John Fox Is Out: The Denver Broncos Got It Right

John Fox couldn't take the Broncos to the promised land. What does his release mean for the franchise's future?

“Fantastic” is a pretty superlative and complimentary adjective for anything. I wouldn’t call a simple deli sandwich fantastic any more than I would use that word in 2014 to describe a used 1994 Saturn SL2. “Serviceable”, or “handy”, or “just there” might be more appropriate descriptors in those instances. On the other hand, I would certainly call a .714 winning percentage fantastic, the same way I would use it to describe four consecutive NFL playoff appearances.

So why do I think there's an interesting parallel between the Roald Dahl story, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, and former Denver Broncos head coach John Fox? The similarities are much more complex than you think.

It’s undeniable that John Fox’s Broncos have enjoyed great success in the NFL, but that doesn't compare this coach to the Fantastic Mr. Fox. In the story, Mr. Fox steals food every night from three farmers. The farmers try to dig their way into the fox's home, but in the end, the animals trick the farmers and survive underground. John Fox’s story is similar: he has outwitted us all for four years and survived as a less-than-stellar head coach in the NFL without us even having a clue.

The Denver Broncos were right to let him leave, and I’ll show you why.

Wild Animal Craziness

John Fox has had a long and interesting career in football coaching, from 1978 when he was a graduate assistant at San Diego State University, to his 1985 season as the defensive backs position coach for the short-lived USFL’s Los Angeles Express. This was his first foray into professional coaching, and he wouldn’t be away from it for long, taking over as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive backs coach in 1989. Since then, he has been in the NFL for 25 consecutive seasons, in various roles with seven different organizations.

There’s no denying that you have to have some measure of talent to stay in the NFL that long; it can’t be all smoke and mirrors. Yet it seems very clear that John Fox’s time in Denver was less merit and more mystique than anyone wants to admit. We can see that by using our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a way of describing a player’s contributions to his team’s chances of scoring on any given drive, thus more accurately depicting what happened on the field of play than simplistic box score tallies or win-loss records.

How does John Fox’s Denver stint stack up according to NEP? The table below shows his teams’ production over the course of his head coaching career in terms of league ranks for Adjusted NEP and Adjusted Defensive NEP (adjusted for strength of opponent).

YearTeamAdj. NEP RankAdj. Pass NEP RankAdj. Rush NEP RankAdj. D NEP RankAdj. D Pass NEP RankAdj. D Rush NEP Rank

John Fox, a former defensive back himself, has spent most of his career coaching the secondary or defensive coordinating. In his time as head coach, while he wasn’t often heading an elite-level defense, we do see consistent defensive prowess displayed, as eight of his 13 seasons saw him with a defense ranking in the top third of the league by Adjusted Defensive NEP, along with four top-five seasons. For a secondary specialist, too, it’s heartening to see that Fox’s defenses achieved a great amount of balance, averaging a 13th-place finish between both the rush defense (Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP) and passing defense (Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP).

When we look at the offensive numbers of his squads, however, a different tale is told. In 13 seasons, Fox has coached only six top-half offensive units, and three of those came in the last three years behind future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. Sure, one of them was the greatest quarterback season of all time by every metric and measure known to mankind, but nonetheless: when you have an elite quarterback and the loaded weaponry that Denver has had, you're going to thrive in a passing league. If we remove the Manning years in Denver, Fox’s average offensive finish has been an underwhelming 19th in the league.

Let’s Raise Our Boxes –- To Survival

How do we clearly parse out John Fox’s effect on the Denver Broncos? I love looking at what a team did in NEP scoring on average for the couple of years preceding a coach, and then compare it to that coach’s time leading the show. To this end, the table below shows the average Adjusted NEP ranks for the three years preceding the Fox era in Denver, as well as the average Fox season with the Broncos. Did John Fox improve the team in his time?

YearTeamAdj. NEP RankAdj. Pass NEP RankAdj. Rush NEP RankAdj. D NEP RankAdj. D Pass NEP RankAdj. D Rush NEP Rank

Irrefutable evidence that the team improved during John Fox’s time in Denver, no? Absolutely. The Fox team is one that, again, made the playoffs four consecutive years and put up the best passing season in NFL history. Despite marked defensive improvement –- which we would expect from Fox, a defensive-focused coach –- the biggest difference between those two periods of Broncos history, however? One of them was dominated by Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. The other, you know, Peyton. The two are hardly comparable in any sort of realistic universe.

In order to try to suss out this value once more, I want to offer one more possible way to slice this data and really dig into two different phases within John Fox’s tenure itself. In 2012, current San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy was the offensive coordinator and play-caller for the Denver Broncos, and had one season with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. The past two seasons, we saw the rise of Adam Gase as the offensive coordinator and play-caller. Is there a difference between these two phases of Manning’s Denver life?

YearOCAdj. NEP RankAdj. Pass NEP RankAdj. Rush NEP Rank
2012Mike McCoy8th5th23rd
2013-2014Adam Gase2nd2nd13th

John Fox has been the one constant. What really changed in those years from 2011 to 2012 was the addition of Peyton Manning. What changed from 2012 to 2013-2014 was the anointing of Adam Gase as the mastermind of this offense. It was a great organizational move to promote Gase after McCoy’s departure, but it had nothing to do with John Fox. He has made little to no difference to his Denver offenses during his tenure, and thus seems to be a vaguely Rex Ryan-esque coach: a great defensive coordinator with no feel for the offense.

Tails Don’t Grow Back

So why let John Fox walk right now? Sure, he was mediocre, but Gase was covering for him offensively and he had arguably the greatest passer of all time to run the offense for him. Four consecutive playoff berths and a Super Bowl appearance just last year, should –- one would think –- give a little immunity from being kicked back to the coaching carousel.

KFAN’s analyst Paul Charchian mused this on Twitter yesterday.

I’d have to agree, but it does make one wonder if Peyton is unsure about his return to a Broncos team that looks to be slowly crumbling around him. Should he return for the 2015 season, Manning will be 39 years old with well-documented loss of arm strength the past few seasons. In addition, the Broncos are going to run into extreme cap problems this offseason with the potential impending free agency of wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, tight ends Julius Thomas, Virgil Green, and Jacob Tamme, and even offensive linemen Will Montgomery, Orlando Franklin, and Paul Cornick. And that’s nothing to say of the defense, which might also lose some key players.

The logical solution to the puzzle seems to suggest that the Broncos are preparing to enter a rebuilding phase sooner rather than later, and John Fox was not the coach to lead them to that promised land. If Manning decides not to return, why not press the reset button on the whole franchise and let a new head coach –- possibly Dan Quinn, current Seahawks defensive coordinator, or their own Adam Gase –- be the one to craft the Broncos of the future? This has been an intelligently run organization for the last few years, and general manager John Elway doesn’t want to mire in mediocrity; I respect him for setting up the more painful, but productive path to a better Broncos tomorrow. The first step of that was letting the John Fox Era end.