Moving On With a Missing Piece
The news that Broncos coach John Fox requires aortic valve replacement surgery, causing him to miss several weeks coaching the Broncos, is concerning to a vast NFL network of coaches, front office and media. Indeed, there may be no person in the NFL with more friends in the business. Thoughts for a safe and speedy recovery will emanate from far and wide for the popular and respected Fox.
Inside the four walls of the Broncos’ facility, however, it is already back to business as usual, just as Fox would want it to be. (The same can be said for Houston, too, after Gary Kubiak was rushed to a hospital after collapsing at halftime of the Texans-Colts Sunday night game.) Yes, there is concern and perhaps even fear for the health of the leader. However, after likely assurances from Fox that he is receiving his needed procedure and care, Denver's focus turns back to its daily chores.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will take on added responsibilities and assign additional duties to coaches and assistants on their respective sides of the ball. And in the front office, president John Elway and his staff will supervise a smooth and seamless transition as the team prepares for the Chargers on Sunday.
If football operations staffs in NFL offices are anything, they are consistently resilient and forward-facing. They move on; it is what they do.
Golfing “for the last time”
On the eve of training camp in 2004, I was readying for a long night of concluding negotiations with our top draft picks when Mark Hatley—the head of player personnel who had come to the Packers after many years with the Bears—checked in to see if I needed any help. When I told him I was set, he replied “Ok, I’m going to play golf for the last time,” meaning that the pending grind of training camp would take away any free time for golf.
Six hours later, after that “last round of golf,” Hatley tragically suffered a heart attack and died. We were stunned and sad; Mark was a leader who was a joy to work with. What struck me, however, is how soon following the tragic news—within a couple hours—our football operation was humming along and preparing for the start of training camp ahead. No telling people to go home, no closing of the offices, nothing of the sort.
Coaches who played golf with Mark that night, the last people to see him alive, were in meetings preparing installations for the opening days of camp. Player personnel staff that worked under Mark were back in dark rooms watching tape of potential additions. My contract negotiations ensued, although I grieved with agent Eugene Parker—who represented our our top pick Ahmad Carroll and knew Mark well—while negotiating Ahmad’s contract. I will never forget Eugene’s compassion at that difficult time.
Hatley was a beloved member of the Packers staff. However, after what seemed like all-too-brief moments to grieve, reflect or cry, it was back to work. NFL coaches, scouts and front offices consistently and constantly move forward. It is what they tell the players to do, and they lead by example.
A year following Hatley’s unfortunate passing, Tom Rossley, our offensive coordinator—and a close friend of Hatley's—was hospitalized before and after a game. Rossley was forced by our doctors to undergo a series of tests before the game, then signed out of the hospital before further tests were completed in order to be on the coaching headset by the second quarter. Thankfully, the game was uneventful for Rossley, and he finished his series of tests at the hospital later that evening.
Rossley’s situation resonates with the news on Fox. Fox knew he needed an operation for his heart condition, but wanted to “play through” until after the season. Although it took an alarming incident for it to happen—Fox felt dizzy playing golf and was taken to a local hospital—he will wisely not wait for the operation anymore.
Much like players with injuries, coaches often “play through,” concerned that missing time can be perceived as a sign of weakness and present an opportunity for someone else to step up instead.
Although increased concussion awareness and safety protocols are trying to change the culture of “playing through,” it is one that is hard to transform, in part because coaches like Fox have been doing it themselves.
The power of raw emotion
While it is true that coaches, players and front offices forge ahead through all kinds of external and internal crises, I have learned to not discount the power of emotion through difficult situations, at least for a limited time frame. A couple of instances jolted my cynicism.
I watched the Colts in the first game following Chuck Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis, and it certainly felt that something bigger was going on that day at LucasOil Stadium. The Colts made numerous plays with no margin for error. Reggie Wayne, who has known Pagano since their days at the University of Miami from 1997-2000, made magical plays in as good a performance at wide receiver as I have seen. I generally believe that Aura and Mystique are, as someone said, nothing more than stage names for exotic dancers, but the impact of Pagano’s just-diagnosed illness that day was conspicuous.
Similarly, I was in Oakland on a Sunday afternoon in 2003 waiting before a Monday night game against the Raiders when I received an urgent call from Bus Cook, Brett Favre’s agent and close friend. Bus got right to the point: “We gotta find Brett; Irv died.” We located Brett, his wife Deanna informed him of the news and, after some quiet time alone, he addressed the team. He spoke in a way that players had not heard before—as a son who lost his father, coach and role model—and insisted that Irv would have wanted him to play in the game. When Brett finished speaking, there was not a dry eye in the room.
As we now know, Brett had a truly scintillating performance the next night. I remember hearing from several players that night, including younger ones that did not know Brett personally, who felt truly inspired; the emotion of Brett’s loss carried not only Brett but also the entire team. The Raiders were facing something bigger that night.
Passion to purpose
Emotion, passion and concern for a respected leader and friend can be intense, but are also sentiments that are hard to maintain.
I would expect the Broncos to play this week against the Chargers with great passion fueled by leaders such as Peyton Manning, who cited Fox as a key reason for his choosing the Broncos. A more difficult task, however, is to continue that emotion for a long period. The passion elicited with “let’s win one for Coach” is easy to initially stir inspired performance but hard to sustain over a long period.
Although there will be orderly reassignment of the duties vacated by Fox, his seasoned and calm presence will be noticeable in more subtle ways. Simply, players and coaches will miss him being around. It will feel foreign to them to see and hear another person at the front of the room, especially if there is any inconsistency in message from Fox to the interim coach. The Broncos must guard against what happened with the Saints in 2012, when Sean Payton's absence affected the team in ways far beyond his superior play-calling abilities.
In that sense, the Broncos are lucky to have two obvious candidates to lend their stature and gravitas to fill the void left by Fox. John Elway and Peyton Manning have not coached before in a literal sense, but are two unique presences in the game that have the gravitas to assume leadership roles off (Elway) and on (Manning) the field in the weeks ahead. And, of course, the Broncos’ talent and coaching beyond Fox may be enough to win in itself.
Ultimately, we are back to the ingrained resiliency of NFL football operations staff. While emotion fades, focus and discipline do not. Even a short time in NFL offices teaches employees to stay present and not swing with the rollercoaster, week-to-week emotions of fans and media.
The Broncos’ staff and players are now focused on the next script of plays, the next practice installation, the next game preparation, and the next coaching, scouting or blocking assignment. As John Fox knows as well as anyone, it is simply what they do.