‘We’ve cracked the code’: How Broncos QB Bo Nix let go and resurrected his career

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Perhaps to anyone else, the impact of a joke made in the middle of a quarterback meeting room wouldn’t have lingered longer than the accompanying chuckles it produced.

But to Kenny Dillingham, the wisecrack from Bo Nix meant something more.

The story starts in 2022, when Dillingham was the offensive coordinator at Oregon who liked to keep things loose.

“Maybe too loose; I don’t know,” he muses now.

Nix, the son of a coach and former college football star, had a different style. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a good sense of humor or a playful side, but he had long approached the sport with uncommon seriousness. It was how he built himself into a five-star prodigy in Alabama who became a varsity quarterback in the eighth grade. It was how he prepared himself to shine as a freshman at Auburn in 2019 when Dillingham was the Tigers’ offensive coordinator.

But the last stage of his career at Auburn — where his father Patrick’s legacy as a star quarterback always hovered — had been “miserable,” he later said. Coaching changes. A brief benching. On-field struggles he had never before experienced. Jeers from the same fan base he had been a part of his whole life. Nix had wrapped his arms around football his whole life. For a time, it was as if the sport he loved was shoving him away.

“People told him he was a bust, and people told him he wasn’t good enough,” Dillingham said.

Dillingham never doubted Nix’s immense talent or his acumen for the game. The only question he had was whether Nix could fully let go, flush away all that had happened at Auburn. Whether he could realize he didn’t have to be Superman — he just had to be Bo.

Then, during an otherwise nondescript meeting early during his first season in Eugene, Nix cut up. Dillingham doesn’t remember the contents of the joke, only what he felt like it meant in the moment.

“I literally, in my mind, was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s starting to relax,’” Dillingham, now the head coach at Arizona State, told The Athletic in a phone conversation shortly after the Broncos selected Nix with the 12th overall pick in Thursday’s NFL Draft. “I said, ‘If this dude actually relaxes, nobody’s going to stop him.’”

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Nobody in the Pac-12 did stop Nix. During his record-breaking two years at Oregon, he accounted for 96 total touchdowns and almost 8,900 yards of total offense. Those numbers — and the process Nix put into producing them — were a large part of why the Broncos picked him. But how he compartmentalized and moved past all that happened before he got to Eugene was also a critical part of the equation.

“I like the fact that (Nix) had some adversity,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said.

His time at Oregon allowed Nix to uncloud his mind, allowing the “genius” within, as Dillingham calls it, to operate freely. During a walkthrough early in the 2022 season, the Ducks walked to the line in an empty pass set, and an extra defender sat on the edge. The scenario almost always dictates a production adjustment.

“You never leave the end unblocked in empty,” Dillingham said.

Well, almost never. Nix spotted a subtle tell in the defensive alignment. The defender wasn’t coming. Nix left him uncovered.

“It was the right thing to do, and when he did it in the walkthrough and had so much confidence in it, and then the end dropped, I was like, ‘Oh s—. It just clicked for this dude.’ He saw it. He understood it. It made sense. From then on out, that dude with protections was elite.”

By midway through the season, Dillingham said, Nix’s comfort with his role was such that he was “checking half the plays at the line of scrimmage.”

“I taught him what I wanted, but Bo Nix ran it,” Dillingham said. “Bo Nix flipped the protections. Bo Nix checked the plays. I gave Bo full rein. I said, ‘You know what, Bo? I trust you. We’re on the same page. You can change it to anything you want at anytime.’ That’s how much trust I had in Bo Nix.

That partnership — and the one Nix formed with Dillingham’s replacement, Will Stein, last season — also revealed Nix’s capacity for risk mitigation, an aspect of his game that became highly appealing to the Broncos in the pre-draft process. He was sacked only five times and threw seven interceptions during his first season at Oregon. He only threw three picks and was taken down only five more times in Year 2.

“If your quarterback understands the weakness of a play, and can get you into another play that’s successful, or be able to take advantage of the defense — that’s to me the secret sauce,” Oregon head coach Dan Lanning told The Athletic last season. “(Nix) can make a business decision to say, ‘OK, they’ve got a good call here, let me get us in our most advantageous call.’ It might not be a winner. But he’s going to make sure it’s not a loss. Really, playing good quarterback is about understanding how not to take losses. It’s not always about creating game-winning plays. It’s about eliminating the negatives. And he does a really good job of that.”

The freedom allowed Nix to flourish. So, too, did the lessons he learned through the challenges at Auburn. Nix clung close to his faith. He leaned on his wife, Izzy, who was by Nix’s side as he arrived in Denver on Friday and who, Dillingham said, “had an unbelievable effect on him from a peace of mind standpoint.” He was still all ball when he was clocked in, but he learned to let go when he wasn’t.

It was a balance he hadn’t always been able to strike at Auburn.

New challenges await Nix in the NFL. The quarterback and his new coach may share similar football ideology, but their relationship will have to evolve with time. Nix knows he’ll face faster defenses. The quick processing and reactions that fueled his breakthrough at Oregon will have to dial up another notch.

“Adversity is inevitable,” the quarterback said Friday. “You’re going to eventually face something you didn’t expect.”

And you have to be able to laugh at it.

“When he first cracked that joke in the meeting room, I was like, ‘Man, we’ve got it,’” Dillingham said. “We’ve cracked the code. We’ve got this kid loose enough to play the game fun and free.”

(Photo: Vasha Hunt / USA Today)

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