Mike McCarn/Associated Press file photo
Mike McCarn/Associated Press file photo
There are a few more lines around the eyes, each of them a symbol of some lesson learned during a head-coaching tenure that lasted nearly a decade, had its share of success, then ended badly for Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville.
Some things, however, haven’t changed.
The Broncos defensive coordinator, now 49 and reunited with John Fox in the same role he had a decade ago in Carolina, still is a formidable presence whenever he walks onto a football field. And the schemes the NFL linebacker-turned-coach crafts still make life very difficult for offenses around the league.
Asked to describe his approach to defense without using the word “aggressive” – because, really, what defensive coordinator doesn’t want to be aggressive? – Del Rio laughed.
“Aggressive,” he said. “I don’t know. There are a lot of good people out there doing a lot of good things. From my standpoint, the No. 1 thing we want to do is create a culture where players understand the things they’re being asked to do. That they build a confidence playing for each other, with each other. And that in the end, you play fast.”
Denver’s seventh defensive coordinator in seven years has the Broncos (6-3) playing fast and at a level this defense hasn’t reached in a while. Yes, they are ranked a more-than-respectable sixth in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed, in the running to finish with the best statistics in those categories since the mid-2000s. But they also are ranked second in sacks per pass play and, with four touchdowns and a pair of safeties, are making the kind of plays that swing games.
They are building a reputation as a swarming, playmaking and, yes, aggressive group, which is just how Del Rio coaches it, especially when the talent is there to make it happen. Had it worked this well in Jacksonville over the last few years, the coach still might be there. Instead, he got released 11 games into last season with a 69-73 career record.
Some might have sat it out for a while, let some wounds heal and, in Del Rio’s case, collected some easy paychecks, which could have totaled up to around $5 million.
Not this coach, who Thursday was standing amid his defenders at the start of practice, shouting, listening, correcting and at one point, insisting the players “get this (expletive) down” by the end of the day.
“I love coaching,” he said. “And this was a good opportunity for me to get hooked up with a guy I respect and a program that’s first class.”
Indeed, when Fox came calling, Del Rio knew he could get right back into his comfort zone: Coaching defense alongside one of the men he came up with, working in the room with players, getting back to the kind of routine that wasn’t available as much when he was a head coach, where PR, delegating to staff and big-picture decision-making often overshadows the Xs and Os.
“That’s something you probably kind of miss after a while,” Fox said. “It kind of re-energizes you. I think he’s having fun doing it.”
No doubt, Del Rio said.
“When we interviewed, I said, ‘Hey, I don’t mind being an assistant strength coach again,’” Del Rio said. “I love ball with the right people, right organization. I love to be a member on the staff and going through the grind and having my feet in the grass and having a chance to touch some players. That’s what I have a passion for.”
Del Rio’s last two stops in his 11-year NFL playing career were in Dallas, where he played for Jimmy Johnson, and Minnesota, where Tony Dungy was the defensive coordinator. It was Johnson’s “all-in mentality,” as Del Rio called it, and Dungy’s ability to coach, teach but not dwell on failure that got Del Rio thinking about the kind of coach he’d like to be someday.
He started in New Orleans as, yes, the assistant strength coach, then moved to Baltimore to coach the linebackers from 1999-2001. Led by Ray Lewis, the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001. Del Rio left Baltimore to join Fox in Carolina in 2002, where he transformed the defense from 32nd-ranked to second in the span of a season.
Impressed with that sudden bout of success, and looking to inject some new, young energy into the franchise after firing Tom Coughlin, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver bypassed coaches with more experience and took a chance on Del Rio, who with blue eyes, blond hair, standing 6-4 and still close to his 240-pound playing weight was a made-for-TV presence in a city looking for a football star.
He also had proven he could coach a little, though the perils of going with a guy who never had been the head man reared their head early. There was the infamous tree stump Del Rio put in the locker room. His message: Keep chopping wood, but when punter Chris Hanson did, he swung the ax nearly through his shin and had to be rushed to the hospital.
The coach had trouble managing changes at the quarterback position involving Mark Brunell, Byron Leftwich and David Garrard. There was a revolving door of assistant coaches and two playoff appearances to show for eight-plus years on the job.
Through it all, though, the players played hard for Del Rio. And, of course, staying in the same job for that long in the NFL is a victory of sorts, no matter how it ends.
“Certainly, I’m a much better coach now,” Del Rio said. “I got a wealth of experience. You learn from good and bad. I feel like a better coach at this point. I still have all my fire and desire and energy, which is why I’m doing what I’m doing now.”
By returning to his roots – running the defense – Del Rio gets to go back to what he’s best at: Connecting with players, devising schemes that bring out their best, which, in Del Rio’s mind, is what coaching is supposed to be all about.
“When I was in college, I started hearing about him, and we used to watch the Jaguars’ defense,” said Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who leads the team in tackles and has earned an AFC Defensive Player of the Week honor in Del Rio’s scheme. “They used to always talk about him and the stuff he runs. He’s one of those guys who’s always amped and believes in his players. And him being a past linebacker, it makes it easier for us to follow him, look up to him and believe in him.”
The subplot in all this is that the success of the Denver defense could make Del Rio a popular choice to become a head coach again. That’s a particularly delicate topic for the Broncos, who lost Dennis Allen to the Raiders after last season and haven’t had a defensive coordinator serve back-to-back seasons since Larry Coyer from 2003-06.
No problem from the boss’s point of view.
“Whenever you hire an assistant coach, you want them to have high aspirations,” Fox said. “You want to hire people who may have that ability. Otherwise, you’re not hiring the best people.”
Del Rio said he doesn’t look beyond the next Sunday, which in this case is a rematch with the Chargers. If Denver wins, it takes a three-game lead in the AFC West.
“I’m all in, 100 percent as a lieutenant on this staff,” Del Rio said. “I’m somebody that John Fox, John Elway ... and the players can count on. I’m 100 percent invested in helping them be their best.”