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John Fox’s Third Act

| January 16th, 2015

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The best I’ve ever been taught the three-act structure of playwriting was by a a wonderful writer and teacher named Pat Cook at the BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop. Cook, recalling the lessons of a teacher from his own past, described it thus:

Act One: get the main character up a tree.

Act Two: throw rocks at him.

Act Three: if he comes down safely, comedy. If he falls to his death, tragedy.

At the risk of harping on an issue many readers of this site could care less about, this structure is being more or less abandoned by the modern dramatic writer. The three-act play is being replaced by the 65-minute “meditation” on a relevant theme. (How hard it is to be gay, violence in schools, sex scandals in politics!) Plays with beginnings, middles and ends – once referred to as “well-made plays” – are now considered old-fashioned.

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John Fox is not the hot coordinator of the moment, the NFL’s equivalent of a meditation on a relevant theme. What has Adam Gase actually done? How much does Dan Quinn actually provide the ridiculously-talented Seahawks defense? Shhh! Who cares? These are the names of the moment and they excite owners and fans in the same manner any shiny toy in the window excites a child: they’re new!

Fox is not new. He is a veteran head coach, an established structure, an old-fashioned play. The Chicago Bears are his third act.

Prologue

John Fox served on multiple staffs before his first head coaching gig, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Raiders (under Al Davis) and as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. You want a tough guy pedigree in the league? You couldn’t choose three better organizations.

Act One: Carolina Panthers

After two seasons in Carolina, John Fox looked like one of the best coaches in the NFL.

In 2002 he took over George Seifert’s 1-15 misery train and elevated a nothing defense from 28th in points allowed to 5th while managing seven wins out of roster that had no business winning four games.

In 2003, the Panthers were in the Super Bowl – a game they could easily have won.

In 2005, Fox and his star wide receiver Steve Smith made a postseason run into the Meadowlands and Soldier Field in back-to-back weeks, ambushing Tom Coughlin (a pretty good coach) and a Bears defense that was one of the best in the franchise’s history. Improbably, a mediocre wildcard club made the NFC title game.

In 2008 the Panthers won another division title but lost to a dynamic Cardinals attack with Kurt Warner at quarterback that came one miraculous Ben Roethlisberger pass from winning a Super Bowl title.

2010 was Fox’s final season in Carolina and it is, in effect, a resume killer for him. His ownership had pillaged the roster. His quarterbacks were Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore and Brian St. Pierre (TD-INT of 9-21). His team finished 2-14. Without this season in Carolina, Fox would have been 71-57 as Panthers head coach. While I understand his worst season can’t be removed from his resume, when a coach wins no less than 7 games in 12 of his 13 seasons and 2 in the 13th, one doesn’t have to leap far to consider that season an anomaly.

The Denver Broncos sure didn’t hold 2-14 against him. Act one’s curtain was barely down a minute.

Act Two: Denver Broncos

Here is the only sentence one needs to register from Fox’s tenure in Denver: he did not win a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning.

Yes, John Fox revitalized a defense in desperate need of revitalization but that is what is assumed out of Fox. Yes, he won a playoff game with Tim Tebow but remember the “Tebow season” is one of the flukiest in the history of the NFL. They had zero business being in the postseason. Yes he won a zillion games and three division titles with Peyton Manning but everyone wins a zillion games and division titles with Manning. With Manning there is only one acceptable result for the football public: Super Bowl title.

Fox did not win one. So despite four years every non-champion in that period would sign for, Fox is out. He was up the tree. Those are the rocks.

Act Three: Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears are the third and final act of John Fox’s NFL head coaching career. And now he must answer the question still outstanding:

Can he win a Super Bowl?

No bigger question faces the legacy of head coaches and quarterbacks in the NFL.

Is John Fox a great NFL head coach? Outside of Marv Levy it is hard for me to call any NFL head coach without a ring great and Fox’s failures in the postseason certainly don’t warrant that label. But if he climbs this final mountain and hoists the Lombardi Trophy on the last Sunday of the football season all of those wins and all of those organizational turnarounds will suddenly be viewed through a different lens – the lens of a championship coach. Greatness may not be assured but it will certainly be part of the conversation.

If he fails to win a title he’ll be grouped with dozens of men who’ve won many games in the league without winning the one where the commercials are a big deal. Marty Schottenheimer. Dan Reeves. Chuck Knox. Andy Reid. The good-not-greats. Coaching purgatory. Ask those men and they’ll tell you…it is not a fun place to be.

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Fox is in a rare situation. Only Bill Parcells has ever taken a third head coaching job having reached the Super Bowl with his previous two clubs. (Parcells won two titles with the New York Giants and lost to Green Bay with New England.) Fox went twice. But he lost twice. Because of those losses his third job is the perfect third act for a football coaching career as everything is at stake. Bears fans are at the edge of their auditorium seats, anxiously anticipating what is to come next.

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