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Never mind the quarterbacks; Denver will turn it around Fox's way

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Fox has experience with turnarounds, taking Carolina from a 1-15 team to 11-5 in two seasons. (US Presswire)  
Fox has experience with turnarounds, taking Carolina from a 1-15 team to 11-5 in two seasons. (US Presswire)  

ENGLEWOOD, Col. -- It's not Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow who determines what happens with this year's Denver Broncos. It's Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. And Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.

That's because John Fox is in town, and if there's one constant about the Broncos' new head coach, it's that his teams never, ever, ever revolve around the quarterback. They're built on effective running backs and aggressive, attacking defenses that force mistakes and capitalize on them.

That strategy worked in Carolina, and I have no doubt it works in Denver. The only question is: How long will it take?

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In Carolina it was two seasons, with Fox turning a 1-15 doormat in 2001 into the NFC champion by 2003. That may be ambitious, but the plan remains the same. As he did in Carolina, he must first improve the league's 31st-ranked run defense and make it, well, at least credible. When he took over the Panthers, they too ranked 31st vs. the run but vaulted to eighth within a year. They also jumped to 7-9.

The following season they were 11-5.

Denver plays in a division with the NFL's first- and second-ranked rushing offenses (Kansas City and Oakland) and its top-rated offense (San Diego), so it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Fox must first shore up a defense that a year ago surrendered more points than anyone and seven times surrendered 31 or more points. Then he must find running backs who can duplicate here what DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart did for him in Carolina.

Essentially, he must rebuild the Carolina Panthers all over again.

"Well, I think it's a formula that's proven over time," said Fox. "It's not just me. We're all copycats in this league. A lot of great coaches who have come before us have had that formula, and it works. Now it's just staying the course and developing that mindset and the attitude, and it opens up the passing game."

The passing game, of course, is what makes headlines. People want to know why it's Orton starting and not Tebow, but their focus is misdirected. They should pay more attention to the new head coach, and what we've learned over the years from John Fox is that he doesn't have to have a John Elway or Tom Brady to win.

Heck, he nearly beat Brady with Jake Delhomme in a Super Bowl.

"They've made it more advantageous to pass because all the rules are that way," he said, "but it's still high risk. It's like the stock market. You can look really good at times, but you get in the big games in that tournament and it doesn't work as well.

Elvis Dumervil returns after a season-ending injury in 2010, giving the Broncos hope on defense. (Getty Images)  
Elvis Dumervil returns after a season-ending injury in 2010, giving the Broncos hope on defense. (Getty Images)  
"Look at John Elway. He went to three Super Bowls and didn't win. But he had a running game in two Super Bowls and won. That team could do it all. And that's what you need to do.

"You can't just run. The hardest thing for a defense to figure out is the difference between run and pass. That's the hardest thing, and that's how they gain an advantage. If you just let them tee off on you they can kill you."

Bottom line: While it's a quarterback-driven league, Denver will not be a quarterback-driven team ... and that's no knock on Orton or Tebow or even Brady Quinn. It's just the way it is with John Fox. He likes to run the ball, and he likes to run it a lot.

When Carolina went to Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Panthers ran 36 more times (522 carries) than they tried to throw (attempts and sacks). When they went to the NFC Championship two years later, they ran 10 more times (487) than they tried to pass. In neither year did their passing game rank higher than 17th.

I don't think I need to draw you a picture. With John Fox, it's all about establishing the run and stopping it with your defense. It's not about stretching the field with your quarterback and wide receivers.

"When he first got hired, that's what you heard a lot -- that he's a running guy," said Moreno, who showed up 10 pounds lighter than last season. "At the same time we have some weapons outside that can do some good things for us, so I think we can be a balanced team. It's whatever he wants."

What he wants is to be the Carolina Panthers again. This offense is farther ahead of the team that Fox inherited in 2002, and the defense should be -- especially with Dumervil recovered from a season-ending injury and the addition of first-round draft pick Von Miller, a linebacker whom Fox calls "the real deal."

That's a start. The quarterback is gravy. Yes, Orton is an improved version of Delhomme and has proven he can take a team (the 2005 Chicago Bears) to the playoffs, but Orton is not the critical element here. Guys like Moreno and McGahee and Dumvervil and Miller are.

"How improved should this defense be?" I asked cornerback Champ Bailey.

"Well," he said, "we can't be any worse. I know his [Fox's] history and what he's done with defenses. We've got a lot of good support on defense and good minds to make sure we're doing the right things."

The question is: How soon before we see a difference?

"We're going from a 3-4 to 4-3, so that's going to be a dramatic difference," said Bailey. "We're going to attack more, but when you just add a guy like Elvis Dumervil, that in itself is a big plus for us. With him, plus good coaches, we'll be fine."

That's the idea.

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