Chicago Bears coach John Fox’s fingerprints are on both teams in Super Bowl 50, and there’s no bigger evidence of his influence on his two previous employers than the presence of Peyton Manning for what could be the final game in the Broncos quarterback’s brilliant career.
The sexy storyline is that one Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback – Broncos general manager John Elway – used his friendship with the future Hall of Famer Manning to help convince him to sign with the Broncos in March 2012 after he had been released by the Colts.
Ten teams reached out to Manning and he had been buddies with Elway on the golf course, and that provided the Broncos with perhaps an added edge as Manning ultimately met with four other teams – the Cardinals, Dolphins, Titans and 49ers – before selecting Denver.
There were a lot of reasons for Manning to choose the Broncos, not the least of which were wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (since departed), and a young left tackle in Ryan Clady. But a strong case can be made that Fox was the ultimate factor for Manning, a proven coach with a history of being popular with his players and guiding excellent defensive units. In Denver, Manning could run his no-huddle offense in the altitude, and Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, whom Manning liked, could handle the defense.
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It was a pairing that helped guide the Broncos to the Super Bowl two years ago in New York, and here they are again set to face the Panthers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Turnover often defines the NFL, and the Broncos have 13 players on their 53-man roster who played in Super Bowl XLVIII, including three starters on each side of the ball. It’s important to note three standouts on defense – outside linebacker Von Miller, end Derek Wolfe and cornerback Chris Harris – were on injured reserve for that crushing loss to the Seahawks.
Ron Rivera, of course, took over the Panthers from Fox in 2011. Five players remain on the Panthers roster from Fox’s nine-year run in Carolina and are integral to the team’s core makeup – linebacker Thomas Davis, defensive end Charles Johnson, center Ryan Kalil, running back Jonathan Stewart and long snapper J.J. Jansen.
But Fox’s imprint is naturally greater in Denver, where the coach mandated a shift toward running the ball more halfway through last season. The Broncos didn’t get things sorted out in time to make a deep playoff run, but the carryover to this season has served them well. Fox believed the offense had to start complementing the defense, and that is very much what the team has done this season with coordinator Wade Phillips’ unit ranking No. 1 against the run and the pass.
“Fox brought a lot of us in,” said inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, a sixth-round pick in 2012 who led the Broncos in tackles this season. “He gave us a chance. But we’ve got to take care of this game here.”
Fox played a role in big and small moves in Denver. The Broncos were about out of money for undrafted free agents in 2011 when one of the team’s scouts, Dave Ziegler, presented Fox with three options at cornerback for a player who was going to get a mere $2,000 bonus offer. One had big-time speed. One had good size and was from a major program. One was smart and played four years at Kansas. Sign the smart one, Fox said. That player turned out to be Harris.
“We all came in with coach Fox,” Harris said. “He developed us for four years, developed me, Von, other guys. We’ve lost a lot in free agency, but he worked with so many of us, so he definitely has an imprint on this team. But coach (Gary) Kubiak changed our style, (defensive coordinator) Wade changed our defense. The offense is totally different. Scheme-wise we’re a totally different team, but Foxy did a good job of developing us.”
As the Bears prepare for Year 2 with Fox, one of his former teams is on the verge of the game’s ultimate triumph. With any luck, observers will be tracing moves by Fox that have paid off at Halas Hall sooner rather than later.