ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In an NFL big on systems and imitation, there came a coach who tried something new. Not only did he try something new, he blew apart the offense, transforming it from throw to run in a matter of days. Not only did he blow apart the offense, he did it in the middle of the season.
And not only did it work, his team won its division title.
So as two more head coaches fell on Monday – a common culprit being the refusal to adapt to their players – the man who made the biggest change of all needed to be celebrated. No coach this year has done a better job than John Fox, whose 8-8 Denver Broncos captured the AFC West and play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's wild-card capper. And as the debate begins about who should be MVP and Rookie of the Year and all the other awards that broil in the postseason discussion, there is no question as to who deserves coach of the year honors.
What he did isn’t complicated. In theory, coaches exist to make their players shine. They are teachers and mentors and disciplinarians. But mostly they are supposed to put their players in the best position to win. If their roster is best suited for an aggressive pass-rushing defense, then they should design an aggressive, pass-rushing defense. It’s simple.
Only today’s football coaches don’t adjust. They are ruled by their cherished offenses and defenses that become their identity. When they take over a team, they force their systems on the players, shoving run-blocking offensive linemen into pass-blocking protections. They turn pass-catching tight ends into blockers and pounding running backs into short pass-catchers. They make their teams bend to their system regardless of the players on the roster. And this is how a handful of men usually get fired come the year’s final games, still oblivious to the fact they didn’t have the right players for the system they tried to shove down everybody's throats.
So after a month into the season with Fox new in Denver and the system most favorable to quarterback Kyle Orton clearly not working, a decision was made to go with Tim Tebow as the team’s starting quarterback. Rather than make Tebow run the same offense as Orton, Fox understood he needed to change the way the Broncos played. Tebow’s great strength was his running. Fox decided the Broncos would run. And therefore they ran. And ran. And ran.
When the players came back on the Tuesday after an early-October bye, with their record 1-4, they were greeted with a different game plan. The changes, at first, were subtle. A Tebow system already existed in the Broncos' playbook going back to last season and with many of the offensive coaches retained from last year's staff, the Tebow plays were suddenly emphasized. Then as the days went on, more running plays made their way into the book. Passing plays were dropped, replaced with Tebow running options to his left.
And the Broncos started winning.
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"It was something different in this league where everyone does the same thing," running back Jeremiah Johnson said Monday afternoon as the Broncos began preparation for a playoff game they never could have imagined back in September. "Once you do something a little different – a little wrinkle – everyone kind of panics."
Despite the brutal poundings, football is a game of deception. Success comes rarely with the predictable but with the unexpected. Defenses disguise themselves, showing one thing and turning into something different as the quarterback shouts his cadence. Few players are more valuable than a passer who makes everyone think the play is a run before pulling back and throwing deep. The best coaches are often the ones who keep everyone guessing.
And as Fox bamboozled the rest of the NFL, turning the Broncos into a glorified college wishbone team, they kept winning.
"It was a lot of fun," Johnson said. "It’s like when you know something that no one else does."
For eight glorious weeks the Broncos were almost impossible to figure out. The running offense slowed games down, allowing the defense to strengthen, leaving the games a muddle until late in the fourth. This is when the opposing defenses wore down from defending something they were unaccustomed to seeing and it allowed Tebow to win late. Denver went from 1-4 to 8-8 and division champions. And it might be one of the best coaching jobs we have seen in years.
Asked about this in a hallway at the Broncos headquarters on Monday, Fox looked away and gave a small hunch of his shoulders.
"As coaches I think you adjust," he said. "You try to use your players to the best of their ability."
It’s really not that hard.
Still, this will offend most head coaches who won’t see progress in a division championship and a playoff game in the home stadium. This won’t establish a system, they will say. It won’t lay the groundwork for three seasons down the road when enough players who didn’t fit the coach’s offense will have been run off. But Fox’s Broncos have won the AFC West and will understand something about how the playoffs work. And even if Tebow doesn’t work out – and the doubt is beginning to creep in given three straight losses – Fox will have given his players something more valuable than the AFC West championship caps that were placed in their lockers Monday morning.
He has shown them he will find ways to help them win. Isn’t that what coaching is all about?
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