It was December 31, 2010. The Denver Broncos were in the midst of their worst season in decades, in the middle of what some may say is the worst stretch in team history. John Fox, longtime head coach of the Carolina Panthers, was informed by the team that he would not be coming back. I wrote that day that I though the Broncos should "at least kick the tires" on Fox. He was a proven winner, coming minutes away from winning a Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme at quarterback. The Broncos, of course, did more than kick the tires. John Elway made Fox his first head coaching hire - and in many ways his first key decision in the rebuilding of the franchise.
For a long time, the Broncos were the symbol of stability in the NFL. Mike Shanahan seemed to be the coach for life in Denver and the team seemed to always be on the cusp of glory - though now it seems much of it was false hope. Shanahan, of course, was fired after the 2008 season and the Broncos went the 'hot-assistant' route, bringing in Josh McDaniels. We all know the details of the McDaniels-era, and that is another article for another time. It ended, however, less than two seasons after it began in a shroud of losing and controversy, and after starting the 2009 season 6-0, the Broncos went 6-20.
Long rumored, John Elway's return to the Broncos became official on January 5, 2011. Just eight days later, Elway named John Fox the 14th head coach of the Broncos. The reaction from Broncos Country? 85% in favor. It was a slam dunk - at least to the fans.
Fox isn't flashy. He's not a guy that likes to hear himself talk or a guy that has an insatiable appetite to prove how smart he is. There's no nickname like 'Mastermind' that follows Fox around. He's just a coach. That's exactly what the Broncos needed.
John Elway was going to be the face of a franchise in trouble. Still the most popular athlete in Denver, Elway was the only one that had the equity in the fanbase to garner the patience Broncos Country was going to need to have. What the Broncos needed was a guy that could win the locker room, not the press conference. In John Fox the Broncos got their man.
Fox didn't want total control. He wasn't looking to 'pick the groceries'. He wanted to be a football coach. That's a dying breed in the NFL. Fox cut his NFL teeth with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants - stable franchises that still do thing the old fashioned way - coaches coach, the front office runs the team. They sell stability and loyalty. They win.
That describes Fox perfectly. At a time when the Broncos seemed to becoming a joke in the NFL, Elway - then Fox - brought back respectability. Elway did it in the media and with the fans, Fox in the locker room. One of the team's first big moves after bringing Elway and Fox on board was to come to terms with Champ Bailey. Again, the Broncos were able to do it, and the presence of Fox was a big reason.
Then, of course, there was the Lockout. Teams could not have any contact with their players for 5 months. Training Camp was condensed and teams with new head coach's were definitely behind the eight ball. The Broncos were no different - starting the season 1-4 - but the steady hand of Fox, and his experience as a head coach - kept everyone above water. Another example of Fox being the perfect man for the job.
The 2011 season is well documented. It's easy to see that Fox as likely the only coach in the NFL to handle the Tim Tebow situation the way he did. Despite the attention - something that many coaches today would find threatening - Fox embraced it in many ways. Along with Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy, Fox changed his entire philosophy to do what was best for the team - to give the team the best chance to win. Instead of complaining about what he DIDN'T have, Fox did what a football coach is supposed to do. He coached his players and put the team in a position to compete.
Fox handled the PR nightmare perfectly as well, never saying too much or going to far in praise or criticism of Tebow. Even in times of pure honesty - when Fox told Jeff Darlington of NFL.com that, "If Tebow had to play a traditional offense, we'd be screwed" - the feeling was Fox was right, and was playing the way the Broncos HAD to play in order to win.
As much as Elway's presence in the front office brought the Broncos back from the brink, Fox did so within player circles. The Broncos weren't being run by a power-hungry 'Mastermind', and they weren't being run by a petulant child either.
Fast forward to the off-season, when the Broncos are courting Peyton Manning. We all know the relationship Manning had with Tony Dungy, his longtime coach in Indianapolis. Was there a better head-coaching fit in the NFL today than John Fox? If anyone was similar to Dungy in coaching style it was Fox. There's no doubt in my mind that Fox had a huge impact on Manning's arrival - If Elway got Peyton in the door, Fox is the one that closed the deal.
Now we sit, the Broncos are 11-3 and legitimate contenders to win a Super Bowl. Hard to think that less than two years ago the team seemed to be on the cusp of falling into the NFL's black hole I talked about last week. Then something happened. The Carolina Panthers decided to part ways with John Fox. Their loss was truly the Broncos gain.
Through good and bad, highs and lows, John Fox is a steadying force. Fox often says that Peyton Manning 'raises all ships'. Anyone who navigates rough waters knows you need a steady hand in the captain's chair. John Fox has that steady hand.