- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When John Elway was tabbed in early 2011 by Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to return the franchise to the kind of glory days Elway had constructed as a player, one of Elway’s first tasks was to find a new head coach.
The Broncos were plodding along, toward what would become a 4-12 finish, and Josh McDaniels had been fired 28 games into his first tenure an NFL head coach. A prediction of the next big thing gone bad as McDaniels was a respected offensive mind who, as it turned out, couldn’t settle things at quarterback, inspire those around him or handle many of the rest of the items that eventually came with the job. So, Elway was in search of a veteran hand, a steadying influence.
And the Hall of Fame quarterback chose John Fox, a nine-season veteran of the head-coaching business with a background in defense, to lead the way. As Elway said at the time, "in the end, I wanted somebody who had been down that road before."
So, it really was no shock when Elway needed an interim head coach, somebody to lead a gifted team through the unexpected twists and turns that have arrived, he turned to a coach with nine seasons worth of head-coaching experience with a background in defense to lead the way. Elway formally slid “interim head coach" next to Jack Del Rio’s name Monday morning. The Broncos players and coaches were formally notified at an early-morning team meeting inside the team’s complex, but most had assumed through the weekend the move was coming.
Fox, who is scheduled for surgery this week to replace the aortic valve in his heart, was in contact with Elway, as well as two team captains -- quarterback Peyton Manning and linebacker Wesley Woodyard -- through the weekend. When Fox needed a defensive coordinator following the 2011 season after Dennis Allen had been hired to be Raiders head coach, he quickly focused on Del Rio, even meeting with a recently fired Del Rio at the Senior Bowl just days after Allen had moved on.
Del Rio’s run in Jacksonville, where he was 69-73 and made two playoff trips as a wild-card team, was bumpy at times, as that franchise also struggled to find quality quarterback play in the post-Mark Brunell era. But since his arrival in Denver, Del Rio has been exactly what Fox wanted running the defense.
Del Rio has been exacting, uncompromising and level-headed, and there are many players in the Broncos locker room who trace their improvement, or increase in playing time, directly to Del Rio's “show me" approach.
“I think that’s been big," Woodyard has said. “He told people where there performance had to be, in practice, in meetings, in offseason workouts, everywhere to get on the field. He didn’t change that, no matter who you are, first round, free agent, whatever. You perform, you do the right things, act the right way, you play. That's it. Don't do it and you don't play. I think guys have grabbed on to that, because they see if you do it, he gets you in there."
“I think we have shown if you show you can offer something and you handle yourself, work to the standard we want, you’ll play," Del Rio said earlier this season. “I want it to be clear. I think guys understand that and have seen it play out that way so they should believe it by now."
In the day-to-day workings of this 7-1 team, Del Rio is expected to keep his play-calling duties on defense as he adds all of the administrative items that come with wearing the head coach’s hat as well. That’s plenty on his plate to be sure, but internally those around him say he’s been highly organized since he arrived to the team and all fully expect him to take the roll-up-the-sleeves, just-get-it-done approach.
Offensively Adam Gase will continue to construct the game plans and coordinate that unit’s practice periods. And Manning’s week will look virtually the same. The Broncos have even constructed their practice schedule to remain just as it was two weeks ago when Fox was preparing the team to face the Washington Redskins.
Jeff Rodgers will run the special teams units, as he has, and the Broncos will move forward overall. Because, as Fox routinely tells his team when he stands in front of it, “nobody is going to feel sorry for you or let you have a mulligan, call a timeout to take a breather."
No, they don’t. And while no one will, or should, dispute life’s bigger issues will always carry far more importance than what goes on when the game clock runs, the Broncos are a Super Bowl hopeful now doing its football business without its head coach against a host of teams, players and coaches who almost universally like and respect Fox, who still want to end the Broncos' season in disappointment.
So, now Del Rio will need everyone to either grab an oar, or get out of the boat and let somebody else row.
4dEric D. Williams