The Denver Broncos had a bye in Week 9, and this week they travel to play the San Diego Chargers. The players had a chance to get healthy over the bye week, but now they will be returning to the football field without head coach John Fox.
During the bye week, Fox traveled to Charlotte, NC where he has an offseason home. The team revealed via a press release that Fox actually had a preoperative appointment with his doctors as an aortic heart valve replacement was planned for after the season. They told Fox to seek medical attention immediately if he felt any discomfort.
“On Saturday, Coach Fox began feeling light-headed while golfing with friends. He was taken to a hospital, where testing revealed he needed to have this procedure as soon as possible.” the team said in their release.
On Monday, Fox had surgery and he’s now on the road to recovery. Vice President of Football Operations John Elway discussed this situation with the media on Monday.
“To start out, John had surgery this morning and actually is in recovery right now. We’re waiting to hear on the results, but [his wife] Robin Fox has kept us updated throughout the surgery and everything has been positive up to this point and time. When we hear back how everything went then we’ll relay that. But again, our main concern here is the well-being of John Fox and getting him healthy. That’s our main process right now. Our hearts go out to Robin, his family, his kids, as well as John and we’re hoping for a speedy recovery.” Elway said.
A conference call was held on Monday for the Denver media with Dr. Eric Skipper, Medical Director of Cardiac Surgery at Carolinas HealthCare System’s Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte.
Skipper was not part of the team that operated on Fox, but he provided insight into what the recovery process could be like for the Broncos head coach. “Every patient is different. Most patients are in the hospital 5-7 days, but exactly when someone returns to work varies quite a bit between patient to patient—from a matter of a few weeks to 8-10 weeks.”
The Broncos were non-committal when discussing the possibility of Fox making any coaching decisions for the team during his recovery process. “We’re going to wait and see, and see what the doctor says. Now that he’s out and in recovery, we’ll have a better idea of what to expect as far as recovery time and also what he’s available to do.” Elway said.
On Monday, it was announced that defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would take over as the interim head coach while Fox is out. Del Rio has nearly a decade of coaching experience as he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars for nine years before joining the Broncos’ staff in 2012.
Del Rio is focused on the task at hand. “I’ve got to be my own things, but Coach and I share a lot of similar beliefs. I’ve worked with him a long time. I understand his philosophies and so there aren’t many [decisions] that are very different.”
Without Fox on the sidelines, the team will have to turn to veteran leaders to step up even more. Team captain David Bruton commented on the role of the team leaders moving forward without Fox. “As leaders we know that we have huge responsibility with the team and we have to keep the guys in line. Our team is very mature, our guys know that we’re on a mission and just as leaders we’re going to keep pushing that along. Whatever Jack needs help with or any of the other coaches, we’ll definitely be ready to step to the front and take charge.”
Elway has reached out to Indianapolis Colts' general manager Ryan Grigson to discuss how their team handled the medical issues and absence of head coach Chuck Pagano last year.
I asked Del Rio if he had reached out to anyone in the coaching circle for advice.
The team has faced a ton of adversity this season, and Elway feels that will make them tougher. “For us to get where we want to go, we’re going to have a bunch more bumps too. I think you learn from each bump. It makes you tougher—it makes us tougher as an organization. It makes us tough as a team and all that can do is help us because we’re going to have whether it be outside the lines or inside the lines, there is going to be plenty more adversity as we go ahead and all it does is teach us how to be resilient about it and learn from it and get tougher from it.”
This week the Broncos play their second division game of the year. The Chargers have a resurgent offense under the guidance of first-year head coach Mike McCoy.
Denver has familiarity with McCoy as he was the Broncos offensive coordinator from 2010 to 2012.
In the locker room after practice on Monday, I asked cornerback Chris Harris if that knowledge of McCoy’s offense gave the Broncos a competitive advantage. “It’s really not too different compared to what they’ve ran in the past. They’ve adapted to what [Philip] Rivers likes. They’re using [Danny] Woodhead like he was used with the Patriots. Eddie’s [Royal] having a solid season this year, it will be my job to eliminate that.”
After the game against the Chargers, the Broncos are home against the Chiefs, travel to play the Patriots, then travel to play the Chiefs again. This next group of games will be incredibly important for division standings and playoff seeding.
The Broncos have an incredibly important four weeks ahead of them.
The Chiefs remain at the top of the AFC West with 9-0 record. That record matches what they had in 2003 as the best start in team history.
Their defense scored two touchdowns in Week 9 to help seal the victory over the Bills. They have held each opponent to 17 points or less so far this year. This is the first time a team has done that since the 1977 Atlanta Falcons.
The Chiefs have a bye week in Week 10, and they will get more time to prepare for the huge showdown against the Broncos in Week 11.
They now have a 4-4 record and are looking to knock off the Broncos this week.
The Raiders were flat out humiliated against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 9. Nick Foles threw seven touchdowns against the Raiders secondary in what was arguably the best performance by a quarterback in NFL history. The Eagles won easily, 49-20, over the Raiders.
Terrelle Pryor left the game early due to a knee injury. The injury is considered minor, and Pryor is listed as day-to-day.
The team also lost starting running back Darren McFadden to a hamstring injury. This type of injury is known to linger, so there is no clear timetable for McFadden’s return.
This week, the Raiders get to travel to New York to play the Giants. We’ll see if they can avoid getting humiliated by an NFC East opponent this week.
I asked Harris if he thought the AFC West was the best division in football. “Right now it is. With the way K.C. is playing, I don’t see any other division dominating like that.”
The Broncos should be healthier this week after the bye. On Monday, some of their veteran players were rested and did not participate in practice.
Tight end Julius Thomas was on the field, but he was only lightly jogging on the sidelines during the media portion of practice. Watching Thomas closely, I saw him running cleanly. He was not favoring the ankle that he injured against Washington.
His primary backup, Joel Dreessen, did not practice either for undisclosed reasons. Both should be available for the Chargers game.
Strong safety Duke Ihenacho attended practice but did not participate. Like Julius Thomas, Ihenacho was working out lightly on the side with trainers.
The Broncos are still playing without veteran cornerback Champ Bailey as he continues to recover from his troublesome foot injury.
Peyton Manning was out at practice on Monday and his passes looked good. Against Washington in Week 8, he struggled to throw deep, but his long passes looked much better on Monday.
It was only 36 degrees during the media portion of practice, but Manning’s arm looked sharp. He was throwing with proper velocity during drills, and his accuracy on deep passes was spot on.
It's 36 degrees at practice right now, Peyton Manning's arm looks fine, good zip in drills #Broncos— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) November 4, 2013
Starting running back Knowshon Moreno was one of the veterans who got some extra rest on Monday. Moreno was on the practice field, but he did not have a helmet on. Instead, Moreno was helping out with drills and encouraging his fellow running backs.
What Must Improve
Like I highlighted last week, the Broncos need to improve their consistency on offense.
They can score points in bunches, but relying on a fourth-quarter spree like the 31 points they had in the final quarter against Washington is foolhardy.
One way the Broncos could achieve better consistency is to use the ground game a bit more in the second half of the season.
Manning is on pace for a career high in yardage and touchdowns, but he is not on pace to break his single-season record for passing attempts. He had a career-high 680 attempts in 2010, but a majority of those came in the first half of the season.
The Broncos could perhaps put Manning on a “pitch count” to keep his arm fresh for the playoff run. As noted earlier in this report, the weather has turned in Colorado, and it’s starting to get cold. The Broncos may want to use more of the ground game in cold weather games.
I interviewed Mike Klis, from the Denver Post, on my ESPN radio show, Ridin Shotgun, this past Saturday, and he told me the team may have found their rotation at the running back position.
Against Washington, Moreno played 38 snaps, Montee Ball played 30 snaps and C.J. Anderson played 10 snaps.
Like Manning, the Broncos may want to keep Moreno fresh for the playoff run. He runs hard and has little regard for his body when the ball is in his hands. Moreno has a long injury history, and this team needs to do what they can to keep him fresh.
Ball looked better than some expected in the game against Washington. He scored the first touchdown of his pro career and was more decisive when he was carrying the rock.
The Broncos want to see more from Ball, and they could continue giving him a larger role so long as he continues to hang onto the football.
Anderson ran with great burst and energy against Washington. His emergence could leave Ronnie Hillman on the inactive list for game day. Anderson has more power than Ball, and the team could ask him to grind out some tough yards late in games.
Turnovers continue to be a problem for this team. Manning threw three interceptions against Washington, and he also lost another fumble. This brings his season total up to six interceptions and six fumbles.
Everyone on this team needs to take better care of the football.
Defensively, the Broncos need to do a better job in coverage. Their pass defense has slightly improved over the last two weeks as they are no longer the worst in the league.
The Broncos have the 30th-ranked pass defense so far this year, allowing an average of 299.1 yards passing per game.
One big reason why they’ve improved in coverage is the return of Von Miller. With a better pass rush, opponents have less time to throw. Hurrying that process means opposing quarterbacks can’t just pick the defense apart.
Denver faces a very strong passing game in Week 10. Philip Rivers has been resurgent this year under the guidance of McCoy. The Chargers have the fourth-ranked passing offense in the league, and they average 300.0 yards passing per game.
The Broncos’ pass rush has to frustrate Rivers on Sunday, or he will pick them apart.
The second half of the season is going to be huge for the Broncos. They have five division games left this year with all having great importance.
Their record over the next month will help determine whether or not they can win the AFC West. It may also determine whether or not they get home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Playing without Fox is going to be an adjustment. His positive energy is infectious, and that will be missed on the sidelines and in the locker room.
Del Rio has the experience and understands the great responsibility in leading this potential Super Bowl team. With Fox’s recovery time unclear, we could see Del Rio as the interim head coach for the rest of the regular season.
Denver is healthier coming out of the bye, and they can’t afford too many more injuries. Keeping Manning upright and healthy is priority No. 1 for this team.
That could be achieved by more emphasis on the ground game. The weather change may also force the Broncos to be less pass-happy than they normally are.
Denver needs to take care of the rock and continue to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
All the pieces are there for this team to make a Super Bowl run. As Fox says, “When you expect a lot, you get a lot.” The Broncos have incredibly high expectations for the second half of the year and the postseason.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.