ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When the Broncos hired John Fox, they didn’t just hire a coach whose résumé was defined by turning a 1-15 side to a conference champion in two years.
They hired someone whose teams usually improve as the season progresses — an unfamiliar notion to the Broncos in recent years.
All you have to do is compare Fox’s career record over quarters of the season to see the pattern.
- Games 1-4: 19-21
- Games 5-8: 18-22
- Games 9-12: 22-18
- Games 13-16 and playoffs: 26-18
Then contrast that to the Broncos’ record in those portions under Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels from 2002-10:
- Games 1-4: 27-9
- Games 5-8: 16-20
- Games 9-12: 17-19
- Games 13-16 and playoffs: 19-21
Fox’s teams had four winning records in the last quarter of the season and just one losing mark; in that same span the Broncos had three winning records in the last quarter –but none since 2005 — and three losing records, with a collective 2-10 record in the last quarters of the ’08, ’09 and ’10 seasons.
(And we won’t even get into the playoffs, where Fox’s teams went 5-3 — including a 4-1 mark in non-neutral away games. In other words, Fox has more road playoff victories in nine years with the Panthers than the Broncos have in their entire history; they are 3-8 all-time in such contests.)
Denver’s late-season bleeding was even more pronounced in the last five seasons, when the Broncos went 7-17 in December and January, compared with 29-27 in the other months. In three of those seasons, the Broncos entered with winning records and a spot in the playoffs; they left with no postseason trips and just one winning season.
In that same span, the Fox-led Panthers went 13-11 in December and January regular-season games, compared with 24-32 in the other months.
Befitting this pattern, the Broncos completed the first quarter of the season 1-3 and were 1-4 a week later — their worst four- and five-game marks since opening the 1999 season 0-4 before snapping out of that funk in the fifth game.
Since then, they’ve been 6-1.
Once again, Fox guided a team that made an upward surge through its season, leading to an obvious question: what makes this possible?
“We have a formula, and I don’t want to share that with the world,” Fox said. “But I think at the end of the day, we’re just trying to improve as a football team. I think we’ve made some strides.”
Several factors combined to make possible the team’s 6-1 revival: the return of Champ Bailey, Elvis Dumervil, Marcus Thomas and D.J. Williams from injuries; the renaissance of running back Willis McGahee; the late-game exploits of second-year quarterback Tim Tebow.
But the role of Fox and the coaching staff can’t be overlooked, particularly in two aspects.
First is their decision to junk a traditional pro-style offense in favor of a run-first attack that incorporates read-options, triple options and pistol formations. Such an in-season philosophical shift is rare in the NFL, but wasn’t unknown to Fox, whose 2006 Panthers brought the Wildcat to the NFL after quarterback Jake Delhomme was injured, rendering even simple pass plays a challenge.
Second was Fox’s motivational tactics. Vince Lombardi-type speeches aren’t his bread-and-butter; citing previous examples drawn from a 22-year career in the NFL are.
In the case of the 2011 Broncos, Fox could draw on two examples when they languished at 1-4: his first NFL job in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers lost their first two games by a combined 92-10 score but rallied to make the playoffs (and win a wild-card game), and his third season with the Panthers in 2004.
That team lost wide receiver Steve Smith to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Week 1, lost multiple running backs to injuries and eventually had 14 players go on injured reserve, helping contribute to a 1-7 start that was the worst-ever for a defending conference champion. They followed that start with a five-game winning streak and fell just four points short of a Week 17 win that would have put them in the playoffs.
“(Fox) just showed that it could be done,” said Broncos punter Britton Colquitt. “I think that gives a lot of confidence to people, just knowing that it’s been done and can be done. It helps guys to believe.
“It’s easy to get in that losing atmosphere, and you just feel like, ‘How can I get out of this?’ This is the norm, and you forget the feeling of winning, and you’re used to — if we are winning — it’s like, ‘Well, it might end up bad.
“That’s definitely changed around.”
The feeling of winning also starts with Fox’s amiable nature around the players. Each practice typically begins with Fox walking among the Broncos, telling jokes, patting players on the shoulder, smiling and laughing together.
There is a distinct sense of perspective around the Broncos as they go about their daily routine on the field. Professionalism and attention to detail is important, but so is taking the time to build relationships that go deeper than player-coach.
“From the guy that doesn’t play and is inactive on Sunday to the guys that have the most plays on Sunday, Coach Fox talks to him the same way,” linebacker Mario Haggan said. “He comes in and interacts with each player, and when you get that from a guy, you love to see a person with that type of stature — your boss coming in and talking to you and making you feel at home. Anytime he asks you to do something, you want to do that for your boss.”
Added Colquitt: “In meetings, he’s shooting the bull with the guys, and that’s just how he is. You guys have talked to him; he’s a players’ coach like they say. The first time I met him, I felt like I’d known him for 20 years, and that’s just how he is with everybody. He’s just a fun guy to be around.”
But he’s also a leader whose players respond to him. After 16 years of technocrat coaches at Dove Valley, Fox’s style is perfect for what the organization needed.
“I think everyone on this team would run through a brick wall for him,” Haggan said.