Who says coaching doesn't matter?
Supporters in San Francisco and Houston certainly will attest to the value of an exceptional leader after watching their franchises claim division crowns despite facing difficult circumstances. For their work, Jim Harbaugh and Gary Kubiak have been roundly touted as the frontrunners for Coach of the Year, an award handing out by the Associated Press at the end of the season.
Harbaugh, who inherited a 49ers' squad that hadn't reached the postseason since 2002, has established his team as a viable contender in the NFC despite lacking a full offseason to implement his plan as a first-year coach. He has done it in impressive fashion by transforming perennially underachieving quarterback Alex Smith into a winning playmaker after six disappointing seasons. More importantly, he has energized the franchise with his infectious personality.
Kubiak has also been impressive in guiding the Texans to the top of the AFC South despite the extended absences of his top three players -- Mario Williams, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson -- to injuries. Some of the credit should go to new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips for his work with the NFL's No. 1 defense, but the fact that Houston has won games with three different starting quarterbacks is a testamant to Kubiak's offensive mastery. His work with rookie T.J. Yates, in particular, has showcased his ability to put his players in a position to succeed despite their circumstances.
While I certainly admire and respect the work of Harbaugh and Kubiak in their respective situations, the coach most deserving of the Coach of the Year award is Denver's John Fox. Here are three traits that he has displayed over the course of the season that make him worthy of the award in my mind:
The NFL's best coaches are willing to cater their schemes to fit the strengths of their personnel, and Fox has certainly demonstrated adaptability in building the Broncos offense around the talents of Tim Tebow.
As a run-first playmaker, Tebow is at his best when allowed to use his feet to make plays on the perimeter. He led Florida to two national championships operating a spread offense, which featured several zone-read option plays. To assist his young quarterback in his development, Fox has revamped the Broncos' scheme to feature the zone-read prominently in the game plan. He also added more predetermined QB runs and run-pass option plays to allow Tebow to utilize his athleticism on the perimeter.
The Broncos offense has thrived as a result of the radical offensive change. The unit ranks first in rushing offense (158.9), with Tebow setting the pace as the league's second-leading rusher among quarterbacks with 517 yards.
Although Tebow has been inconsistent as a passer, he has routinely been at his best in the fourth quarter, completing 62.5 percent of his passes with five touchdowns against only one interception. Part of his late-game success can be attributed to the Broncos' increased utilization of an up-tempo approach in those situations. Game circumstances certainly contributed to the increased urgency, but the clever mixture of formations and play calls sets the table for Tebow's brilliance in the clutch.
With seven wins in the past eight games, including six second-half comebacks, the revamped offensive approach has yielded big dividends.
Fox was hired primarily due to his previous success constructing top defenses, and he hasn't disappointed in Denver. He has helped transform the defense that ranked last in total defense and points into one of the stingiest units in the league over the past eight weeks.
Part of his success has been the clever implementation of a 4-3 scheme that is a drastic departure from the 3-4 favored in the Josh McDaniels era. Fox and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen have built the defense around a pair of pass rushers -- Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil -- with the skills to wreak havoc off the edges. Both possess exceptional first-step quickness and are masters at bending around the corner using their burst to get to the quarterback.
Fox has tapped into their unique skills by deploying them in various alignments to take advantage of favorable matchups. As a result, the duo has combined for 19 sacks, with Miller leading all rookies with 11.5.
Fox has also gotten major contributions from several unheralded players -- including Joe Mays, Wesley Woodyard and Ryan McBean -- to enhance the play of veterans such as Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. The melding of youth and experience has brought about a renewed energy and enthusiasm on the field, which has started to produce better results over the past eight weeks.
The new version of the "Orange Crush" has held six of its past eight opponents to 15 or fewer points, while also holding five of those opponents to fewer than 350 yards. With defense serving as the foundation of most championship teams, the resurgence of the Broncos defense has certainly made the playoffs a real possibility in Denver.
The Broncosâ resurgence from a 1-4 start should be attributed to Foxâs superb game management. He has successfully implemented a slow-down strategy that has reduced the number of overall possessions in the game. This tactic requires each of the three phases -- offense, defense and kicking game -- to work in unison to make the game a fourth-quarter affair. Offensively, the Broncos have increasingly relied on their running game to control the clock and shorten the game. Denver has averaged 39.1 rushing attempts over the past eight games, which is a significant increase over their 23.6 attempts averaged during the first five games of the season.
Although most coaches utilize the running game as part of a winning formula, Fox has combined the approach with a âmilk the clockâ strategy that has enabled the Broncos to wear down opponents in the late stages of games. In closely watching their recent games, Iâve noticed how Tebow typically doesnât snap the ball until five seconds or fewer remain on the play clock. This allows the Broncos to shorten the game significantly when they are able to reel off a few first downs in succession. More importantly, it keeps the opposing offense on the sidelines, which disrupts their rhythm and timing.
To fully maximize the approach, Fox has to call the game conservatively in every aspect. This means eschewing risky gambles on third-and-long or fourth down situations, and relying on the combination of defense and special teams to create an edge in the field position battle.
With each of the Broncosâ units fully understanding their role within this ball control strategy, Denver has been able to make every game a winnable contest in the fourth quarter.
Finally, it has been his reliance on his superb kicking game that has helped the Broncos surge to the top of the AFC West. They have consistently won the field position battle with excellent kicks and coverage, and produced enough yards in the return game to tip the scales. With Matt Prater displaying clutch ability from long yardage, Fox's willingness to engage in close games has been a winning formula.