Not that long ago, John Fox was adrift amid the flotsam and jetsam.
At the close of the 2010 NFL season, in fact, he was one of seven head coaches — nearly 22 percent of the league’s roster of sideline bosses — to be relieved of his duties.
The Carolina Panthers had just finished 2-14 in the ninth year of his tenure, he’d been chastised in the media as a mutineer against the franchise’s GM and owner, and, suddenly, he found himself walking the unemployment line with the less-accomplished likes of Eric Mangini, Brad Childress and Josh McDaniels.
Funny, but these days it seems a lot longer than three years.
And if things go as planned come Super Sunday evening in New Jersey, it’ll all be ancient history. There, the 58-year-old Fox — who’ll turn 59 six days after the final whistle — will try to make good on a promise he made less than two weeks after his exit in Charlotte, when he was hired by John Elway, the Hall of Fame passer-turned-VP of football operations, to coach the Denver Broncos.
“The Broncos have a culture of winning, and I am excited to continue that legacy,” Fox said. “I can’t wait to get to work, pushing our players to be the best they can be.”
Fox inherited a Denver team that had slogged to 4-12 under McDaniels and interim stand-in Eric Studesville in 2010, and quickly turned it into a respectable commodity that won an unlikely AFC West Division title with an 8-8 record and eliminated the favored Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional playoffs before succumbing to eventual conference champion New England a week later.
The Broncos’ personnel upon his arrival included the quarterbacking duo of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow — players surely familiar to the attentive NFL follower, but hardly bound for Canton enshrinement. It was the latest in a series of Fox teams led by capable but non-transcendent passers like Rodney Peete, Chris Weinke, Randy Fasani, Jake Delhomme, Vinny Testaverde, David Carr, Matt Moore, Jimmy Clausen and Brian St. Pierre.
The Panthers managed three playoff appearances, two NFC South titles and a Super Bowl appearance with that composite group, but Fox never found himself in possession of a bona fide superstar under center who could augment his chronically stout defenses.
Then came March 20, 2012, and a brand-new agenda for a veteran coach.
When Peyton Manning agreed to the five-year, $96 million contract that shifted his primary uniform color from blue to orange and his state of full-time residence from Indiana to Colorado, he also changed the usually staid Fox’s aspirations from compete for a playoff spot to “win a championship.”
His arrival, too, fixed a spotlight on the effective methods Fox employed for 10 seasons sans fanfare.
“There’s an environment you create,” Fox said. “My leadership style has always been a little bit more of you’re working with us, not for us. And that holds true whether you’re dealing with an assistant coach, equipment manager, trainer, basically the building. Including players, who are probably the most important part of the building, it’s how you motivate, how you deal with players, not so much as a dictator, but you’re working with them.”
The Virginia native was a defensive back in his playing days and started at cornerback — alongside fellow future NFL coach Herman Edwards — on the college level at San Diego State.
He took his first coaching position as a graduate assistant with the Aztecs in 1978 and rose through the ranks as a defensive backs coach at Boise State, Long Beach State, Utah, Kansas and Iowa State before graduating to the pro ranks as an assistant with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL.
Fox reached the NFL as defensive backs coach on Chuck Noll’s staff with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1989 and remains the only active head coach who worked for the four-time Super Bowl champion.
Subsequent league stops saw him work with San Diego, the Los Angeles Raiders, St. Louis and the New York Giants before landing the top job in Carolina, which was the first of his career leading a team.
And even after the eventual falling out with the Panthers, his positives were still clearly accentuated for the Broncos, who hired him for his second job just 13 days after the Carolina ties were severed.
“Everything. Energy. Enthusiasm. Wisdom. Tremendous connections throughout the league,” said Joe Ellis, Denver’s team president. “He did a great presentation on his whole scheme, his whole plan.
“He’s turned it around before, when he was in Carolina. Great reputation as a head coach. All of his experience. And then you look at where his real background was throughout football: on the defensive side. We were really pleased that John Elway made a special emphasis to get consistent and good.”
Fox’s first team in Carolina was the league’s second-best overall defensive unit in 2002, a far cry from the 31st-place standing the Panthers had in George Seifert’s final season one year earlier. They went on to rank in the single digits four times in the subsequent eight years under Fox, who then brought Denver from 32nd to 20th in his initial season and from 20th to second in year No. 2.
Still, with the video-game numbers of Manning and Co. — the QB set NFL records for passing yardage (5,477) and touchdowns (55) this season — the prowess of the ball-stoppers often gets lost, especially when laid alongside the microphone-friendly unit fielded each week by Sunday’s foe, Seattle.
Based on recent history, though, it might be a dangerous oversight for the Seahawks.
The Broncos allowed fewer than 20 points just four times in 16 games in 2013, but two of those four occasions came in the final two weeks of the season, and the defense has continued the streak as the stakes have gotten higher — holding San Diego to just 259 total yards and 17 points in the opening round of the playoffs, before limiting Tom Brady and the Patriots to only 320 and 16 in the AFC title game.
Seattle was 17th in the league in total offense during the regular season, behind both the Chargers (fifth) and New England (seventh). And over the course of 18 games — 16 regular season, two playoffs — Denver has failed to reach the Seahawks’ average scoring output (26), just once.
“It would be very exciting (to win in New York),” said Fox, a defensive coordinator with the Giants when they lost to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV. “It would be exciting to win anywhere. This is the epitome of the profession, to be named world champs. It is very passionate. People are passionate just about being here. It would mean a lot. It would mean a tremendous amount to win it here.”