As the Denver Broncos head into the second half of this 2013 season with the unusual situation of having head coach John Fox out of commission after heart surgery, most members of Orange Nation are feeling fortunate that the Broncos just happened to have another experienced head man on the payroll.
That would be Jack Del Rio, the Denver defensive coordinator who already was considered one of the NFL's most eligible candidates for a top job in 2014. Having served as Jacksonville's head coach from 2003 until late in the 2011 season, Del Rio had been the focus of early rumors in recent weeks after his college alma mater, Southern Cal, fired coach Lane Kiffin and started searching for a replacement.
Del Rio, a 50-year-old former linebacker and team leader both at USC and for four NFL teams during 11 pro seasons, landed on Denver's staff for one reason: Fox, who had given Del Rio his first shot as a defensive coordinator in 2002 at Carolina. That led directly to Del Rio's opportunity at Jacksonville.
Nothing ever quite fell into place for the Jaguars. Several of his teams were good, and twice they made the playoffs, but in the end his mediocre 69-73 record (counting playoffs) told the story of a coach and franchise that never could break through. Many blamed Jacksonville's ownership and front office for not making the right decisions or spending enough money. Others included Del Rio as equally culpable; his defenses were solid and sometimes superb, but offensively the Jags underachieved at the worst times.
There was something else, which I noticed working in 2005-06 for a Florida newspaper that covered Jacksonville. Those two years typified Del Rio's tenure: In 2005, the Jaguars went 12-4 before a playoff loss to New England. A year later, with super-high expectations, Jacksonville faded to 8-8. But it was always obvious that the suave Del Rio enjoyed acting and being treated like a star, more than he should have.
Del Rio made news during that time for wearing a coat and tie on the sidelines, as many coaches had done in the distant past. But his fashion statements off the field were over the top, at least for that part of the world. He would meet with media wearing snazzy suits that looked more appropriate for New York or Los Angeles, and his demeanor was characterized as much too California cool. Even after victories, he would blow off good questions and act far too thin-skinned.
But being fired has a way of humbling anyone, coaches included. Del Rio resurfaced in Denver, and by all accounts he has been a major asset to Fox and the entire team these past two seasons, with excellent organizational skills that should help him now in the dual role of interim head coach.
Now, of course, he gets a rare chance to prove himself once more through an incredibly tough stretch of games (at San Diego, Kansas City, at New England, at Kansas City), but taking over a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback in Peyton Manning and enough weapons to be regarded as a Super Bowl contender.
The question from this view is how Del Rio will handle it. Will he return to his old ways, finding subtle means to take credit for everything good but not responsibility for shortcomings? Or will he follow the example of Fox, who has no ego and is happy to praise everyone else around him for any and all successes?
Clearly, this will be Del Rio's chance to prove himself worthy of another shot in the NFL — unless Southern Cal makes him an amazing offer to be a star again in L.A. In the weeks ahead, rest assured he will be scrutinized in every imaginable way, from sideline strategy to how he handles difficult situations.
Probably the smartest move Jack Del Rio could make now, if he has learned from what happened in Jacksonville, would be to continue acting more like a team-first assistant coach and not like a swaggering new man in charge.
The less ego we see, and the fewer snooty comments we hear, the better.
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