ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Jack Del Rio spent much of his nine previous seasons an NFL head coach trying to find ways to beat a Peyton Manning-led team. That alone makes the challenge he'll face as the Broncos' interim head coach altogether different from his years prowling the Jacksonville Jaguars' sideline.
But the biggest difference is in the team he inherits, and how long he'll handle its reins while John Fox recuperates from his upcoming surgery to replace an aortic valve. Instead of nursing a club through takeoff and ascendance, as he did in reviving the Jaguars, he simply slides over from the co-pilot's seat to a team that has been at cruising altitude for well over a year, having won 18 of its last 19 regular-season games.
Del Rio is uniquely qualified for this role, relative to most of the hundreds of coaches currently active in the league. There are only 10 other men currently on NFL coaching staffs who have more head-coaching experience than he does — a group that includes the man he'll spell for the next several weeks. He guided the Jaguars through a rebuilding process to a pair of playoff appearances in 2005 and 2007, and that club has not been anywhere near as competitive since it dismissed him in 2011 as it was during his eight-plus seasons there, making Del Rio's stint look better and better as time passes.
One other key difference is that Del Rio will continue his duties as defensive coordinator. As with any coach who handles double duty on a staff, there will be some slack that needs to be picked up, but with experienced coaches like Linebackers Coach Richard Smith — a former defensive coordinator — and former Interim Head Coach Eric Studesville, Del Rio will have others upon whom he can lean.
Having a pair of "coaches on the field" in Peyton Manning and Wesley Woodyard will also come in handy; the offensive and defensive calls and leadership flow through the two team captains, and if anyone traipses from the line the team needs to toe in the coming weeks, these two are capable of getting everyone back in place.
Nevertheless, the game-day decisions will flow through Del Rio's headset, and that's where some tactical differences between the two coaches might reveal themselves.
Yet any deviations in style are minuscule and outweighed by the common traits between the coaches.
They are cut from similar cloth. They share a similar problem-solving mentality that comes from their background as defensive coaches who worked all over that side of the football. Their interactions with players are often tinged with the understanding that comes from their playing experience in their younger days: they've been there, and they haven't forgotten what it was like.
It's not always going to be back-slaps and laughter, as evidenced by Fox's post-penalty chat with Kevin Vickerson in Week 8 and Del Rio's dressing-down of Danny Trevathan after the young linebacker cost the Broncos a touchdown in Week 1 by holding the football out before crossing the goal line. But both share the trait of having a player's best interests at heart -- while also being stern when the need arises.
With a replacement as seasoned as Del Rio, Fox can focus on his recuperation, knowing that the team is in secure hands until he returns.
Fox often refers to the "next man up." It's as true for coaches as it is for players, and there's no "next man" on a staff more prepared for a temporary promotion than Del Rio.