DENVER (AP) — Of the half dozen first-year NFL head coaches, Vance Joseph inherited what was widely considered the best situation: a team just one year removed from a Super Bowl parade with a championship-caliber defense and a renovated offense.
Unlike the other five teams that averaged 4.4 wins last season, Denver was coming off a 9-7 season and the job only came open because of Gary Kubiak’s health concerns.
Yet, it’s the Broncos (3-5) who are spiraling with five losses in their past six games while Sean McVay’s Rams (6-2), Doug Marrone’s Jaguars (5-3) and Sean McDermott’s Bills (5-3) are primed for playoff pushes.
Even Anthony Lynn’s Chargers (3-5) are on the rise after a winless first month that included three losses by a field goal or less.
While the 49ers are an NFL-worst 0-9, Kyle Shanahan could end up being the biggest winner of them all with his team jockeying for the top pick in next year’s draft.
“Of course it wears on you,” Shanahan said of all the losing. “If you sit there and you think about those words and the record too much and, yeah, it will affect you big time.
“But sitting and dwelling on that and worrying about your ego and things like that, it’s not going to make you play better.”
The dive has started to fray nerves in Denver, where calls for offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s job fill the airwaves.
Suddenly, all that winning ugly over the past couple of years, highlighted by Denver’s defense carrying a diminished Peyton Manning to victory in his Super Bowl 50 farewell, looks pretty good in retrospect.
When Kubiak quit, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips joined McVay in L.A. and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison joined McDermott in Buffalo.
Phillips is having his customary first-year effect with the Rams, who sport the largest point differential in the NFL, and Dennison is directing an offensive turnaround with the Bills, who could end the league’s longest playoff drought — they haven’t qualified since 1999.
The Rams have missed out every year since 2004 and the Jaguars every season since 2007. If they continue their resurgence, the Chargers might get in for the first time since 2009.
Even the Broncos haven’t lost hope because they’re only two games behind the Chiefs, losers of three of four (but with a favorable schedule the rest of the way).
“We have time,” Joseph said, “but time’s running out. So, we’ve got to fix it right now.”
The problems in Denver are mostly on offense, where Joseph spent his first eight months on the job pondering whether Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch would be his quarterback only to see Brock Osweiler emerge as his best bet.
Joseph has seen his team average an NFL-worst 14 points since Week 3, suffer its first shutout in a quarter century and get blown out at home coming off a bye week by the battered Giants.
After a 51-23 loss at Philadelphia on Sunday that shattered the defense’s not-my-fault aura, defensive end Derek Wolfe said the “Broncos are beating the Broncos” with too many mistakes, turnovers, drops and flags before the snap and after the whistle.
Joseph acknowledged the coaching staff has to clean up its act, too.
Joe Woods’ defense is having too many breakdowns in coverage, Brock Olivo’s special teams are too sloppy and McCoy stubbornly sticks to a steady diet of three-receiver sets even though his quarterbacks have 18 sacks and 10 turnovers out of that formation over the past six games.
“It’s a league that’s really built and operated to have equal parts. So, the difference sometimes is the coaching. The difference is the scheme and play calling,” Joseph said.
“So, when you don’t win, absolutely you have to coach better. And that starts with me. Because in this league coaching is very important and the better-coached teams win.”
Right now that includes the Bills, Rams and Jaguars.
BILLS: McDermott is doing more with less than his predecessor Rex Ryan. Fewer than two dozen players remain from last year’s roster and the losing culture is finally fading in Buffalo. McDermott has gotten the most out of QB Tyrod Taylor and the Bills lead the NFL with a plus-11 turnover margin.
The next four games are critical: road games against the Chargers and Chiefs sandwiched in between home games against the first-place Saints and Patriots.
RAMS: With help from McVay and a better supporting cast, former top overall draft pick Jared Goff has made a huge jump this season. After failing to win the starting QB job until halfway through his rookie season, Goff is undergoing a sophomore surge not unlike Carson Wentz’s in Philadelphia.
The Rams hit the halfway point in first place in the NFC West. Down the stretch, they’ll be tested by fellow NFC division leaders Minnesota, New Orleans and Philadelphia.
JAGUARS: Having spent the previous two years as Jacksonville’s O-line coach, Marrone knew exactly what he had with turnover-prone QB Blake Bortles. So he built a run-first team that could control the clock, limit Bortles’ passes and play to an already-stout defense.
Drafting RB Leonard Fournette and LT Cam Robinson beefed up the ground game, and DE Calais Campbell has proven to be the NFL’s best free-agent signing. The Jaguars looked poised for a strong finish and their best season in a decade.
49ERS: Shanahan arrived with a lot of optimism as he brought his deep offensive knowledge and playbook from Atlanta to a team in need of a change. But San Francisco got off to the worst start in franchise history.
QB Brian Hoyer went from starter to the bench before getting cut when GM John Lynch acquired Tom Brady’s longtime backup Jimmy Garoppolo. The only drama down the stretch will be if they can avoid 0-16 and get a good look at Garoppolo before determining whether to draft a quarterback with a premier pick in April.
CHARGERS: The relocated Chargers didn’t leave their heartbreak in San Diego when they moved to L.A. They’ve already lost four games by eight points or fewer. McCoy’s last two teams in San Diego lost 17 games by that same one-score margin.
They’ve once again had stretches of strong play and a string of solid victories with an undeniable collection of veteran talent. But narrow losses due to poor late-game execution and bad breaks have kept them from rising to the top of the AFC West.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.Hometeaminsider.com and http://www.twitter.com/AP–NFL
With contributions from AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow and AP Sports Writers John Wawrow, Mark Long and Greg Beacham.
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton