The term “interim coach” is a creditless one, because what it really means is, you’re a temp with a dodgy in-between un-title, alone in a no man’s land with all kinds of tripwires. The job could have been a catastrophe for Jack Del Rio and the Denver Broncos. He might have used his status as interim coach to kidnap the team. Or he might have paralyzed it with indecisiveness. But he didn’t, and when it comes time to hand out the NFL coach of the year award, a strong case can be made that it should go to the Broncos staff as an ensemble for the collective heart they’ve shown while head coach John Fox had his chest cracked.
Fox returned to work this week for the first time since he underwent an emergency aortic valve replacement a month ago, which means yet another tricky emotional transition for the team, from Fox to Del Rio, back to Fox again. The Broncos should have been tornado bait, torn apart by so many shifting winds. Instead they have the best record in the AFC at 10-2, and it’s worth examining why and how, because a lot of businesses don’t deal with interim situations nearly so well. Del Rio’s performance over the toughest four-game stretch of the season, going 3-1 and beating the rival Kansas City Chiefs twice in three weeks, was an underrated feat that took more than mere steadiness. And it invites reappraisal from all those who thought Del Rio wasn’t strong leader material.
“It was huge,” says Fox and NFL network analyst Brian Billick. “Jack did a brilliant job in a no-win situation. If you do what you’ve been doing, then it’s just okay, and all you did was continue on with the set up. But if they stumble at all, well, it must be Jack Del Rio. If anything, this will underscore that Jack Del Rio needs to be a head coach again.”
There are few positions more tricky or difficult in any business than interim manager. The job throws into awkward relief all of someone’s potential shortcomings as a head guy. In Del Rio’s case, it came with all kinds of encumbrances and potential pitfalls, starting with the pre-existing staff relationships and the office politics that General Manager John Elway put in play when he chose Del Rio over offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Other staffers could have seen Del Rio as using the job to advance his own career goals. Or been offended when he countermanded them. It could have complicated his player relationships – what if he disagreed with Peyton Manning? What if a personnel decision or medical decision alienated a key player? What if the multiple responsibilities were a time suck that compromised his work as the defensive coordinator? These were just some of the things that could have gone wrong – but didn’t.
“It was a difficult job and I think he was very aware of that,” Elway says. “Those are difficult shoes to step into, keeping all those things straight. He was still the defensive coordinator and he had that relationship with the players, but he also had to be the CEO. He kept it simple, which in my opinion was the key thing.”
Somehow Del Rio struck just the right tone and charted just the right course between paralysis and pro-action. “Primarily I’m a sounding board,” he said. He didn’t make any sweeping change, “It’s not like ‘I’ve had these ideas in my mind for a long time so here they come!'” he said. But he didn’t default to a gentlemanly placeholder maintaining the total status quo. He tinkered.
According to Manning, he added some wrinkles at practice and even had the nerve to point out some things he thought the offense needed to improve on. He juggled lineups as the Broncos coped with key injuries to Champ Bailey and Julius Thomas. He gambled that rookie Montee Ball was ready to take some of the ball-carrying load from Knowshon Moreno. And he chose to go run-heavy in his game plan against the Chiefs last week, a bold choice given that his quarterback is Manning, especially when they trailed.
In game situations, he made gut calls without a whiff of doubt or indecision, even though every in-game adjustment and every challenge flag was an opportunity to be second-guessed. Head coaching on the sideline requires the ability to fixate on small details while still seeing the overall from possibly the worst vantage point on the entire field. It also requires cool, unfeeling, executive command of a game plan, while also being sure the team reaches the right emotional pitch. You have to be part arbitrager and part sermonizer. Del Rio was all that. The organization never once seemed prey to his insecurities, or weaknesses.
“I thought you could tell he had the experience as a head coach in the way he managed the games, especially the challenges,” says Elway. “A lot of times you get in a hurry, and he stayed calm and got as much information as fast as he could get it, and he made good decisions.”
All of which suggests it’s time to re-examine Del Rio on his own merits as a head coach. According to Billick, who hired Del Rio as a linebacker coach with the Baltimore Ravens and collaborated with him in building their Super Bowl defense in 2000, Del Rio has long been known as one of the brighter men in the NFL as well as one with great player rapport. Billick believes Del Rio’s eight-year tenure as a head coach in Jacksonville from 2003-2011 was better than his unremarkable record of 68-71 looked. He reached the playoffs twice, including seasons of 12-4 in 2005 and 11-5 in 2007, despite never having a franchise quarterback. The Jaguars immediately plummeted to 2-14 after he was fired. “Too often we look at coaches’ records in snapshots,” Billick says.
If Del Rio exhibited one quality above all others in the last four games, it was that he’s secure with himself. He knows who he is. Asked how he felt about returning to coordinator status, he smiled and said, “It’s all good. A few less things on my plate.” Over the last four weeks, he never tried to bend himself out of his natural shape or seemed threatened by the comparison to his boss. Fox is a charisma-driven head coach, all gruff and rumpled charm, with a voice that carries and his clothes look lived in. Del Rio is milder, more cerebral, with the flicker of a dandy – he once coached a game in Jacksonville in a suit and tie – and a head of lank hair that falls over a face that looks carved from rock. “It’s probably impossible to replace Coach Fox’s high energy, charisma, personality,” Manning observed. But Del Rio didn’t even try – instead he addressed the issue head on and told the team he was no Fox, so they would have “to bring their own energy.”
Yet in his own way, by exuding such security, Del Rio won the team. He showed “great command” according to Manning. Fox called the job he did “tremendous.” Elway observes, “He was being himself.” And that was more than good enough.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.