ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Just hours after getting the stunning news coach John Fox would have surgery to replace a valve in his heart, the Denver Broncos will undoubtedly be thinking about their coach’s recovery, but they’ll also need to plan for what remains of their season.
The Broncos are expected to formally name defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio their interim head coach Sunday. And it would be a natural choice given Del Rio’s nine seasons as Jacksonville Jaguars head coach. But if recent history is any guide during Fox’s recovery, most everyone on the Broncos' coaching staff will likely add some things to the to-do list along the way.
Last season, Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano stepped away from his duties to be treated for acute promyelocytic leukemia (AML). Pagano missed three months as he went through three rounds of chemotherapy.
During his time away, Pagano named then offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as his interim coach. Arians proceeded to lead the team to a 9-3 mark in 12 games before Pagano returned to the job in the final week of the regular season and for the playoffs.
At the time, Arians said the most important parts of it all were planning, time management and the willingness to have everyone participate in whatever job was at hand.
“We had a plan, we stuck to the plan, we believed in the plan," Arians said last season. "... Initially, it’s a whirlwind, you’re dealing with the news, news you in no way expected, then the work part hits. But you constantly tell players we have to overcome and I think everybody involved didn’t want Chuck to see us not do what we should do. So, for me it was kind of like being a young player for a week or two, things slowed down as we moved along."
Arians said there was also an element of technology involved. Pagano stayed connected with Arians, the rest of the coaching staff and the players with a smartphone, which they said Pagano was typing on throughout his recovery. Pagano’s doctors encouraged him to do what he could, and what was within reason, during his recovery with the intent of him returning to the job full-time at some point.
At the time, Pagano’s physician, Dr. Larry Cripe, said the goal of Pagano’s treatment was “to cure the disease, that means that he’s returned to a fully functional life, a life he’s worked so hard to earn." Wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who has known Pagano since the two were together at the University of Miami, also joked during Pagano’s recovery that he texted him so often “sometimes it was like being in the room with him."
Wayne said then there was an obligation to take care of business during Pagano's absence, and none of the Colts players “wanted to be the guy who had to look Chuck in the eye and explain why he didn’t do what he was supposed to while Chuck was out." Arians, a cancer survivor himself after a bout with prostate cancer in 2007, said he was consistently in contact with Pagano throughout each day and would visit Pagano each Friday after the Colts had concluded their meetings.
The Broncos’ coaching staff is filled with experienced hands, including several who have worked extensively with Fox through the years. Offensive line coach Dave Magazu has been on Fox’s staff since 2003, when Magazu was hired as a tight ends coach in Carolina. Special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers and wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert were also on Fox’s staff in Carolina before moving to Denver. Assistant secondary coach Sam Garnes played for Fox with the Giants during Fox’s tenure as defensive coordinator there and coached one season with Fox in Carolina before joining the Broncos as well.
Broncos linebackers coach Richard Smith was a defensive coordinator in both Houston and Miami previously in his career, and running backs coach Eric Studesville was the Broncos interim head coach for the final four games of the 2010 season, after Josh McDaniels was fired. With offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, a former OC in Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta and Oakland, it will largely be business as usual for the offensive staff as it prepares game plans and works through its practice and meeting schedules.
While most teams usually carry one offensive assistant, the Broncos have two: Jim Bob Cooter and Brian Callahan. With positions generally described as “quality control coaches" through the years, the two are responsible for preparing the breakdowns of upcoming opponents several weeks in advance to aid in getting a game plan as quickly as possible to quarterback Peyton Manning each week.
Fox is active in monitoring, and directing, how things go all over the roster, but because his coaching background is on the defensive side of the ball, it is expected Del Rio, as well as Smith, would lead the way there during Fox’s absence. A formal interim coach would also make the game-day roster decisions and in-game decisions. Del Rio already makes the defensive calls on game day, so he would have to decide whether to keep those duties moving forward.
In the end, Arians, now the Cardinals coach, said the key was “for everybody to do what they know how to do and do it like they know how to do it. This is where you want to coach and you want to do it as well as you can for the guy who hired you and the players expect, and deserve, everyone’s best efforts and the organization deserves theirs."