So it will happen: The Denver Broncos will enter the 2015 season with a very different coaching staff. Head coach John Fox "mutually parted ways" with the team, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is expected to be named the head coach of the Raiders, and all signs point to offensive coordinator Adam Gase becoming the head coach of the 49ers. Meanwhile, the question remains as to whether or not Peyton Manning will be back as the Broncos' quarterback.
Briefly touching upon Del Rio and Gase, I don't believe both of them would have been back next year, even if Fox had returned. It is not surprising that Del Rio would want another chance to be a head coach, and I believe Gase was simply ready to give head coaching a shot. With that out of the way, let's get to Fox.
I already wrote that I believed that parting ways with Fox would be a mistake, given that he just got a two-year extension this past summer. Had there been legitimate concerns about whether or not Fox could get the Broncos back to the Super Bowl again, and whether or not the Broncos would have shown more fire, then a one-year extension would have made more sense.
There are those who will argue that Elway could not have possibly foreseen what would happen this season, with the Broncos having subpar performances against the likes of New England, St. Louis, and Cincinnati during the regular season, and then against Indianapolis in the playoffs. Some would include the loss to Seattle, which would amount to the perception that the Broncos didn't put up much of a fight in every game they lost. Thus, one might argue, Elway had no choice in the matter.
On the other hand, there's good reason to believe that Peyton Manning was not healthy for many of the Broncos games. Most of us chalked up Peyton's passing issues to his skills declining, and while that may play a part, the quad injury he had played just as much of a role.
We all like to think that injuries that QBs receive from the waist down simply affect mobility, but then we forget that mobility is more than about buying time in the pocket, and is as much about how one sets his feet and goes through his motion when dropping back. This post at It's All Over Fat Man does a good job explaining what Peyton Manning might have been doing to compensate for his neck surgery, and how it was ultimately going to affect the rest of his body.
This brings us back to Peyton and how Fox might have been perceiving his quarterback's health, versus Elway's desire to be more aggressive with coaching approaches. It's not clear how much Peyton let on about the extent of his quad injury, and how much Fox or Elway actually knew.
What is apparent, though, is that given that Elway likely wanted more aggressive coaching, that Fox knew that meant he was expected to pursue the best possible playoff seeding, and that Peyton Manning gave the Broncos the best chance for the No. 1 seed. And if it is true that Peyton didn't share all the details with Fox about the extent of his injury, then it's possible Fox took Peyton's word and allowed him to play, knowing that if Peyton said he could play, then Peyton gave the Broncos the best chance to win.
(I will touch briefly upon one point: I find the notion that Fox and his coaching staff didn't trust Brock Osweiler hard to believe. When Fox opted for Peyton over Osweiler, it is more likely he thought that, while the Broncos could win with Osweiler, their chances of winning were improved with Peyton, particularly the chance to get the No. 1 seed. In other words, it's not a knock on Osweiler, but a strong belief in Peyton and what he brings to the table.)
I don't believe we'll ever know the full extent of what went down between Fox and Elway, or exactly what Fox or Elway did or didn't know about Peyton's health. I will say, though, that while Fox deserves some blame for conservative coaching decisions, and for players not coming out fired up for games, the Broncos' struggles at times can't be placed entirely at his feet.
This brings me to Peyton Manning, who doesn't deserve all the blame, but does deserve his share. If he had a torn quad, he should not have tried to play through it. If he did keep details to himself, then it's on him, even if the head coach is supposed to know what's happening with a player's health.
One thing to remember is that coaches want to put some trust in their quarterbacks, and if there is ever a trust issue between the coach and the QB, the team will have problems. And if Peyton did keep details to himself, I don't think it's because he didn't trust Fox, but because he allowed his competitiveness to get in the way. It's no different from other players, regardless of position, who want to "gut it out" when they get injured.
And this brings me to Elway. I have no idea what Elway might have been observing with regards to Peyton, but the way he talked during his press conference, he seemed to indicate he would trust Peyton to know whether or not his body would allow him to play. Again, this goes back to the trust issue, in which Elway, in his position, wants to show that he trusts Peyton to be honest.
But the lesson that Elway may need to learn from this, is that sometimes it's a good idea to carefully watch his players, and ask himself if a player is truly healthy enough to play. Sure, it's understandable he wants the Broncos to win another Super Bowl. But that doesn't mean claiming the No. 1 seed is a must. That's the short-term picture -- the Super Bowl is the long term. Sacrificing a player's health for that short-term picture can cost you the long-term picture if you aren't careful.
The other issue is that Elway needs to be careful in how he communicates how the team will approach this offseason and what the expectations. Again, we all know he wants a Super Bowl win, but it's also important that he ensure the Broncos remain a perennial playoff contender. Let's not forget that teams such as the Patriots, Ravens, Packers and Seahawks are among teams that want Super Bowl wins, but are primarily built to go to the playoffs each year. Every team has fans who can get impatient if a Super Bowl contender doesn't deliver the Vince Lombardi Trophy in multiple seasons, but the franchises are careful not to bend over backwards for those fans.
That's the battle ahead for Elway. Impatient fans are the ones that scream for coaching changes the loudest, and some observers now have the impression that four straight playoff trips and one Super Bowl appearance isn't enough. That's exactly the impression they have regarding the Niners parting way with Jim Harbaugh (even though the Niners didn't make the playoffs this year). And even though, in the Niners' case, it appears more to be impatience by the owner than by fans, giving into impatience can do more harm than good to a franchise.
It's fine that Elway tells people he wants to win a Super Bowl. He just needs to be clear that it's not the be-all, end-all for any coach. I think he did as best he could in communicating that in his last presser, in which he talked more about how he perceived that the Broncos didn't go down swinging in their final playoff game the past two seasons.
But he needs to continue emphasizing this, because it's the only way he'll fend off the impression that he's getting impatient. Whether or not Peyton returns next year, the message to be sent is that the main thing the Broncos want is to go to the playoffs each year, and to find a way to get the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Fans may expect a juggernaut when certain moves get heavily hyped, but that's a trap Elway cannot afford to fall into.