- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- Call it a game ball in waiting.
But the Denver Broncos were the promise keepers Sunday. They promised, from the executive offices on down, they would mind the football store while head coach John Fox recovers from open heart surgery.
They said they would mind their business, cross all T's, dot all I's, essentially do what needed to be done.
And Sunday, while it wasn’t always worthy of a frame, the Broncos "kept the train on the track," as executive vice president of football operations John Elway said they would. They got another 300-yard passing, four-touchdown day from quarterback Peyton Manning -- his fifth such game of the season -- and just enough defense to earn a 28-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
When it was over, they carried the satisfaction of another win to the team’s chartered flight, some slight nervousness over Manning’s limp and a game ball they will give Fox, in person, when he returns to Denver. Fox watched the game from his Charlotte, N.C., home after being released from the hospital Friday. Fox had surgery to replace the aortic valve last Monday and could miss up to 10 weeks.
"I’m sure it wasn’t easy," said interim head coach Jack Del Rio, a longtime friend of Fox’s. "That’ll be the case until he’s back, but that’s what part of what make Coach great is his passion for the game."
"I would have loved to present [the game ball] to him in person," Manning said. "But he sent a lot of players a text [Sunday] morning, I talked to him Saturday before we got on the plane to come out here and I told him to be yelling at me during the game, [though] that’s not good for his blood pressure. We’ll have to see if he did or didn’t, but he was in our thoughts."
Sunday’s victory was Broncos owner Pat Bowlen’s 300th in the 30 years he has owned the team, a tenure that has featured two Super Bowl wins. Elway, who was the quarterback of those two champions, hired Fox as coach because he wanted a steadying hand, a believer in teamwork.
And Elway wants that kind of teamwork to get the Broncos though Fox’s absence. Del Rio stressed all week, and will likely stress it plenty moving forward, that it will take everyone to keep this team in the mix for the Super Bowl.
"Collectively, we all pulled together and realized that Coach wasn’t here and we would need to have each other’s backs to work through this thing to come in here and get a win," Del Rio said.
"We all wanted to do this for Coach Fox," defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. "Everybody knows what Coach Fox means to this team and how he takes care of players and treats us. We wanted to get this win for him, but we don’t want him to stop. We want to show what he gives us is in place, you know, that we can keep getting to work and doing our thing. This can’t be the last win, you know what I’m saying?"
No, it can’t be and the actual window to enjoy what happened in San Diego on a postcard-worthy afternoon was probably the length of the team’s flight back to Denver. The Broncos have two games with the Chiefs to go with a road trip to New England over their next three games, a stretch that will have plenty to say about who is, or isn’t, the AFC West champion.
But for one game day afternoon it all worked fine for Del Rio and the Broncos, save for one minor lineup adjustment to open the game. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wanted to honor Quentin Jammer, who played 11 seasons with the Chargers before signing with the Broncos this year.
So, Rodgers-Cromartie simply told Jammer to open the game in his place as a starting cornerback in the Broncos’ base defense. Jammer lined up there for the first two snaps of the game.
"The coaches didn’t really know about it," Jammer said. "I spent 11 years here, and for him to do that, not a lot of guys would do that for another player."
Del Rio was more than a little surprised following the game when asked why Jammer made the start and as he walked back to the locker room following his postgame remarks, he said, with a smile, "I guess that was one of those things I couldn’t micro-manage with the guys since I was handling head coaching duties. I’ll talk to them and see."
All in all, it was what the Broncos needed as they get into the meat of things. Del Rio is making the calls until doctors give Fox clearance to return. After the win Del Rio, who was the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach for nine seasons, was even asked if it was at all like riding a bike.
"It’s funny that you use that analogy," Del Rio said. "I had a text from a good friend who said 'It’s just like riding a bike and you have a really nice bike.' We do. It’s a nice ride."