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Del Rio, Broncos defined 'next man up'

The SportsXchange

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Jack Del Rio was enjoying his extended break from the Denver Broncos.

It was Saturday of the team's bye week and the defensive coordinator expected an unprecedented three days away from the team facility. Coaches are dismissed with players, given time to recharge and get reacquainted with their families, if only for an extended weekend.

For Del Rio, the window slammed shut when he was peppered with text messages from friends. Then they multiplied.

"Nonstop," Del Rio said. "Coach Fox OK? Coach Fox OK?"

"I didn't think anything of it at first," Del Rio said.

Finally, Del Rio sent a text message to Fox.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Fox wrote back. "Just some tests."

Offensive coordinator Adam Gase was getting similar queries from acquaintances and the NFL coaching community. He couldn't reach his coaches and, fearing the worst, decided his best bet was social media.

"I found out on Twitter," Gase said with a disapproving smirk. "We were all on break and more and more people were texting me. It was tough because it was a while before I got ahold of anybody."

Fox soon called Del Rio back with a warning. He said "(Broncos VP) John Elway is going to be calling," Del Rio recalled.

The tests Fox underwent in North Carolina showed the heart issue he planned to address in the offseason would not wait, he needed open-heart surgery immediately and would be away from the team for several weeks.

Del Rio had nine seasons experience as a head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars. As peers learned of Fox's state, they offered support and advice to Del Rio.

"I kept hearing, you know, just like riding a bike, Jack," said Del Rio, who thought, "Yeah, but this is a really good bike."

Fox, who preaches a common NFL philosophy of "next man up" and employed it when two of the team's highest-paid players -- left tackle Ryan Clady and linebacker Von Miller -- were lost to season-ending injuries, was now testing it in a whole new way.

Del Rio, knowing his to-do list just expanded exponentially, shortened his bye week to return to the office to begin what would be a four-week stint as interim head coach.

"I was like, 'All right. I'm going to have a little bit on my to-do list this week,'" Del Rio said.

He kept Fox's daily schedule in place and said he changed very little -- primarily the way information was presented to the team -- knowing Fox's approach had the team in the driver's seat in the AFC and striving to avoid amplifying the emotional tug for players already concerned about their absent coach.

"It really didn't hit me until I got to the office," Gase said. "It's just a feeling of 'he's not here.' Jack reached out to me and we said, 'We're going to do this and this. And we're going to be OK.'"

Del Rio said he reached out to every coach, touched briefly on the need to pull together. But coaches were already doing their part. Most notably, third-year linebackers coach Richard Smith, who has experience as a defensive coordinator in the NFL (Houston, 2006-08) and was with Fox for two years in Carolina, helped make the transition seamless.

"I put my own touch on things, but there wasn't a need to change much," Del Rio said. "I didn't sit there and channel John Fox when things came up."

Fox kept in contact with Elway and Del Rio, but his typically regimented day -- a work schedule at the Dove Valley, Colo., headquarters outlined to the minute, typically over 12-14 hours -- became too loose for his comfort.

"I'm kind of a schedule guy," said Fox.

Del Rio updated the team almost every morning about Fox's health. When Fox made his first trip back to Denver for Thanksgiving, Del Rio told him he better stop by to see his players.

"It was just, come see us or you'll have 50 cars piled up in your driveway, everyone wants to see him," Del Rio said.

Fox came to Dove Valley at the end of a practice and talked to the team briefly on the field. He told the team he expected to be back soon.

"The first thing I say is I'm 150 percent better than I was prior to my surgery," Fox said. "I had what they called aortic stenosis, which is my valve collapsed. So I had the valve the size of a pinhead, and now it's the size of a quarter. I feel better. I feel way healthier than I did nine, 10 weeks ago."

Fox returned considerably lighter and will change lifestyle changes his demanding schedule will allow.

"I think it just enhanced and made all of us really appreciate how thankful we are for every day and the opportunity that's in front of us," running backs coach Eric Studesville said. "The leadership that he provides every day for not just the players, but the coaches and how he represents the organization, it's fun to be around. I'm glad that I'm a part of it."

Fox was back to work fulltime the day after Denver's 35-28 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Most players saw him for the first time in the morning team meeting.

"He kept our minds on football," cornerback Domonique Roedgers-Cromartie said.

Peyton Manning, the Broncos' 37-year-old quarterback, plans to return if his health allows it. Fox, 58, was non-committal when asked how long he plans to be a head coach. He expects to dive right into a compressed offseason -- the price of postseason success -- and evaluate his job overall.

"I feel 150 percent better than I did two months ago. I'm just trying to get through this one last game this season," Fox said.

Manning said players all find their own motivation beyond team given the scope of Super Bowl XLVIII. Some will want to push harder to get Fox a win, others for 15-year veteran Champ Bailey and, of course, there is a drive to get Manning another trophy.

"If that's the case, that's flattering," Manning said. "I've always felt like for me I'm playing a little bit for my family. If there's a teammate you want to play for. If there's a coach you want to play for. You are representing you hometowns and your family, your college. We have four players from the University of Tennessee. If somebody wants to win a game for you, that's extremely flattering. I'd like to win it for the Broncos, for (owner) Pat Bowlen, for him to be in his (seventh) Super Bowl is incredible."

And all 45 players dressed for the Broncos on Sunday night are, as always, proud to be playing for Fox.

"Oh yeah, always trying to win for Foxy, you know we always play for each other, players, coaches, everybody," safety David Bruton said.

NOTES:

--Fox is discouraging his players from checking weather forecasts. "My experience is if you wait five minutes, it will change," Fox said. Thursday morning, Accuweather projected a high of 45 degrees with a low of 28 and not precipitation. Two days before, the forecast called for 35-degree temperatures and 20 mph winds. Fox's point to players -- be ready for anything. "We lost a game a year ago in single digit (temperatures), we hadn't had much experience in that," Fox said. "This year, we've gotten a little more callous to it. Like anything, the more experience the better you get." ... Manning was asked to comment on the statement by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman that Manning often throws "ducks" a reference to wobbly passes without a lot of zip or the desired tight spiral spin. "I believe it to be true as well. I said he's a smart player. I do throw ducks. I've thrown a lot of yards and touchdowns -- ducks -- I'm actually quite proud of it," Manning said.
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