Lindsay H. Jones.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The football divorce of Denver Broncos general manager John Elway and coach John Fox was perhaps the most stunning move of the offseason, given it came after Fox led the Broncos to a fourth consecutive AFC West title and less than a year after he signed a two-year contract extension through the 2016 season.
Sunday, they will be on opposite sides at Chicago’s Soldier Field, with Elway bringing a new coaching staff led by Gary Kubiak to face Fox’s Bears and a staff comprised of several former Denver assistants, including offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
Will the reunion be awkward for Fox and Elway?
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Immediately after their split in January, a day after the Broncos’ divisional-round playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, both men were adamant that their parting was mutual. But tension between them can be traced to the end of the 2012 season as they clashed over in-game strategy, personnel decisions and game preparation. Matters came to a head by the end of 2014, two people familiar with the situation told USA TODAY Sports.
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The people spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
It wasn’t a toxic atmosphere between the front office and coaching staff but rather periodic and private disagreements between two men with very different personalities and football philosophies. Fox is gregarious and outgoing with a huge laugh and wicked sense of humor. Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback turned business man turned front office executive, is far more composed and even-keeled.
“There weren’t any outward explosions, no lashing out in meetings,” a former Broncos employee told USA TODAY Sports. “Whatever disagreements they had were behind the scenes.”.
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Fox and Elway kept their differences hidden from players, who were shocked by the coach’s departure. Now, with 10 months’ worth of hindsight, cornerback Chris Harris said the reason was simple.
“We had a four-year window to win a Super Bowl, and we didn’t get it done,” he said.
But it was more complicated than that, and there were several key moments and reasons that led to the split:.
2012 divisional round loss to the Baltimore Ravens: A person with knowledge of the situation said issues between Fox and Elway truly started when the Ravens upset the top-seeded Broncos at the end of quarterback Peyton Manning’s first season in Denver. That game will be remembered for former Broncos safety Rahim Moore flubbing coverage on Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary pass to Jacoby Jones, which tied the game at the end of regulation.
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But it was the moments that followed that most irked Elway. Fox instructed Manning to take a knee and force overtime, even though 31 seconds remained on the clock with Fox holding two timeouts. The Broncos went on to lose in double overtime. When Elway would use the term, “kicking and screaming” to describe how he wants his team to play two years later, it’s impossible not to believe he had the Ravens game, among others, in mind.
Lineup and staff decisions: While Elway largely allowed Fox to run the team as he saw fit, the two did have some disagreements about personnel, both players and assistant coaches.
Fox, who has built a reputation as a players’ coach, would play veterans over rookies whenever possible. There were several notable issues in 2014 in which highly drafted rookies were shelved in favor of veterans. Third-round tackle Michael Schofield was never active despite the Broncos having extensive issues at right tackle last year and first-round receiver Cody Latimer rarely played. Schofield is now Denver’s starter at right tackle, and Latimer is active on game days as a reserve weapon.
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There were also disagreements about Fox’s staff. Two years ago, Elway favored Gase to be the new offensive coordinator, while Fox wanted to interview Ken Whisenhunt, who had recently been fired by the Arizona Cardinals.
Super Bowl XLVIII loss to the Seattle Seahawks: Following the Broncos’ 43-8 embarrassment at the hands of Seattle in the Super Bowl following the 2013 season, players grumbled about the way they were prepared for the game. Practices in New Jersey had a regular-season feel with too much physical work and not enough mental emphasis. The Broncos were never in that game, their record-setting offense scoring just one touchdown.
That failure led to Super Bowl-or-bust expectations last year — not just for the team, but specifically for Fox. When Denver flopped in the postseason again, with a 24-13 loss to the Colts at home, it was the final straw for the already strained relationship between Elway and Fox.
They might have won four division titles together, their teams were just 3-4 in the postseason, including 2-3 in three years with Manning.
“It was the way we lost,” Harris said. “It was ugly.”.
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