PHOENIX — You can hardly make a move at Pro Bowl practices without running into a Bronco with good things to say about playing for John Fox.
It’s almost disconcerting. How does a team get 11 players in the Pro Bowl — nine of them original-ballot selections — and get knocked out in the divisional round?
Not John Fox’s fault, DeMarcus Ware told me.
“A coach is never the problem. It’s always on the players,” the Broncos linebacker said. “He did what he needed to do to coach the players up to win. But we didn’t win like we should. At the end of the day, it was a business decision for the Broncos.
Ware is one of eight Broncos who will play in Sunday’s game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale — quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas dropped out because of injuries. And most of them were effusive in their praise for their former coach.
“All his players love him,” cornerback Aquib Talib said. “You could talk to any of his former player, all the guys love him, including myself.
“I loved coach Fox. He was a great head coach — a player’s dream for a head coach. He took heed of what his players said, what their bodies were telling them. He took care of his players. I definitely enjoyed my time with him.”
As endorsements go in the NFL, a “player’s coach” is the ultimate double-edged sword. There’s a fine line between the coach who takes his players’ concerns to heart and the coach who lets the inmates run the asylum. But Fox has been at this for 13 years in the NFL as a head coach with the Panthers and the Broncos, with two Super Bowl appearances, so you have to think he knows how to balance that often-delicate dynamic.
“He took everything seriously and he always was down to business, but he was one of those coaches where you could talk to him and make changes,” Ware said. “We talked to him every day and he was receptive. Let’s say you have guys beat up during the season, instead of doing a work out or something that’s going to crush you, we would do a workout that would flush your body and get you ready for the next game.
“He always listened to us. We’d say, ’You know coach, we’ve got a run team this week, let’s have the pads on and really hit it hard.’ because we knew what type of game it’s going to be. And he was receptive to everything the players came to him with — Manning, me, the captains, Demaryius Thomas, whoever it was.”
Linebacker Von Miller gave Fox high marks in one area where he’ll have arguably his toughest job — managing his players and developing a winning chemistry in the locker room. “He had a huge affect [as a manager],” Miller told me. “He was able to balance all the personalities in our locker room. We had a colorful locker room, so many different types of personalities and he was able to manage all that — from Peyton Manning to rookies, to Aquib, T.J. [Ward] and me. Some of the reserve guys, the colorful personalities, the equipment managers, the training staff to everybody. He was able to manage all that stuff and he did a very good job at that.”
Safety T.J. Ward, who signed with the Broncos as a free agent after a Pro Bowl season with the Browns in 2013, called Fox “a great coach.”
“He’s a real personable coach. He’s easy to talk to. Easy to come up to. He jokes around with us, but at the same time, he still has that stern quality.”
Running back C.J. Anderson is a success story that bodes well for a Fox-run Bears team. An undrafted free agent out of California in 2013, he started the 2014 season third on the Broncos depth chart at running back. But after injuries to Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, Anderson came through. He rushed for 847 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns and had 1,166 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns in the Broncos’ final nine games.
“I respect coach Fox,” Anderson said. “Me being an undrafted kid, he gave me the opportunity. I’m going to miss him very much. And good luck to him and the Chicago Bears.”
Anderson also had good things to say about Adam Gase, his former offensive coordinator with the Broncos who now is in the same capacity with the Bears.
“Adam is tremendous, man,” Anderson said enthusiastically. “He’s a grinder. He’s going to do whatever works, whether it’s the run or the pass. You’ll see when Gase goes over there and puts his mind to it. If things work out, [Jay] Cutler and [Brandon] Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte — they’ll have a year.”
Even former Broncos were raving about playing for John Fox. “It’s unfortunate for him that they parted ways, but I can tell you one thing: the Chicago Bears have a great coach,” said Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who played for Fox for two seasons (2011-12).
“Fox was a great coach and even better person. I have nothing but good things to say about coach Fox. “He’s very personable. He wants to know how guys are doing, and not just football stuff. That goes a long way with players in the locker room, when you know you have a coach who cares more about just football. You want to play for a coach like that. He’s a players’ coach for sure. They’ll love him and I’m sure he’ll do really good things in Chicago.”