Colts’ John Fox returns to NFL coaching looking for ‘purpose’

Marco Island can only be described as paradise. The Southwest Florida enclave features pristine beaches, year-round golf and some of the Sunshine State’s most in-demand real estate.

That’s why John Fox and his family long ago purchased a vacation home there, somewhere to retreat as a means of getting away from the grind of a life built around pro football.

But, for 16 seasons, “vacation” was a relative term in the Fox household. Fox spent 16 consecutive seasons as head coach of the Panthers, Broncos and Bears, taking the jobs back to back to back. Being an NFL head coach is an all-consuming lifestyle. It didn’t leave Fox much time for lying on the beach.

“My situation was unique because I (had) three straight head-coaching jobs without taking a year off,” Fox said. “I honestly don’t think it’s ever been done. An element of that is you get a little burned out, and you don’t even realize it.

“That was a grind.”


John Fox led the Panthers and Broncos to Super Bowls as head coach. (Joe Amon / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

So, when the Bears parted ways with Fox after the 2017 season, the veteran coach took a step back. He dabbled in television as an analyst for ESPN for two years. Then he did something he’d never tried: Doing nothing.

That vacation home finally got some use.

But the respite is over because Frank Reich called. The Colts head coach, looking for a veteran coach to serve as an additional pair of eyes for his defense, chose Fox. His new title in Indianapolis is senior defensive assistant.

What does that mean? Depends on the day.

“He’s just there to serve,” Reich said. “It’s like,‘ Hey, I’m not here to take over. What role do you want me to play? How can I assist? Do you want me to help put a little bit of emphasis on third down or red zone? I’ll do whatever you want me to do. ‘”

Fox, 67, is spending considerable time with new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and the two seem to have developed a very fruitful relationship. One reason for that is their respective abilities to work in conjunction without either feeling threatened.

“First of all, there’s got to be mutual respect,” Fox said. “And I’m not a big ego guy. Gus isn’t that type of person either. That made this fit. You don’t ever want to go in somewhere where someone is looking over their shoulder. It just doesn’t work in a team environment. ”

But before diving too deep into the details of what Fox is doing, there’s another pressing question that needs to be addressed: After four decades of coaching, why is he here? Also, why give up paradise? Why pass up the rare family time he’s recently enjoyed?

The answers can be traced to all those years Fox spent hunkered down in meeting rooms, all in an effort to produce a winning effort on Sunday afternoons. Being a part of something became, well, a part of him. And he missed that.

“I just missed the camaraderie, the competition, the common goal, a purpose,” Fox said. “So, for me, it was to get back and be a part of that.”

Days spent by the pool are certainly enjoyable, but they aren’t deeply satisfying in the same way working together to develop a successful defensive game plan might be. Working in television was also unfulfilling in this regard.

“Talking into a red light is not the same as this – with people, spirit to spirit,” Fox said. “And I truly missed that. It wasn’t the grind. It wasn’t even the games. It was more the relationships and being a part of something. ”

In Indianapolis, those relationships were already intact to some extent. Defensive backs coach Ron Milus and linebackers coach Richard Smith were on Fox’s staffs in Carolina and Denver.

Fox also had a history with Reich who, prior to his coaching career, lived in Charlotte, NC, during Fox’s tenure with the Panthers. In fact, former Panthers and Colts executive Bill Polian recommended Reich to Fox back then, and Fox actually met with Reich and considered him for a role on his staff.

“We just didn’t have an opening at the time,” Fox said. “I actually had him come speak to my team. He did a terrific job. ”

Philosophically, Fox has a bit of a different perspective than Bradley. The Cover 3-based system for which Bradley is famous differs from the largely split-safety scheme Fox’s teams used. But that is perhaps a good quality rather than a drawback.

“I think it’s a good blend,” Fox said. “You don’t want people who are all the same.”

Bradley’s scheme, like any system, will need to keep evolving. Much has changed in the NFL since he and Pete Carroll deployed the Legion of Boom in Seattle, and the scheme will need to continue to adapt. Having staff members familiar with different concepts can help in that effort.

Fox has seen it all. His NFL experience dates to the late 1980s, coaching a Steelers secondary featuring Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson and Pro Bowl safety Carnell Lake. Interestingly, Pittsburgh at the time ran a version of the Cover 3 system that predated the system adapted by Carroll and Bradley.

One thing that is certain is that Fox will be free of the mundane management tasks that fall to head coaches, allowing him to immerse himself in the details of the defense. It’s one of the things he didn’t particularly love about his former roles. But he won’t be asked to do any of that in his current position.

This job is simple. It’s all football, all the time. Marco Island will have to wait.

04.30 Top photo: Jon Durr / Getty Images

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