Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Instead of talking about the Super Bowl, Broncos coach John Fox focuses on the small goals his team has to meet to get there.
On an almost daily basis, he sets incremental, easy-to-digest benchmarks – cut down on turnovers, get a little better every game, play your best football come December – that rarely bring up the words “Super Bowl,” but are certainly formulated with that in mind.
“As a coach, that’s kind of your job, just looking for little carrots out there to maybe give guys a little extra juice,” Fox said. “You look at different things and set those kinds of goals.”
When the Broncos reached one of their goals by wrapping up the AFC West on Sunday, Fox joined a couple of coaching stalwarts from the 1970s, Chuck Knox and Ted Marchibroda, as only the third coach in NFL history to take over a team with a losing record and win back-to-back division titles in his first two years.
It was yet another in a long list of Denver’s achievements to be met with almost no fanfare inside the locker room.
“You do this to win championships,” Fox said.
He’s talking about Super Bowls, not divisions, and his team, with a 9-3 record, a seven-game winning streak and Peyton Manning playing some of the best football of his career, is shaping up to be as legitimate a contender as anyone.
The Broncos play at Oakland on Thursday. Currently, they are the fourth seed in the AFC, with a game against Baltimore set for Dec. 16. Denver has a significantly easier schedule than two of the teams ahead of it, Baltimore and New England, so the No. 2 seed and the first-round bye that goes with it are within reach.
Don’t bother asking Fox or any of his players too much about that sort of big-picture stuff, however.
“The most important thing right now is to keep on stacking days, keep on stacking weeks, keep taking it one day at a time,” linebacker Von Miller said. “I feel like we’ve scratched the surface of the team we know we can be. We’ve just got to keep on going to be that team that we all know we’re capable of being.”
Like almost every player in the Denver locker room, Miller stays on point, taking things one game at a time, refusing to create a distraction or give an upcoming opponent easy bulletin-board material. They live by one of Knox’s many mantras: I don’t hear what you say. I only hear what you do.
Setting that tone is Fox, the coach, who has the backing and guidance of quarterback-turned-executive John Elway, then had Manning fall into his lap. Some say that makes his job easier. Some say it makes it harder because of the pressure to win – and win now – that goes with being surrounded by those people, those names.
Fox’s hiring was viewed skeptically in large portions of Denver. Yes, he was a veteran coach with a winning record (He’s now 96-86) and one Super Bowl appearance, but he was coming off a 2-14 record in his final season at Carolina.
Hidden beneath that terrible record was the fact that his players played hard for him all year and that Fox, a lame duck coach with a depleted roster, kept smiling and stayed positive through the entire thing.
When Elway was looking for a coach in Denver, the Broncos were coming off a 4-12 season that included the midseason firing of Josh McDaniels and the awkward presence of McDaniels’ first-round draft pick, Tim Tebow, who didn’t get into the starting lineup until after the coach was gone.
“When I looked at this building when I first got here after the 2010 season, everyone was demoralized,” Elway said in a recent interview. “The one thing that stuck with me with John was the positive attitude. Outgoing. Friendly. Positive. To me, that was the No. 1 characteristic. It was the simple fact of the way he was. I felt he could get this organization rehabilitated, get everyone excited about playing football again.”
And, Elway said, there was Fox’s “knack for football,” honed over 34 years in the business, first as a graduate assistant in college, then through five stops in the NFL, starting as secondary coach in Pittsburgh in 1989, before he got the head job in Carolina in 2002.
Never did that knack work better than during the 2011 season, his first with the Broncos.
Unfazed by the prospect of building a system around a player, rather than making the player adjust to the system, Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy set aside their egos and, many might say, set back offense by about 50 years by bringing the read option back to the NFL to give the popular signal caller an offense he could function in adequately.
Then, when Manning came to Denver, Fox and McCoy listened to their quarterback while reconfiguring the offense again.
The entire time, Fox’s specialty, defense, has been rock solid. The Broncos are ranked third in yards allowed this season. Last year, defense helped the Broncos win five games in which they didn’t crack 20 points.
Asked whether his coaching philosophy changed from one year to another, under such drastically different circumstances, Fox didn’t divulge much.
“Not really. You’re in this to win,” he said. “It’s only fun if you win. You try to bring that culture, that environment, to the team.”
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press