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Fox gets Broncos on track

First-year coach directs high-altitude turnaround

By John Powers
Globe Staff / January 14, 2012
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - John Fox reminds his players that the game is supposed to be fun. Why else are they dressed in colorful costumes and plastic hats? But nobody on either side of the Rockies was prepared for this Crazy Mouse ride of a season that has oscillated between depression and euphoria.

“There’ve been some fun moments, no doubt,’’ Denver’s coach acknowledged as his club was wrapping up preparations for tonight’s AFC divisional clash with the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. “That’s why I think we all do this. Each week brings on a new test and we’ve got a huge test in Foxborough.’’

The break-even Broncos may be 13 1/2-point underdogs to a team that gave them an 18-point thwacking here last month, but they’re still playing weeks after most observers wouldn’t have bet a used lasso on it. Much of the reason, the players say, is because Fox told them that they could.

“He kept the same attitude,’’ said cornerback Champ Bailey, who’ll be playing in only his sixth playoff game after 13 years in the league. “He never let us get down on ourselves, he never let us think that he didn’t believe in us anymore. That’s all it takes, a little bit of belief, a lot of hard work.’’

Belief was in short supply after the Broncos had taken a sickening two-year tumble. After winning their first six games in 2009 under former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, they dropped eight of their final 10 and missed the postseason for the fourth year in a row. After they went into a fatal tailspin again last year McDaniels was fired with four games left and the front office decided it needed a proven turnaround artist.

“One of the things that we thought was everybody needed kind of a little bit of football rehab,’’ John Elway, the franchise’s Hall of Fame quarterback and executive vice president of football operations told the Associated Press. “I mean, you’re 6-22, there’s a negative feeling about football. That’s why John was a perfect fit for us because of his enthusiasm, his energy.’’

Fox had just been let go after a 2-14 campaign at Carolina, but the Broncos brass were impressed with his résumé and pedigree. In just two seasons he’d taken a Panthers bunch that had been 1-15 to the Super Bowl, where they took the Patriots down to the final nine seconds.

In his nine seasons in Carolina, Fox produced three playoff teams, so his final year could be dismissed as an outlier. Still, he wanted an opportunity for a rebound, even if it was elsewhere. “I wanted to jump back in and erase that,’’ Fox said when he was hired in January. “It would be no different than if I were the head coach here and we finished with the same record. I would be just as enthusiastic to get it back rolling again.’’

His new employers were sold on his experience, his blocking-and-tackling fundamentals, his sound defensive units, and his dynamic personality.

Losing the spring and part of the summer to the lockout didn’t help the football rehab and after the Broncos dropped four of their first five it seemed that there’d be another season of altitude sickness hereabouts. But their new coach preached patience. “He said we hadn’t put our best football game together yet,’’ said defensive end Elvis Dumervil. “He told us if we could do that we could compete with anybody.’’

That didn’t mean that Fox wouldn’t make a bold move to try to save the season. So after Tim Tebow came off the bench in San Diego and nearly engineered a last-minute triumph, Fox made him the starter ahead of Kyle Orton, who later was waived. “We haven’t gotten it done as a football team,’’ Fox said. “We have to do something to win football games.’’

Not everyone was convinced that going to an option system with a lefthanded quarterback who threw like a fullback was the answer. “We’re either going to revolutionize pro football or set it back 15 years,’’ Fox joked.

After Tebow produced the “Miracle at Miami’’ in his full-time debut, Denver went on a jaw-dropping run that was marred only by a 45-10 home beatdown from the Lions just before Halloween. After the Patriots and Bills delivered back-to-back thumpings and the Chiefs strangled them in their own stadium on New Year’s Day, the Broncos came limping into the playoffs with the worst record (8-8) of any divisional winner.

Still, Denver was a 9-point underdog in last weekend’s wild-card game against a Pittsburgh outfit that had a one-legged quarterback and was without its top ball carrier. And even after they won on Tebow’s killer strike to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime, the oddsmakers essentially gave them no chance against New England.

Who knows what to make of a club that has been a carnival ride since September? Fox, who became used to peaks and valleys in Carolina, has been telling his players to ride with them. “Our message is to be the same guy,’’ he said this week. You’re never as bad as some people say you might be or you’re never as good as some people say you might be.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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