Wellington Mara and John Fox

Hi, folks. Thanks to some fast repair work on my computer system, I’m able to dictate a little ahead of schedule and I just wanted to share a vignette with you. After the Broncos took over first place in the division with yet another late-game surge, It may help to put the hiring of John Fox and the way the team is coming together into a little more perspective.

You see, with regard to all of the things that people are excited about concerning the Broncos (and most teams), the head coach frequently ranks up there with leftover oatmeal and strep throat. It’s hardly an uncommon feeling in football cities around the league - few cities don’t have groups that publicly dislike the coach, from the many websites I’ve visited, and coaches go from icons to idiots as quickly as Champ Bailey can sneak a hand onto an incoming pass. It just goes with the territory.

Last offseason, I put together an article on Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry - their similarities, differences, and the fact that they were the offensive and defensive ‘assistants’ (that was the term for coordinators back then) for the NY Giants in the 1950s. It was a time of tremendous innovation for both men: Lombardi developed a lot of his offensive theories and plays, including the early versions of the Power Sweep that would be so effective in Green Bay, and Landry developed the 4-3 defense by taking a concept that Paul Brown innovated and moving it a step further. Both men are, and belong, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Wellington Mara, an icon as an owner and an unusually fair-minded man in a very tough profession ended up having to let both of them go to other teams over a short period of time at the end of the 1950s decade - Jim Howell, the head coach over both, wasn’t quite ready to retire yet, and each, Landry and Lombardi, received serious offers that let their careers continue to ascend. Mara felt that in order to treat them fairly, he had to let them leave. That would result in the champion-level Giants to plummet and to go through what they called ‘15 Years in the Wilderness’, but to Mara, it was simply the right thing to do. You can find that story in Lombardi and Landry, by Ernie Palladino. It’s a good read.

Fast-forward ahead to the time between the seasons of 2001 and 2002 and another coordinator left the Giants.  John Fox, the Giants defensive coordinator, left to take the head coaching job in Carolina with the Panthers. When that happened, Mara took the time to hand-write a personal letter to Fox, thanking him for his contributions to the team and telling him that Mara felt very sincerely that losing Fox was much like he was losing Lombardi or Landry again (and remember, they left the Giants before they were more than blips on the football scene - their greatness had yet to be honed). Mara, who worked closely with the team and had seen Fox’s innovation and skill with the players, said that he felt that Fox could rise to a similar level in the right situation.

He’d seen the best - it’s worth considering that when you consider what the Broncos may have in their head coach. How many folks expected Denver to be taking the division this year? To either push for or even make the playoffs? How many are aware of how much he’s involved with the defense, which has been touted as the work of Dennis Allen? There’s no question that Allen is doing a brilliant job - but there are aspects of Fox’s own work with the Giants in Allen’s combination of the pressure schemes of Gregg Williams, the A-gap pressure of Jim Johnson (who Allen did not study with) and many of the Zone Blitz concepts of DCs since the 1970s that were brought to their peak by the Steelers’ Dick LeBeau. Allen is certainly innovative, and I’ve got the highest respect for him. But I don’t leave out what Fox has done in supervising and helping direct this defense and this team in so short a time, either (Von Miller’s presence hasn’t hurt).

Jerry Richardson’s organization wasn’t that opportunity for Fox (and from all reports I’ve read, Richardson is no Mara), but it did give him an opportunity to learn the art of head coaching and to empower a team that reached a Super Bowl. Although I began to hear the usual chorus of hostility and disdain for Fox within days of his hiring by Denver, it’s worth considering that Coach Dennis Allen, who’s been brilliant this year, gets his own marching orders from Fox, who has a long history of effective coaching in the defensive area. I think that’s an easy thing to miss - people will tell you that John Fox was chosen because he wasn’t threatening, or because he’s older, or a player’s coach, or because he’s a defensive mind. Some say it’s because he’s engineered a fast turnaround, and Denver was a club that needed one. Every reason is given, it seems, except that he’s simply an unusually intelligent, talented coach who may help to return the Broncos to another Super Bowl.

Mara, who had seen the best firsthand, believed deeply in him. While the QB fuss gets nearly all the press, the overall quality of play of this team has improved at warp speed since Fox took over the helm. It could be a coincidence, but I’m not big on them. Perhaps folks should be open to the possibility that Fox is as good as Mara had believed.

His record so far suggests that it is. Be well.

Doc

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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