the gridiron.

True, there are plenty of other candidates: Mike Hiestand, who's Fangio's assistant in addition to helping out with the defensive line; wide receiver coach Zach Azzanni; offensive quality-control coaches Chris Cook and Justin Rascati; tight ends coach Wade Harman; running backs coach Curtis Modkins; defensive pass game specialist Chris Beake; linebackers coach Reggie Herring; defensive line coach Bill Kollar; outside linebackers coach John Pagano; defensive backs coach Christian Parker; defensive quality-control coach Nathaniel Willingham; assistant special teams coach Chris Gould or the five-member strength and conditioning unit. But practically all of them are Fangio acolytes or anonymous journeymen who would be perceived as new bosses little different from the old boss.

That doesn't mean that Fangio will survive the season, especially if the Broncos' losing skid continues. But the lousy nature of his potential replacements could keep him in charge longer than would have been the case if he was only being measured by performance.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts