DENVER -- The suitcase hits me, square on the knee. Thwap. It teeters and falls, hastily abandoned by an older man, maybe 70, who's standing in front of me as we queue up for our Southwest flight.
Luggage be damned, he's got to get up from A52 to A46, because there, in all of his sweatpantsed, five-o'clock-shadowed glory, is Jake Plummer. The man -- and his extended family -- are dressed head-to-toe in Broncos blue and orange, and they're making their way back to Colorado via Houston on Tuesday. Their team has just lost after a fabled season, but that doesn't seem to affect their wardrobe -- or their enthusiasm. There he is, this elderly man, a veritable cheerleader shuffling as fast as he can shuffle for Plummer to slap an autograph on the bill of his hat.
They're treating Plummer -- a winning quarterback, but one who certainly isn't Canton-bound -- as if he's Peyton Manning or John Elway. That's just how these fans function, even after a loss, because there's always been something to look forward to, and there's always been something to look back on. The lone woman in the group bemoans the fact that she drove "all the way out to that car show to get him," when she could have snared his autograph on her jersey right here on the plane. (She is, of course, wearing said jersey.) Then, she reconsiders. Now she's seen him twice. Jake Plummer! Twice!
It was something approaching bizarre, all that blue and orange, all that pride, not 48 hours after the most disastrous of games. Two nights before, the best offense in NFL history had looked like a middle-school squad against Seattle's defense, scoring just one touchdown and a two-point conversion. Eight points were all it managed, eight points despite being the best ever. It should have been reason to weep, to whine, to wallow. It could have been reason to disparage -- but it wasn't.
That's not Denver. Somehow, my plane back from New York was awash in Broncos everything. Everyone, it seemed, was in good spirits. In fact, before getting their autographs, the Jake Plummer Fan Club spent the flight from New York to Houston sitting next to none other than Earl Thomas's uncle, and they praised the Seahawks safety throughout. There is always next year for the Broncos, it seems, and these fans were still as proud as they'd have been had their team won -- although perhaps a bit more sober.
Even so, it stung. Still stings, really. As the team cleaned out its lockers Tuesday -- the day its victory parade was initially scheduled -- Elway, who's now the Broncos executive vice president, and coach John Fox admitted as much.
"These guys, players and coaches have been working seven days a week for the last seven months," Fox said. "And then you work so hard to reach that game and [don't] perform like you'd expect -- it will [hurt for] a while, there is no doubt."
It will hurt, but that pain has one easy remedy: Manning. The Broncos quarterback, though he'll turn 38 in March, has said that he wants to continue playing until he's no longer helpful to his team, and despite poor play in the Super Bowl, he certainly hasn't reached that point. When there is Manning in Denver, there is optimism, and as bitter a taste the 43-8 loss left, it'll be easily washed away come fall.
"I think that any time you're successful, you have to continue to want to get better, [to] continue to be world champions," Elway said. "We got a taste of what it's like this year, and so part of the thing that you have to do is create that expectation level and develop that. It was nice, but it wasn't good enough."
That's why there should be little cause to worry, even if the Broncos' path to Glendale seems a bit shakier than the Seahawks' route to a repeat. This week, Elway admitted that he's still not over his three Super Bowl losses as a player, and he'll add Sunday's into the mix, he said, laughing. That hunger is what fuels him, and thus what fuels the organization. Coming up on two years ago, he hooked the big fish, and the next January, that wasn't enough. In the ensuing months, Elway reeled in more free agents, from the big names to the overlooked surprises. That looked like it might be enough -- it got them to a Super Bowl despite myriad injuries, after all -- but again, it wasn't. Now Elway will build yet again, and there's no reason to think things won't get just a little bit better, a little bit tougher, a little bit more equipped to snarl back at defenses like Seattle's.
Denver knows this. Even after those three Super Bowl losses, it trusted Elway, and that paid off. It still trusts him, still trusts Manning, still trusts Fox, to the extent that a city can ever trust a coach. The fact that the game unfolded so bizarrely -- no one could have predicted such a blowout -- may even have made the result the tiniest bit easier to swallow. It wasn't a bad call, a bad kick, a bad throw. It was a bad everything, which allows one to wonder about luck, about flukiness, about jitters.
Somehow, that might make it better. Somehow, and it's time to move on.
After a full day of traveling Tuesday, the airport train in Denver was a welcome sight. As it pulled toward the baggage claim, the customary jingle blared through the speakers. Out of habit, I prepared myself for Peyton Manning's drawl to extend its recorded greeting. It was no more. Instead, skier Lindsey Vonn said hello.
Welcome to Denver. Only five months until training camp.