John Fox Isn’t the Answer, He’s the Problem
If Denver Broncos fans wanted any indicator of how their team would perform in big games under head coach John Fox and new NFL legend QB Peyton Manning, five games into the 2012 season they got their answer. When the Broncos went 0-3 against the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, and New England Patriots, teams whose records would go on to be 14-2, 12-4, and 12-4 respectively, Fox and Manning were just continuing the trend they had become known for in Carolina and Indianapolis: losing the games that mattered.
In 2003, in only his second year, Fox led the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance against the New England Patriots. Even though the Panthers lost 32-29, it was a game for the ages and one that became synonymous with the Patriots dynasty: victories via last second Vinatieri field goal. However, after several years, it became apparent than when the lights shone brightest, Fox shrank. Two years after their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, the Panthers were crushed in the NFC Championship by the Seattle Seahawks 34-14. Three years later, in 2008, coming in off a 12-4 regular season and a 1st-round bye, they fell in the divisional round to the Arizona Cardinals, 33-13. Any of these losses ringing a bell Broncos nation? Crushing championship game losses, unexpected divisional round capitulation?
The difficulty facing Broncos fans with having a head coach that is known for habitually losing big games is that they also have a quarterback who is known for the exact same thing. There’s a reason they call Peyton Manning the greatest regular season quarterback of all time or the greatest statistical quarterback of all time and not just the greatest quarterback of all time. There’s a reason why many people think Joe Montana or Tom Brady are higher on the greatest of all time list. In his first years in the league, Manning had one playoff victory: a 41-10 victory against the Broncos were he threw for 377 yards and 5 touchdowns, earning a perfect passer rating (158.3). In Brady’s first five years, he had three rings. It’s a stigma that has stuck with both quarterbacks for the entirety of their careers, so much so that no one seems to acknowledge that Brady’s Patriots have lost just as many, if not more, big games as Manning’s Colts/Broncos over the past 10 years.
People can argue about what different factors played the most pivotal role in contributing to Brady’s early success while Manning struggled, but as far as I’m concerned, the most important difference between Manning and Brady has been Bill Belichick. He’s the NFL equivalent to the San Antonio Spurs’ Greg Popovich: he’s a serial winner, you either love him or hate him, and regardless of the players he puts on the field, his teams win football games.
Yesterday’s loss to the St. Louis Rams was the perfect illustration of why John Fox, despite being the 5th winningest active coach in NFL history with 114 wins, will never be considered coaching royalty. In a game that saw the Broncos start CJ Anderson, their 3rd string running back, and both Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas exit the game because of injury, the Broncos utterly capitulated to a team being led by a 34 year old journeyman quarterback whose last legitimate snaps came in 2010 as a member of the Detroit Lions.
Former Denver Bronco Brian Dawkins took to social media to vent his frustration.
Former wide receiver Mark Jackson also joined in on the collective groaning session.
However, the most telling sign of frustration came from none other than Peyton Manning right before half-time. With all three timeouts left and the ball at the St. Louis 30 yard line with 2 minutes to go, Fox used exactly none of them and appeared to chose to let the clock run out till half-time. However, after forcing a three-and-out, he then decides to call a time out… With 23 seconds on the clock… St. Louis punts the ball and we receive it with 17 seconds left on the clock. The play call? Peyton takes a knee and they go into half-time down 13-7.
Will Petersen, an editor of Cover 32.com, caught Peyton Manning’s reaction and it wasn’t pretty.
This isn’t the only time Fox’s decision making has been called in question. Moments after their obliteration at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, Wes Welker made headlines for appearing to call out Fox for a lack of preparation when it came to crowd noise.
“That’s the way the start of any Super Bowl is: It’s going to be loud,” Welker, now a veteran of three Super Bowls (all losses), said. “The fans are going to be yelling. They don’t really know why they’re yelling — it’s just the start of the Super Bowl. We didn’t prepare very well for that, and it showed.”
The story began to gain traction and it came out that Fox even went as far as to lower the noise when they were practicing that week. In addition, they didn’t even create non-verbal hand motions for Manning to have should the crowd get in the way of play-calling.
When asked about it later, Fox said,”It’s not an away game. The ones I’ve been to haven’t been too loud. So we just kind of practice with what we think we’re going to get.”
John Fox went into a Super Bowl against a team who is notorious for having the loudest fans in the NFL expecting it to be quiet, or in his words, not “too loud”. Let that sink in.
Rewind roughly 12 months. It’s the divisional game against the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens have just inexplicably scored on a 70 yard bomb from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones despite the Broncos playing prevent defense. If you watch the game film of the pass, the Broncos secondary appears stretched. They dropped eight into coverage and they were stretched (hint: your secondary should never be stretched when you drop eight)…In addition to that, there was confusion between the cornerback and safety Rahim Moore in concern to when to provide over-the-top protection. It resulted in both of the defensive backs hesitating and…well, you know the rest.
After the kickoff, the Broncos get the ball with multiple timeouts and Peyton Manning at the helm with roughly 30 seconds left. Fox calls the play and Manning takes a knee. The question isn’t whether the Broncos would have scored or not, it’s that even with a future hall of famer at quarterback and a deep threat in Demaryius Thomas, Fox wouldn’t go for it.
What’s more disconcerting if you’re a Broncos fan is Fox’s inability to change his game plan on the fly. With Fox, there’s no such thing as a Plan B. It’s been clear that the Broncos running game has had limited success this year. Injuries to Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman haven’t helped. However, that being said, it’s not been a complete wash. Both Hillman and CJ Anderson have seen success running the ball and/or catching the ball out of the backfield. However, instead of implementing a running back by committee role, Fox has put the entire workload on Manning. Since the Seattle game, Manning is averaging 43 throws a game. If you eliminate the games against the Jets, the 49ers, and the Chargers, he averaged 50 throws a game over a five-game period. At one point during the second quarter of the St. Louis game, there was a stat line that read, 25 passes, 5 rushes.
The running game may not be great, 27th in the league to be exact, but any coach knows that a balanced offense, at least relatively, is the key to winning not only football games, but championships. If you take a look at the games where Manning has been throwing his interceptions, the lowest amount of passes he has thrown in those games is 44. Games under 40 passes thrown: 0 interceptions. If teams don’t ever expect you to run the ball or be effective when you do (Broncos are averaging 3.6 yards per carry), secondaries are allowed to sit back and ball hawk. It also allows defensive coordinators to put together effective blitz packages. Teams this year know Manning is going to throw the ball rather than hand it off so when a team with a talented defensive front like the St. Louis Rams comes along, the Broncos are going to struggle. In summation, the Broncos lack of balance on offense leads to effective blitz and pass coverage schemes by opposing defenses, which means Manning is rushing his throws into smaller windows, which means he’s throwing more interceptions. Pretty simple stuff. Unless of course, you’re John Fox.
Another weak spot in Fox’s coaching is his inability to win close games against the teams that matter. Since 2012, in regular season games that have been decided by 10 points or less, Fox is 10-7. The seven losses all have come against teams who made the playoffs in the years they played them, or in this year’s case, last year. In the 10 games they have won, only five of them came against playoff teams, with three of the five victories coming against the same team, the Kansas City Chiefs. What happens when you compare his record in close games to his overall record of 114-88? It’s separated by two percent (58% to 56%). John Fox’s record under the Broncos might be 41-17, but the 10-7 record is the one that tells the real truth.
John Fox couldn’t win a game against a backup quarterback led 4-6 St. Louis team without Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Bill Belichick went 12-4 without Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Shane Vereen, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Vince Wilfork, and Danny Amendola. Oh yeah, and his only good receiver, Julian Edelman, was a 5’7 slot receiver who used to be a quarterback in college. This might rankle quite a few feathers, but can you imagine what Bill Belichick would do with this Broncos team?
By giving John Fox a three year extension this offseason, the Broncos have ensured that Peyton Manning will never win his second Super Bowl.