ENGLEWOOD – John Fox can downplay his return to Carolina for Sunday’s game all he wants — but he knows his on-the-record words will do little good.
“You guys are welcome to your own thoughts,” Fox said wryly as he closed his press conference Wednesday.
Meanwhile, he will keep asserting at every opportunity that Sunday’s return to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte is just another game, one of 16, the most important only because it’s the one that looms, and other such statements.
“They all count the same the last time I looked,” Fox said. “I’m not going to get to play a snap so it’s going to be the Denver Broncos players versus the Carolina Panthers players and that part of it is no different than any game.”
That philosophy is the only wise play at this point; for him to do otherwise would represent going back on nearly two years of consistently pragmatic statements about his nine years with Carolina — statements that date back to his final day as Panthers’ head coach, when he abandoned the biting pithiness he showed in a few comments from May to December 2010 and struck a more conciliatory tone.
“A lot of good memories,” Fox said on his final day with the Panthers. “I know I didn’t finish like anybody wanted. I would have never expected to have a nine-year run. If I was given the chance to do it all over again, I would.”
And that’s the tone he struck Wednesday.
“I like to approach things as glass half-full, so we did get to a Super Bowl and we got to a couple of Championship games, we had three playoff appearances so by most people’s calculations that’s pretty good,” Fox told Charlotte-area media members on his conference call with them.
But it seems as though his players understand this game will be different — even if he won’t admit it.
“I definitely understand what he’s saying as far as you have to prepare like it’s any other game, but it’s going to be emotional on Sunday for him,” tight end Joel Dreessen said. “Any time you spend a lot of time at a place, you’re going to have some emotional attachment.”
And Peyton Manning understands the impact of going back home — as he learned on Oct. 6, 2003, when the Colts, then coached by Tony Dungy, went back to Tampa to face the Buccaneers, who fired Dungy in January 2002.
“I have played in a game, though, where a coach returned to a place that was special to him, and he was a great coach for, obviously, when we went back to Tampa in 2003,” Manning said.
As would be the case with Fox and the Panthers nine years later, Dungy was the most successful coach to that point in the team’s history and responsible for a quick two-year turnaround that built a solid foundation and led to a steady stretch of competitive seasons that were occasionally spectacular. But unlike the Panthers this Sunday, those Buccaneers were defending champions.
The Bucs took a 35-14 lead with 5:09 left in regulation. Manning and the Colts sprinted back, helped by a 90-yard kickoff return and a successful on-side kickoff. The Colts ran 15 plays on three drives — and scored on all of them, tying the score with 35 seconds to spare in regulation before winning it in overtime.
No one’s saying that such a rally will be necessary Sunday — although the Broncos’ play this season suggests that if they need a comeback, Manning will be able to deliver, especially since the Broncos have scored more second-half points through eight games than all but two teams in league history (1950 Rams, 2000 Rams) to that point of the season.
Winning it for the coach? That’s a nice intangible, but Manning doesn’t see that as a one-time sentiment.
“Coach Fox is our coach, he’s our leader. I think every week you want to win for your head coach,” Manning said. “I’ve always wanted to believe players should want to win for many reasons — and one of them should be your head coach.”