INDIANAPOLIS — When new Denver Broncos head coach John Fox took over the Carolina Panthers before the 2002 season, that team was coming off a 1-15 record in which the previous talent base had been looted dry, and all that was left was a 1-15 joke of a team and just a few parts with which to rebuild. Within three years, Fox had the Panthers within a few points of a Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots. Iffy personnel decisions and the inability to find a franchise quarterback to replace Jake Delhomme(notes) took the Panthers back down to earth over the last few years, and Fox wasn't asked to coach the team after his contract expired following the 2010 season.
Now the head coach of the Denver Broncos, Fox faces a similar challenge to the one he took on a decade ago. Nearly bereft of talent as a result of the personnel mistakes of Josh McDaniels, the Broncos must come back to the middle and try to rebuild after a 4-12 record that was the franchise's worst in a non-strike season in the 16-game era. With new team president John Elway on board, a switch back to a 4-3 defense, and newly re-signed cornerback Champ Bailey(notes), Fox must first eliminate a culture of losing that he couldn't always transcend in Carolina. After all, the Broncos have the second overall pick this year, but the Panthers have the first -- and that's on Fox, too.
Step one, as Fox said from the podium at the scouting combine on Thursday, was getting Bailey back in the fold. The 32-year-old cornerback has 30 of his 48 interceptions in a Broncos uniform, and he's still playing at a very high level. "Champ Bailey is a great football player. Again, not just as a player. First and foremost, that's why we signed him back. We think he's a great cornerback. But as far as leadership, in the locker room, in the community, a guy representing the organization, I'm not sure anybody's like that. So I thought it was huge for the Denver Broncos organization and I know it was huge for me personally, because he'll help our cause."
Step two will be to decide who the quarterback will be, both short-term and long-term. Will it be Kyle Orton(notes), who put up impressive numbers in McDaniels' system, 2010 first-round pick Tim Tebow(notes), who is still learning the pro game, or an Option C nobody's quite aware of just yet.
"I don't think we'll really figure it out until we start competing. It's a group of three I think are very capable. Right now, I think Kyle Orton's our starter. We've got a very young guy, a high draft pick in Tim Tebow who got his feet wet last year toward the end of the season. He did an outstanding job. He's got some of the intangibles you're looking for. And then, shoot, Brady Quinn(notes) I'm looking forward to seeing play. I've watched him play a little bit in Cleveland. He's a young guy that's got about 13 starts under his belt. So we'll see. But all three I think, I'm excited about."
Problem is, of course, the greatest quarterback in franchise history (and perhaps NFL history) now sits behind a desk. Fox was asked what it's like working with Elway. One thing Fox wanted to make clear -- THE Elway hire isn't a misguided Millen-esque disaster waiting to happen.
"Even during the interview process, I obviously followed John as a player and competed against him on the wrong end probably more than I liked," Fox said. "But he's all in. This isn't a PR move. Although, he's very big in the community in Denver. But he's burning the midnight oil, he's working hard, he's very willing to learn. This isn't rocket science. I don't think anyone's going to find the cure for cancer. But he understands what a football player looks like. Standing in the huddle and doing the things he did as a team leader and football player at the quarterback position, I think he understands what a football player looks like. I've been very impressed. He's got a great willingness to learn the things he doesn't know. But he knows football."
John Fox has proven that he knows football. Now, he has to prove -- once again -- that he can turn a team around. And this time, the biggest challenge will be to keep his team at the top.