A player with three Pro Bowls and three All-Pro seasons on his résumé, Fletcher Cox wanted something more from his offseason after winning Super Bowl LII. He wanted to be faster on the field, and more agile, with better conditioning. He wanted to take his training to a new level, hopeful that the work there would show up on the football field.
Three games into the 2018 season, Cox is dominating. He's always dominated, but now he's really, really taking over games. Cox has three quarterback sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, and five tackles for loss, three key statistical categories in which he is already tracking well ahead of his career bests (9.5 sacks, 2015; 34 quarterback hurries, 2017; 14 tackles for loss, 2015).
"This year I did a little more. I normally do a form of CrossFit early on and my trainer Deon (Deon Hodges, D1 Sports in Madison, Mississippi), later on when we get closer to the season he gets me back to doing football things," Cox said. "First half of the offseason I kind of get away from the football stuff and focus on getting in shape, more shape. Towards the end, just football stuff.
"Quickness, being explosive, getting in and out of turns, change-of-direction stuff, all of the little things that most people don't focus on. I feel one hundred percent different. I can tell the difference when I'm out there. Being able to get people off me quicker, see stuff a whole lot faster, it's helped me a whole lot."
Why then, with his career portfolio, and with the high profile of the team in a large media city, is Cox never, not ever, mentioned among the other names (Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, etc.) for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors?
Certainly, the lack of national chatter has to have some impact on Cox, right?
"Disrespectful. Very motivating. I promise you it is," Cox says.
So maybe that's the case. But then Cox is asked a few more times about it and he softens. He becomes introspective. He says it's not on his mind.
"I really don't care about it," Cox says. "They're great players. Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are great players. … It would be a distraction if I thought about it. As long as the players in this locker room know that I am a guy who can take over a game, then I believe in the guys in this room and nobody else. Turn the tape on and see that all I do is go out and play my game. I'm very humble about it. As long as the guy across from me – I respect that guy and he respects me – I just go out and be the best player I can be on Sunday.
"I don't need nothing special. I just need this team to win. Just play together as a group and a unit and all stick together and things will be great for us."
What Cox is doing is proof positive that diligence in the offseason pays rewards when the games begin. Hodges met Cox in 2013 and the two started working together a year later. Hodges calls Cox "one of a kind when it comes to natural talent," but the key has been Hodges working with Cox honestly with star entitlement part of the process. He wanted Cox to know that he is more than a defensive lineman. He's an athlete, and he needs to treat his workouts that way and then go play that way.
"The league is going toward hybrid guys, not just having someone like Fletcher be an interior defensive lineman. He needed to understand that, and he did very quickly," Hodges said. "He is naturally gifted with strength and agility so now it was time to hone in on the components of what works better. He is a naturally strong guy, an extra effort guy. I never want to see him walking on the field. He's seeing how he works on the field and the difference it makes. (Defensive line coach) Chris Wilson is taking care of the reps and keeping him fresh, playing Fletcher 40 to 50 snaps a game. Now it's just about playing ball and Fletcher is playing like his hair is on fire."
He sure is.
Cox is not only wrecking blocking schemes to get to the quarterback. He's chasing down screen passes and blowing up checkdowns. He's dominating against the run and if Cox isn't around the ball, he's taking blockers out of the equation and giving other defensive players better opportunities to get to the football.
We are only three games into the season, but Cox is playing with a bigger purpose in mind.
"The main thing when we got together after the Super Bowl was that he needed to take some time and enjoy the Super Bowl and embrace it," Hodges said. "When it was time to get to work, Fletcher was right there. I told him, 'The last thing I want is for you to get fat and happy.' He's made money, he's been in the Pro Bowl, and now he won the Super Bowl. I've tapped into what makes him tick. Last year he was upset that he wasn't named a team captain, now we talk about being a defensive player of the year. That's how I got his attention.
"He's really embraced it. He's playing the game with the neck up. What's next? How about the Hall of Fame? How can we get to that 10-year gold jacket talk? Is that something you really want?"
Cox is playing that way. An already-great player has taken his game up a notch.
"I just go out and be the best Fletcher I can be on Sundays," Cox says, "and I think the world, the people that know football, people that have watched me play know that I am one of the best D-linemen in the league."