After securing the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a 13-3 record during the NFL regular season and defeating the rival San Diego Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Denver Broncos are just one win away from playing in Super Bowl XLVIII. Perhaps nobody is more grateful for that than head coach John Fox.
Fox is widely viewed as one of the best coaches in the league, and he has been ever since he took the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl in the 2003-04 season. Leading the Broncos into the final game of the season wouldn't be shocking by any stretch of the imagination, but it can be argued that Fox has never before had to overcome so many obstacles.
In addition to the Broncos having to battle through several key injuries over the course of the year, Fox had to persevere health issues of his own.
Fox discussed that as well as Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow and several other hot-button topics in an in-depth interview with CNN's Rachel Nichols. The interview will air in its entirety on Friday at 10:30pm ET on 'Unguarded' on CNN and CNN International.
With a record of 7-1 heading into their bye week, it seemed as though things couldn't possibly get much better for the Broncos. Not only were they steamrolling the competition, but they were also on pace to have the most prolific offense in NFL history, which ultimately came to fruition.
Just when the Broncos were at the height of their revelry, however, they were dealt a major blow. According to 7NEWS in Denver, Fox needed surgery to replace an aortic valve in his heart:
Fox was rushed to the hospital in November after feeling woozy while playing a round of golf in Charlotte, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today. It was determined that Fox needed surgery to repair a heart issue, but he was back at work just one month later.
According to Fox, the heart issue was something that he always dealt with:
Well, I think, I've had this aortic valve problem since birth. It's something you're born with. And they monitor it the older you get. And at 58 years old-- it was about that time. And but I wanted to do it in June with what was coming up and the season.
It was also revealed during the interview that Fox's aortic valve problem was diagnosed in 1997, so he knew for quite some time that a procedure would be needed down the line.
Unfortunately for Fox, the situation was too dire to put off any longer, and he was forced to miss some time in the middle of the season, which is less than ideal for a head football coach. Fox was sure to acknowledge that fact:
Well, surely in most people's cases, it's never is a good time. And, with the idea of walking in voluntarily for open-heart surgery, a guy taught me a long time ago, 'Never walk in in your free will to get surgery.' So anyways, it's-- luckily, I bet-- the staff, the players did a great job.
At the same time, Fox is proud of the way that the players and coaches responded in his absence:
They went 3-1 in the time I was gone. So, I wasn't having guilt feelings for leaving the bunch high and dry. So it was a tribute to everybody in this building. And now I'm very blessed to be back helping.
Luckily for Fox, the Broncos happen to have the closest thing to a player-coach in the form of Manning, and the team picked up the slack even more with Fox out of the picture. It can be argued that nobody understands Manning's importance more than Fox does.
Peyton Manning's Importance
Manning is unquestionably a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and it can certainly be argued that he is the greatest quarterback in the history of football. It isn't as if he needed any additional accolades on his resume, but Manning set the single-season record for passing yardage and passing touchdowns in 2013, per Pro Football Talk:
Anyone who is involved in football or is a fan of the sport marvels at what Manning has been able to accomplish over the course of his career, and Fox is no exception:
Well, I think, anybody that's had the success he has and had the position he has, they've got reputations in the league for their preparation, their leadership, and all those things. But-- the guy's remarkable. I mean, from rehab to strength and conditioning to the mental work and-- game preparation-- film work-- the guy's probably the best time manager on the planet, let alone just in the NFL.
Fox had to be fully aware of how good Manning was prior to this season, but after going through some health problems in his own right, Fox seems to have an even greater appreciation for Manning's ability to bounce back from a significant neck injury:
So-- it's been awesome having him the last two seasons and not quite done with this one. But-- he's done a remarkable job for where he came from, where he was physically and mentally, missing a season, the injury-- surgeries he went through. Just a remarkable, remarkable feat to me. It's unparalleled-- really in any sport.
Despite the incredible amount of success that Manning has had as an NFL player, he is often the subject of criticism. Manning has four MVP awards to his credit with an unprecedented fifth almost certainly on the way for this year, and he has won a Super Bowl along with the Super Bowl MVP as well.
Even so, Manning is constantly measured against all-time greats like Tom Brady, Joe Montana and others, so he simply can't win with his detractors. Even Colts owner Jim Irsay, who enjoyed 11 double-digit-win seasons with Manning as his quarterback, got into the act.
Irsay's veiled criticism of Manning's inability to win more than one Super Bowl in Indy rubbed Fox the wrong way, and he wasn't shy about firing back. He explained why when asked by Nichols:
Well, I think number one, I knew Peyton wasn't (going to respond). And, I think-- it was important that that was voiced. Sometimes I've made comments-- you don't really know exactly what was said. But for me, there was a lot of people in that building I knew over those years-- whether they were in upper management or coaches and, I just knew how much work goes into those seasons. And sometimes they don't end up perfectly, there's only one happy team at the end of the year in this league. And that there's only one bowl winner. And it doesn't get to happen for everybody. But-- last time I looked, they did get one. And-- I know I'd be thankful.
Manning also receives criticism for a perceived inability to get the job done in cold weather, but Fox couldn't be happier with his quarterback's performance in the elements.
"I think he's tremendous. And I think he proved that. A lot of the things he's accomplished and a lot of those were in some very cold games," Fox said.
Manning will have a golden opportunity to prove his head coach and supporter right in the AFC Championship Game by vanquishing Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots in Denver on Jan. 19.
Tim Tebow Era
The Broncos currently roster one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, but no interview would be complete without mentioning Manning's predecessor. It's easy to forget that the Broncos were actually a playoff team before Manning came to Mile High under Tim Tebow.
Few players over the course of NFL history have been more polarizing than Tebow, who currently finds himself out of football and in a new role as a college football analyst with ESPN. Tebow obviously had his issues at the NFL level, but his supporters point to the fact that he led Denver to the playoffs in 2011.
It can be argued that the 2011 team represented Fox's best coaching job since he essentially had to adapt to Tebow's playing style. Fox made mention of that and seemed to take a great deal of pride in how far that team was able to go:
Well, I mean, every player's different. And part of coaching is putting guys in positions to succeed. That year, the first year here was a very unique year. I mean, and we adjusted our offense-- it was unique by our coaching staff, it was unique by the rest of our players-- because we completely overhauled our offense. And, it gave Tim an opportunity to be successful and playoff game, you're here at overtime versus the Pittsburgh Steelers and I thought I had a tremendous season as well as our team. So it was a very unique season from that standpoint, but successful.
Tebow never received an opportunity to build on that season despite shockingly leading the Broncos to a playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he was eventually traded to the New York Jets after the Broncos signed Manning.
While some Tebow fans are still understandably sour about the situation since Tebow never got another chance to be a starting NFL quarterback, there is no denying the fact that Denver made the right move.
Having success with Tebow under center entrenched Fox as head coach of the Broncos, and now Manning can elevate him to championship status with just two more victories.
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