KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In the span of four weeks the Denver Broncos saw their head coach have open-heart surgery, safety Rahim Moore rushed to emergency surgery for internal bleeding in his left leg, defensive tackle Derek Wolfe suffer seizure-like symptoms on the bus ride to the airport Friday and easily the most daunting four-game stretch on the schedule.
The Broncos asked, and needed, Jack Del Rio to guide them through it.
“He did great,’’ said cornerback Champ Bailey. “When things could have gone bad, he didn’t let that happen.’’
John Fox, who had surgery Nov. 4 to replace his aortic valve, will return to his head-coaching duties bright and early Monday morning. Fox was back in Denver last Wednesday and visited players following practice on Thanksgiving Day.
During Fox’s absence, Del Rio was named the team's interim head coach, largely because of a long association with Fox as well as nine seasons as a head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars. And the Broncos players said Del Rio made it clear from the start he believed it was everyone’s responsibility “to handle their own business the right way,’’ as linebacker Wesley Woodyard put it.
The Broncos went through a stretch of games that included the San Diego Chargers, the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs twice – with three of those games on the road – and came through it all with a 3-1 record. (And the loss came in overtime.) The Broncos, after their 35-28 win over the Chiefs on Sunday, are 10-2 -- solidly in the AFC West lead and solidly in place for a shot at home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
“[We’ll] welcome coach Fox, that’ll be great,’’ Del Rio said following Sunday’s win. “We went through a tough stretch, missed him and it’ll be great to have him back as a football team that took care of business. … It was an honor to be called on, but it was something I couldn’t do on my own and I think I asked everybody to help and everybody did. We were just an eyelash away from getting all four of them, but we ended up winning three in a tough quarter.’’
Del Rio interviewed for the USC head-coaching job Nov. 1, the day before Fox suffered dizziness and lightheadedness on a Charlotte, N.C., golf course, but his work over the last month certainly garnered him notice for similar opportunities in the NFL after whatever becomes of the Broncos’ season. Denver players, including quarterback Peyton Manning, have lauded Del Rio’s leadership and composure as he led the meetings as well as practice each week.
Del Rio kept his defensive play-calling duties and handled much of what a head coach has on his plate as well, but left the offense in the hands of coordinator Adam Gase and special teams in the hands of Jeff Rodgers. The Broncos practiced well and won games.
Or as Del Rio put it: “What we went through the least month is really playoff-level football.’’
Even Sunday, when the Chiefs had vaulted to a 21-7 lead, Del Rio gathered his defense in a huddle near the Broncos' bench. And while he wasn’t screaming, wasn’t over the top, the players said he made his points crystal clear at a key time in the game.
“He just looked at us, right in the eyes, and said we got to settle down,’’ Woodyard said, adding, “He just stressed the things he had talked to us about all week. He knew the right thing to say and how to say it, I think that’s why guys respect him so much.’’
“At that point it was like, ‘Hey, can we just do our job? We just need to settle down and do our job,’’’ Del Rio said. “There were just minor breakdowns at that point and they happened to hit at that point. Once we settled down and just [took] care [of] our business, things got a lot better for us.’’
After the game, after Del Rio had been presented with the game ball, he was asked if he took pride in how things have gone over the last four weeks.
"Sure I do, sure I do," Del Rio said. "We all take pride in what we were able to accomplish together. It took all of us."