ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Life couldn't be much better for Denver Broncos coach John Fox, a man who laughs as easily as he breathes. On Thursday, as his team went through its final practice before the second round of the AFC playoffs, Fox joked with reporters and told a couple of stories.
Hey, it's all good when you finally have a quarterback. It's even better when that quarterback is Peyton Manning.
"You don't get a chance to coach first ballot Hall of Famers very much in your career," said Fox, who managed to get to a Super Bowl earlier in his career with journeyman Jake Delhomme under center. "This is no disrespect to anybody I've ever worked with, but this is what you hope to do as a coach. You're trying to acquire the best players you can find and coach them to be a little better.
"You go back to the pre-Super Bowl era, it was like that. Don Shula won more games than anybody else and he was great. You look at his quarterbacks. He had Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino. Vince Lombardi had what, like 13 Hall of Famers? Don't let any coach fool you, it's about the players you have."
This year, instead of having to dummy up a gameplan around an inexperienced and unorthodox Tim Tebow, Fox and the Broncos are battling with conventional weaponry. Still, for all of Manning's greatness even in the aftermath of missing last season following multiple neck surgeries, will it be enough Saturday when the Broncos play host to Baltimore?
First, there is the issue of the weather. The temperature is forecast to be 25 degrees at game time. As the Elias Sports Bureau pointed out this week, Manning is 0-3 in the playoffs when the weather drops below 40 (although he was 23-of-29 for 304 yards and three touchdowns in 35-degree weather against Kansas City in the season-closing victory).
Those three playoff games were in 2003 through 2005, when Manning's Colts lost a 41-0 decision to the New York Jets and then back-to-back playoff games in New England as the Patriots went on to win their final two Super Bowls.
Though the weather may not have been the dominant factor then, you have to wonder how Manning's strength-sapped arm (he admitted this week that he has to wear a glove because of lost strength in his grip) will respond as the temperature drops.
It's a subject that Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy downplayed to a nearly Shakespearean extreme.
"We're not even thinking about the weather," McCoy said, using some variation of that statement three different ways without prompting. "I'm going to call the game just like it was any other situation."
Doth protest too much?
For his part, Manning made a joke of the situation.
"Were you the weather guy the last time we played?" Manning said to the interviewer. "Who was the weather guy last time? … OK. I don't know. Like I said, you've got to play, whatever it is. So that's not something you think about."
McCoy and Manning can point to some dominating facts to show that Manning hasn't slipped one bit after all the surgeries and a full year away from the game. He finished with 37 touchdowns, 4,659 yards, a 68.6 completion percentage and a 105.8 rating, all the second-best marks of his career.
And for those who believe that Manning has done that by dinking and dunking his way to completions, that's just not the case. Sure, Denver has only seven completions of 40 yards or more, including only one in the past seven games. That's the fewest of any team left in the playoffs and was the second-fewest of any playoff qualifier (Minnesota had only three).
At face value, that would point to one screen pass after another. The problem with that assumption is that from 2006 to 2010 in Indianapolis, Manning did pretty much the same thing. In that time, he ranged from six to nine 40-yard completions per season and ranked in the top 10 just once (2007). During that stretch, the Colts won one Super Bowl and appeared in another.
To Denver and Fox's great fortune, Manning is pretty much still Manning, an exacting player who demands much from the people around him. He has quickly established a rhythm with wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker by politely browbeating them into perfection. Thomas finished with 94 catches for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns this season after having a total of 834 yards his first two years. Decker had 85 receptions for 1,064 yards and 13 TDs after having 718 yards in his first two seasons.
"He wants it to be perfect every time," Thomas said. "I used to round my routes, not make a clean break every time. He started saying, 'You round your route, you don't get the ball.' He wasn't yelling or anything, but you could tell he was serious. I never had anybody work with me like that before, push me so hard to be right every single time."
With Decker, Manning has been more professorial, asking Decker questions that Manning clearly knew the answer to whenever there was a mistake.
"If it's supposed to be 8, 10 or 12 yards on a certain play, he expects it to be 8, 10 or 12 yards," Decker said. "We were in training camp and I would come back from a running a play and he'd say, 'Deck, was that supposed to be 12 yards or 10 yards on that?' It was like taking a test. You got a little nervous because you know he knew the answer. I was like, 'Yeah, that was supposed to be 12 yards.' "
It's the kind of situation where Manning was pretty much doing the coaching himself.
And if you're Fox, that makes for a truly good life.
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