How Broncos suddenly have more questions than answers
The announcement that John Fox wouldn’t be returning as Denver’s head coach elicited a solemn Twitter response Monday from the Broncos’ top wide receiver.
"Cold world …" Demaryius Thomas wrote from his @DemaryiusT account.
There’s also a world of confusion surrounding the franchise itself.
Why exactly did the Broncos part ways with someone who led his team to four consecutive playoff appearances?
Who was responsible for the split — Broncos management after another devastating playoff loss, Fox himself wanting out, or a little bit of both?
Why were all assistant coaches immediately given the opportunity to pursue employment elsewhere, according to multiple media reports?
And what does all this mean for the NFL future of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning?
There are no clear answers right now. And there may not be even after Broncos football poobah John Elway addresses the media Tuesday afternoon at team headquarters.
Elway took over the Broncos in 2011 tasked with restoring a crumbling club to the greatness it achieved when he was playing quarterback in the 1980s and 1990s. Elway undid the damage left behind by Josh McDaniels — a horrendous head-coaching hire whose abrasive management style behind the scenes was even worse than the on-field results his teams produced.
Elway hired Fox to provide much-needed stability and competence. Elway even managed to find a solution to the Tim Tebow quandary by replacing the successful-but-limited quarterback with arguably the greatest passer to ever play when Manning became a free agent in the 2012 offseason.
Now comes another mess for Elway to clean up following the news of Fox’s departure, which was broken by FOX Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer.
It has become obvious that on some levels the 2014 season was truly Super Bowl-or-bust for Denver, especially after the team spent big money in free agency to add key defensive pieces in end DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. Maybe the Broncos had finally plateaued under Fox, whose 48-16 regular-season record is overshadowed by two opening-round home playoff losses in the past three years and a lopsided defeat against Seattle in Super Bowl 48.
Fox’s decision-making in those big games has come under heavy scrutiny. The same goes for how well he prepared his team to perform at the most critical times.
Last March following the Super Bowl debacle, ex-Broncos defensive end Jeremy Mincey told co-host Zig Fracassi and me on SiriusXM NFL Radio that Denver players were "more laid-back and lackadaisical" than a younger Seahawks roster far more amped to play. Broncos cornerback Chris Harris echoed a similar thought about Denver’s state of mind following Sunday’s 24-13 upset by Indianapolis.
"We didn’t come to play," Harris told the media afterward."We played well, but we didn’t play great. And you have to play great in the playoffs."
You don’t have to remind Manning. He has now lost an NFL-record nine opening-round playoff games during his future Hall of Fame career.
In his defense, Manning did have a valid excuse for his mediocre, 26-of-46, 211-yard passing performance against the Colts. Injuries to both of his legs prevented Manning from fully stepping into his throws. This affected his accuracy and velocity, which is already hampered by the multiple neck surgeries that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season. There also were signs earlier in the season that Manning was beginning to slip with more wobbly passes being thrown than darts.
Fox may have realized his best chance to win with Manning had come and gone, so he was looking to get out while the getting is good. Fox instantly emerged as a viable head coaching option elsewhere, with one NFL executive telling FOX Sports he believes Chicago is the frontrunner for his services.
Manning was noncommittal after the loss to the Colts about whether he would return next season. As of late Monday night, he hadn’t offered public comment on Fox’s departure.
Even at age 39, Manning would still be better than a lot of starters for other teams. But would Manning want to continue if he isn’t able to play at an elite level?
And more importantly, do the Broncos really want him back, or are they ready to give Brock Osweiler the chance to start after three years on the bench a la Aaron Rodgers sitting behind Brett Favre in Green Bay?
Promoting offensive coordinator Adam Gase to replace Fox would seemingly increase the chances of Manning’s return (the Broncos would still have to comply with the Rooney Rule of interviewing at least one minority candidate for their head coaching spot). Manning has a great relationship with Gase and wouldn’t have to learn a new offensive system. Manning told the CBS production crew that comfort with the coaching staff would influence whether he would be back in 2015.
Gase, though, remains on the radar for other head coaching vacancies and has a second interview Tuesday with the San Francisco 49ers. Should he leave, Manning could opt to retire rather than try to work with a new head coach and coordinator who may have different ideas on how they want things run.
And there’s this chilling possibility in the "cold world" that Thomas referred to: Denver could be trying to prompt Manning’s departure by not hiring Gase.
So if it isn’t Gase, who would it be? Possibly an outsider with no previous ties to the franchise like Dan Quinn, Todd Bowles or someone soon to surface on the media radar.
There are some familiar names with a Broncos past drawing speculation. However, I wouldn’t expect Mike Shanahan to return as head coach. He had a nasty split with Broncos management upon his firing after the 2008 season. It also would be awkward for Elway’s former head coach to now answer to him on personnel decisions that Shanahan has long insisted control over.
Gary Kubiak would make more sense. He was Elway’s long-time backup with the Broncos and then became his offensive coordinator under Shanahan. Kubiak also took the Houston Texans to their first and only playoff appearances as head coach until the wheels fell off and he was fired during what proved a 2-14 season in 2013.
Fox’s firing could prompt Kubiak to reconsider his Sunday night statement that he would remain as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator and not interview for head-coaching jobs. But Kubiak’s West Coast-style offense requires at least a semi-mobile quarterback taking snaps from under center. That wouldn’t mesh well at all with Manning’s skill set.
Elway deserves the benefit of the doubt from his track record as an executive. The Broncos could very well be better off in both the short and long term with a new head coach. Fox himself is capable of winning a Super Bowl with another team.
This might also be the right time to part ways with Manning, provided the Broncos believe a capable replacement is waiting in Osweiler, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract without having logged any significant playing time as a backup.
Elway was able to end his playing career by winning a Super Bowl MVP trophy in his final game. That perfect world probably isn’t awaiting Manning.
But it will definitely be a brave, new one for the Broncos in 2015.