If the Broncos falter, the finger will be pointing at Jack Del Rio as the reason.
The Denver Broncos will be without their head coach John Fox for at least the next few games as he recovers from surgery to replace an aortic valve. There is never a good time to be without the leader of the team, but Fox's health clearly has to take precedence over his job in this case.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has been given keys to the Ferrari after poorly maintaining his 2003 Toyota Corolla and finally crashing it in 2011. Still, as interim head coach, Del Rio can't simply avoid driving the team off a cliff.
For Del Rio to be a success, Denver's offense needs to continue to hum while he makes repairs to the defense. If the Broncos lose a game and the offense or defense sags, Del Rio is going to take the heat.
Unlike Bruce Arians, who was the interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts for 12 games in 2012, Del Rio isn't taking over a 2-2 team coming off a 2-14 season with a rookie quarterback and a new defensive scheme.
The Broncos are 7-1 and one of the best teams in football with an established offense and defense. This is a team that is not only expected to win, but win big against lesser opponents. Success for Del Rio means not losing a single game while Fox is away—at a minimum.
Expectations are probably unrealistic for Del Rio. The NFL is notoriously tough, and the Broncos are headed into the harder part of their schedule, but that's how it goes in the NFL. The offense is great and the defense should be much improved now that pass-rusher Von Miller has returned from his suspension, so the expectation is that the team's performance will reflect that.
If It's Not Broken...
One of the advantages Del Rio has over a lot of interim head coaches is that the team he is taking over is good. Most interim situations don't arise out of illness to the head coach but due to lack of performance.
There really shouldn't be a lot Del Rio has to change to keep the Broncos on the right track.
Del Rio also has experience on his side from being the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars for a decade, which could be a good or bad thing. The game-day operations should go smoothly, but Del Rio also has his own ideas that he will surely attempt to pass on to the football team.
The last thing Del Rio should be doing is tinkering around with the team's engine. Everyone knows the offense, led by quarterback Peyton Manning, is what makes the Broncos go. If he lets the offense do its thing, Del Rio should be successful.
"We're on a mission to carry on and continue the things that Coach Fox has instilled and started with this football team," Del Rio said via The Denver Post. "This is Coach Fox's team. I'm merely the person that's able to keep it running right now while he's healing."
It's the right thing to say, but will Del Rio actually be able to keep his hands out of the offensive cookie jar? Del Rio acknowledged shortly after being named the interim head coach that he would be a sounding board for offensive coordinator Adam Gase and develop a closer relationship with Manning, but he wasn't going to make major changes.
The bottom line is that Del Rio will be more involved; he now has to make decisions that may not necessarily be the same decisions that Fox would have made. Things like when to go for it on fourth down and when to kick a field goal can be key decisions that impact the outcome of games.
Will Del Rio be successful as interim head coach?
Other key decisions happen during the week when the head coach gives advice about a certain part of a game plan or certain players being more involved on game day—offensively and defensively. Del Rio appears to be leaving the offense and special teams alone so far, but he has already added his own wrinkle to practices by adding a period to work on certain game situations.
"To add a little urgency to different situations that come up, we just created that little short period," Del Rio said after practice Thursday via the team's official website. "It causes you focus in for that moment on, 'hey, this situation is going to come up—or has come up—and this is how we are going to deal with it.'"
The head coach already has to balance a lot of things, but Del Rio is being asked to balance being the defensive coordinator and the head coach at the same time. There are high expectations, and every little thing is going to be scrutinized if Del Rio doesn't keep the Broncos on track.
For example, the last thing Denver's offense needed work on was game situations. The Broncos are the best team in the league in third-down conversion percentage and scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
Could this new period of practice been heavily influenced by the fact that Denver's defense is 13th in third-down conversion percentage and 24th in red-zone touchdowns-allowed percentage? Del Rio could have taken valuable time away from the offense to address a defensive issue, which leads to the next thing Del Rio needs to do to be a successful head coach.
Fix the Defense
Denver's defense hasn't been very good this year after being great last year. In Miller's first game back from suspension, the Broncos allowed 39 points in a loss to the Colts in Indianapolis. In Miller's second game, the Broncos allowed 21 points, the second-most points they have allowed at home this season.
The Broncos have played just three road games this season and allowed an average of 37 points in those games. The Broncos play three of the next four and five of their final eight games on the road, so getting the defense to play better on the road is going to be important down the stretch.
With Del Rio taking on more responsibility and leaning more heavily on his defensive staff, he's going to have even less time to devote to solving the problems on defense. This is not unlike the challenge Arians faced last season.
Under Arians, the Colts offense finished the 2012 season scoring 357 points—about a touchdown below league average and 18th in the NFL. In the first three games after Arians took over, the Colts scored just 15 points per game.
The Colts were 2-1 in the three games following Arians becoming interim head coach, including one overtime win. Considering that those three opponents were a combined 17-31, it's clear the Colts actually had some growing pains offensively after Arians assumed his interim role.
|Role||Games||Average Opponent Wins (season)||Playoff Teams Faced||Points Per Game|
|As Offensive Coordinator||4||8.3||2||22.8|
|As Interim Head Coach||12||6.7||3||22.2|
|First 3 Games||3||4.3||0||15.0|
When Arians was only a coordinator for the first four games, the Colts offense was slightly better than their season average in points per game. That's not impressive until you consider they played two playoff teams and a great Chicago Bears defense.
Although Andrew Luck covered up a lot of issues, there was some impact having Arians both be the offensive coordinator and the head coach. He was named the AP's NFL Coach of the Year and parlayed that into becoming the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, but the Colts beat just one team with a winning record after Arians took over as the interim leader.
Denver's defense needs to improve in a lot of areas, but the big one is pass coverage. The Broncos are allowing just 3.4 yards per carry on the ground, but they are allowing a league-high 13.2 yards per completion.
|Yards Per Attempt||Yards Per Completion||Sack Percentage|
The Broncos have sacked the quarterback just 6.3 percent of the time in 2013, down from 8.5 percent last season. The hope is that Miller can simultaneously help the pass rush and the secondary, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen automatically; Del Rio will have to be involved.
Del Rio is going to have to lean on his relatively young defensive staff, but there is one assistant coach who is going to be particularly valuable during this time—linebackers coach Richard Smith. Unlike the rest of the defensive staff, Smith is very experienced and has been a defensive coordinator in the NFL.
Smith was the defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans from 2006-2008, the first three seasons under Gary Kubiak, and in Miami in 2005 in Nick Saban's first year. If there is one guy who could pick up more slack on the defensive staff, it's Smith.
Smith's position group has also been one of the strongest on the team over the last two years. There isn't a lot to worry about with Miller, Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan. Del Rio would be wise to lean heavily on Smith when his head coaching duties take him away from the defense.
A Nice Situation
Del Rio has one of the best situations an interim head coach could ever hope to have. The Broncos have the best quarterback in all of football and one of the best pass-rushers, but the great situation also factors into the sky-high expectations.
If Del Rio is to be successful as the interim head coach, he needs to leave the offense alone and work on straightening out the pass coverage and pass rush. That could mean letting the offensive staff address the fumbling problem that seems to be getting worse.
Overall, you have to like Del Rio's odds of being successful. Unfortunately for Del Rio, his margin of error is thin, and a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs could end up determining if the Broncos play on the road in the playoffs.