Column: Broncos must find way forward without Fox
Part of the understated effectiveness of Broncos coach John Fox has been his steadfast refusal to divulge a scintilla more than necessary about anything.
Injuries. Suspensions. Expectations. Arrests. Denver’s coach has treated them all equally – with a shrug, a smile, a well-worn bromide about how everyone and everything in the NFL is ”day-to-day.”
In his mind, offering more than that almost always sidetracks a team. Now, in the strangest twist of all, the most shocking secret he’d never revealed may be the biggest distraction of all for the Broncos, which is saying something.
Oh, certainly, Fox’s medical condition puts football in its proper perspective. He needs aortic valve replacement surgery this week to fix a lingering and dangerous condition he can no longer ignore. It came to a head during the bye week, when the 58-year-old coaching lifer took a rare day off to play a round of golf near the home he still owns in North Carolina. He started feeling dizzy and headed to the hospital.
Before Saturday’s episode, doctors had told him he would need the procedure shortly after Denver’s season was over, which the smart money had pegged for Feb. 3 – the day after the Super Bowl.
A different kind of coach may have let word of a condition like that slip at some point – an empathy inspiring piece of news the media would have snapped up, and one that very well could have turned the season into a ”Win One For Foxie” sort of story.
Fox isn’t that guy.
Nothing about his 2003 Super Bowl run in Carolina or his lame-duck, stiff-upper-lip 2-14 season in 2010 emitted even a hint of ”look-at-me” grandstanding.
When he was greeted in Denver by an entire, tumultuous season full of Tim Tebow, the coach stayed in character, sticking to the party line that, yes, the kid was a winner even though red flags flew everywhere, all of them suggesting it couldn’t last.
Then Peyton Manning came along and Fox, ever malleable, kept his ego on the shelf, handed his offense over to the coordinator and quarterback who knew the most about such things and let the fireworks begin.
Once Manning got his footing last season, Denver won 11 straight games. The most impressive part of it was that there was never an off week, never a shred of bulletin-board material, never a hint of dissent or cockiness. The Broncos were the least-interesting, near-great team in football: Manning threw the passes. Fox set the tone.
When things did get interesting in the offseason – when Elvis Dumervil left via a fax foul-up, and Von Miller tried to game the NFL drug-testing system, and two high-ranking Broncos executives got arrested for drunk driving, Fox kept smiling and shedding little light.
Maybe some team would come along and be better than Denver on a given day, and, heck, maybe someone would outcoach Fox, the way John Harbaugh did in last year’s playoff loss to Baltimore. But if Fox had any control over it, the Broncos weren’t going to lose because anyone in his locker room handed the opponent the incentive.
Almost as if to bolster the point that less is more, the lone time Fox did speak up this season – calling Colts owner Jim Irsay ”ungrateful and unappreciative” for suggesting Manning didn’t do enough for Indianapolis – the Broncos lost. Manning admitted everything surrounding his homecoming, part of that dreaded ”noise on the outside” Fox always guards against, made for an exhausting week.
The Broncos got things back on track with a win over Washington before the bye week, and though Manning’s ankle and arm are topics of constant conversation, though star cornerback Champ Bailey can’t stay healthy and the defense is vulnerable even with the return of Miller, Fox headed into his mini-vacation refusing to pinpoint any real concerns, beyond his usual generality: ”You get concerned with all of it.”
His message to the players before they headed out for their break consisted of his oft-used one-liner: ”I don’t want to see your name in the paper unless you win the lottery.”
Turns out, it was the coach’s name in the paper.
So, instead of spending Sunday scouting Kansas City, New England and the few other teams that could undo what Fox and Manning have built during their 7-1 start, the Broncos pondered a much different kind of uncertainty.
They have an eminently able interim available in Jack Del Rio, who spent nine years in Jacksonville, showing frequent signs of coaching promise even though he never completely tamped down the discord that sporadically pulsed through that far-from-perfect franchise.
Del Rio, the former linebacker who looks as if he could still suit up, exudes a macho sort of intensity that his players like. As an interim, he could be tempted to use his platform to get the Broncos to use their coach’s plight as a rallying point.
If allowed to offer advice from his hospital room, Fox will almost certainly tell Del Rio not to bother with that. The head coach believes in letting the results speak louder than he does.
Not such a bad plan to fall back on when the coach himself is day-to-day.
Eddie Pells is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at epells(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/epells