What does a head coach actually do?
This varies from coach to coach. Some head coaches are more like executives in that they delegate almost all of the responsibilities (off-season decisions, practice decisions, pre-game preparation) to their assistants. Other head coaches are very directly involved in things like special teams preparation and decisions (Carroll), defensive game-planning (Belicheck) and player personnel decisions (McJedi, Shanahan and Parcells to name a few).
From what has been reported, and what we see at training camp, John Fox was much more of an executive than a "hands-on" head coach. That does not mean that he did nothing. Even "hands-off" head coaches get the final say in many matters, particularly in-game matters, that can make the difference between a win and a loss. They are also the person most responsible for motivating (or demotivated in the case of McJedi) the players to play (outside of the players themselves).
The Broncos were 49-22 under Fox if you include post-season. With Manning that record is 40-13.
I'm going to evaluate John Fox (and the rest of the coaching staff) by looking at how we fared versus the spread. Even as a hands-off head coach, John Fox is still ultimately responsible for the actions of his assistant coaches and, as such, we get credit or discredit for their successes and failures during his 4 year stint as our head coach.
Record vs the Spread - Winning when you are supposed to and when you are not supposed to
Under Fox, the Broncos only played two games where the Vegas line was even or "pick-em", meaning neither team was favored. The Broncos under Fox were 1-1 in those games (the comeback in 2012 against @SD and the loss at CIN this year). Including the post-season, the Broncos have only been underdogs 18 times in 4 seasons. Those games are shown below.
Broncos record under John Fox when underdogs
|2||2011||GNB||L 23-49||12||not covered|
|3||2011||SDG||L 24-29||3.5||not covered|
|4||2011||DET||L 10-45||3.5||not covered|
|10||2011||NWE||L 23-41||7.5||not covered|
|12||2011||NWE||L 10-45||13.5||not covered|
|13||2012||ATL||L 21-27||3||not covered|
|14||2012||HOU||L 25-31||1.5||not covered|
|15||2012||NWE||L 21-31||6||not covered|
|16||2014||SEA||L 20-26||4.5||not covered|
During Fox's tenure we were 6-10 as underdogs. In four seasons, all six of Fox's wins as underdogs came with Tebow at QB, during "Tebowmania." In the past three years with Manning at QB, the Broncos have only been underdogs 4 times and we lost all 4 games. The conclusion is that we have not won any games in the past three season that we weren't supposed to win, part of that is that with Manning at QB we were expected to win just about every game - so there is a small sample size. However, if you measure a coach by winning games that they are not supposed to win, Fox did not get the Broncos to do that in the past three years. The biggest upset that the Broncos pulled during Fox tenure was the wildcard game against PIT because it was a playoff game (interestingly the upset of the Raiders in 2011 had the same spread with OAK favored by 7.5). As an aside, we were favored in every single game we played in 2013.
Including the post-season the Broncos were favored 53 times during Fox' tenure. Our record in those games is 42-11. All of those games are shown in the table below
Broncos record under John Fox when favored
|1||2011||OAK||L 20-23||-3||not covered|
|2||2011||CIN||W 24-22||-3||not covered|
|4||2011||CHI||W 13-10||-3.5||not covered|
|5||2011||BUF||L 14-40||-3||not covered|
|6||2011||KAN||L 3-7||-2||not covered|
|13||2012||SDG||W 30-23||-7.5||not covered|
|14||2012||KAN||W 17-9||-10.5||not covered|
|20||2012||BAL||L 35-38||-9||not covered|
|23||2013||OAK||W 37-21||-16.5||not covered|
|25||2013||DAL||W 51-48||-9||not covered|
|26||2013||JAX||W 35-19||-26.5||not covered|
|27||2013||IND||L 33-39||-6||not covered|
|31||2013||NWE||L 31-34||-2.5||not covered|
|34||2013||SDG||L 20-27||-9.5||not covered|
|37||2013||SDG||W 24-17||-7.5||not covered|
|39||2013||SEA||L 8-43||-2.5||not covered|
|40||2014||IND||W 31-24||-7.5||not covered|
|41||2014||KAN||W 24-17||-11.5||not covered|
|46||2014||NWE||L 21-43||-3||not covered|
|48||2014||STL||L 7-22||-9.5||not covered|
|49||2014||MIA||W 39-36||-7||not covered|
|51||2014||BUF||W 24-17||-10||not covered|
|55||2014||IND||L 13-24||-7||not covered|
I have highlighted the most glaring of the 11 losses. All three of those ended our season. With Fox as the HC and Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow at QB, the Broncos were 3-3 when favored. With Manning at QB, the Broncos were 39-8 when favored during the past three years. That is an impressive 83% winning percentage. However, it is those eight losses that were the cause for Foxes firing and specifically the three highlighted losses above the ended the past three seasons. The average fans seemed to notice how unprepared our team was in those losses, so John Elway also noticed, much more so than the average fan. John Elway and our own Jon Heath also noticed the lack of effort by some of our players in at least one of those games.
A Common Theme? Lack of player preparation
The most glaring weakness (and IMO the firing offense) was how unprepared our players seemed in the last two (maybe three) season-ending games from the Broncos. When our approach on offense or defense was failing, our coaching staff was slow to respond and our responses in the post-season losses in the last two years did little or nothing to change the eventual outcome of the game. From each loss I will cite an example.
In 2012, we knew that Flacco made his bones by throwing deep. He threw 5 TDs of 30+ yards during the 2012 regular season and five of his twelve completions during the Wild Card game the previous week went for 20+ including a 50 yard catch by Boldin. Even with all of that, we allowed TDs of 32, 59 and 70 yards. Arguably all were a result of our secondary not being prepared for the deep ball. You could argue that this was not a result of a lack of preparation, but the lack of preparation definitely fits that pattern, particularly since Moore made basically the same mistake on the 70-yd TD (he barely tipped a long bomb because he jumped too soon) earlier that year against Tampa Bay. Failure to coach him up about his mistake is on the secondary coach and ultimately on the head coach who is responsible for the actions of his assistants.
In 2013, the team was not prepared for the noise at the Super Bowl leading to a horrible start of the game. The noise also hindered our audible-heavy offense. The "fix" for this was our audible hand signals, but they were supposedly stolen and we either did not realize this or didn't have a backup plan in case that happened. When you fail to plan, you plan to fail. This is very much the fault of the head coach. Fox had actually coached in a super bowl before, Pete Carroll had not. Fox ended up looking like the inexperienced one before during and after the game. Defensively we obviously weren't prepared for what the Seahawks might do with Harvin. He killed us in the first half and by the time the defense had adjusted to that wrinkle the game was out of reach.
In 2014, the Broncos offense was being led by a still-hobbled Manning (was it a torn quad or not?). It appeared that his legs still were causing him to miss deep throws. Yet, for whatever reason, we kept throwing the ball deep down the sidelines. Manning threw the ball deep 12 times on Sunday, completing only two and only one after the first drive of the game. So why did we try so many deep throws? It wasn't because we were so successful at it against the Colts the first time with a fully healthy Manning. In the first meeting we threw deep 7 times and completed 2 (admittedly for for 70 yards). It didn't work the first time, so I'm not sure what made the coaches (or Manning) think that it would work this time. In Manning's defense, Sanders (who got 6 of the 12 deep targets) was open down the sidelines on a few of these (Sanders caught 1 of 6 for 17 yards), but Manning was not throwing the ball accurately enough to hit him when he was open. If it was Gase still calling for the deep ball was it was clear that Manning was "off" then the fault lies with Gase. If it was Manning still choosing to throw the deep ball despite his inaccuracy then the fault lies with Manning (if it's not working, it might be time to try something else).
Another measure of coaching performance is being able to evaluate at half-time what worked and what didn't during the first half and make adjustments accordingly. In Fox's 4 season as HC, the Broncos only had 5 drives to take a lead during the 4th quarter of a game. All 5 times we came back to take a lead in the 4th we won the game. If we expand to instances where we trailed at the half and then took the lead in the 3rd or 4th quarter, you find 13 drives in 12 games.
Games under John Fox where Broncos trailed at halftime; regained lead
Only two times in 4 years did we take the lead in the second half after being down and then lose - once in 2011 and once in 2014. That would seem to suggest that we were able to make offensive and defensive adjustments at the half to score and keep the other team from scoring. This also says that we played from ahead or tied in many of our games during Fox' tenure, and while it's a small sample size it would suggest that Fox was at least adequate at making half-time adjustments.
On the flip side we had three games in which the other team scored on us in the 4th quarter to tie or take a lead. All three times we lost the game: TEN in 2011, NE in 2013 and CIN in 2014. If you expand that to games where we had a lead at half and lost that lead during the second half, we had four more games (to make the total 7). In all 4 of those games (where the other team took the lead in the 3rd quarter), we ended up winning. All 7 of those games are shown in the table below
Games under John Fox where Broncos led at halftime; lost lead
The TEN game in 2011 the Broncos trailed 10-7 at the half, took a 14-10 lead on a McGahee TD catch in the 3rd and then lost 17-10 on a Hasselback to Graham TD in pass late in the 4th. The Cincy game we too a 28-27 lead late in the 3rd only to see CIN score on a FG and a pick-6 in the 4th. So the conclusion over the 4 season with Fox is that we Broncos were actually pretty good at making halftime adjustments if you look at both the instances where we were able to come back if we were down and instances where we lost the lead in the second half then had to try and regain it.
If there is one thing that this past season proved for us, it's this: even with superior talent at most positions on both sides of the ball, a lack of preparation and effort will lead to a result that is short of the Lombardi Trophy. From Elway's press conference Tuesday, the recurring lack of preparation is what got Fox in trouble but the lack of fire from the players (the kicking and screaming comment) was the straw that broke the camel's back. I'm not going to address the horrible "challenge/don't challenge" decisions and some of the stupid clock management moves that Fox made in four years here as those have been addressed at length by others previously.
Outside of Tebowmania, Fox never won any of the games he wasn't supposed to. In four years, Fox went 1-7 against the Patriots and Seahawks. With Peyton Manning at the helm, that's not upgrading the team with your abilities as head coach. That's merely coming along for the ride.