ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—Before almost every game of his young career, C.J. Anderson has told himself and his fellow running backs the same thing: They had Peyton Manning as their quarterback. They were afterthoughts, but they didn’t have to be. “We have nothing to lose,” he’d say. “[Nobody’s] expecting us. As long as we’ve got No. 18, nobody’s expecting any of us in the backfield to do anything.”
But this season in Denver, that couldn't be further from the truth.
After the Broncos’ surprise divisional-round exit from the 2014 playoffs, coach John Fox was out, replaced with longtime John Elway buddy and former Texans coach Gary Kubiak. With Kubiak came a system, known for zone blocking, that despite being tweaked to fit Manning will retain its basic reliance on the run. After all, the Broncos quarterback is 39, and he turned up overworked and injured by the playoffs a season ago. The record-setting Denver juggernaut of 2013 is no more, and when the Broncos take the field come September, it will be with a renewed focus on the run—and more pressure on the team’s running backs than the young corps has yet faced.
Among that group, Anderson is the best-known commodity. An undrafted player out of Cal in 2013, he rode the bench as a rookie, but after injuries to Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman in 2014, he earned Denver’s starting job—and a Pro Bowl berth—in the second half of the season. He’ll enter training camp with a firm hold on the No. 1 job, and it’s unlikely that Hillman, Jeremy Stewart or Juwan Thompson will challenge him.
But Ball? Ousting Anderson from his starting job is the only thing he thinks about.
A second-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2013, Ball was a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2011, when he rushed for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns. But since arriving in the NFL, he’s been only a shadow of the player he was in college. At Wisconsin, he rarely went a game without ripping off a run of 15 or more yards; in the NFL, Ball has logged just 18 runs for double-digit yardage over two seasons.
As a rookie, Ball lost Denver’s starting job to Knowshon Moreno after a rocky start that included two lost fumbles in three games. A year ago, he suffered a ruptured appendix in training camp, and a series of groin injuries that ended his season in Week 11. His career has gone anything but to script, but entering year three, Ball believes he’s on the best footing yet to prove he was worth Denver’s investment.
Denver’s No. 1 and No. 2 backs first met at the combine two years ago. Anderson was the nobody, Ball the superstar, but by virtue of their last initials—A, B—the two spent the week in Indianapolis practically glued to each other. They ran in succession, stood shoulder-to-shoulder, and by the time they wound up together in Denver’s locker room, they were fast friends. Even as Ball got playing time and Anderson sat, their relationship remained free of resentment. Anderson, despite itching to get on the field himself, took the time to motivate Ball when he was struggling—and he takes credit for at least part of Ball’s best game as a Bronco. Before Denver’s 2013 game in Kansas City, Anderson gave Ball something of a pep talk from the bench. “Look, man,” he told his teammate. “Forget all the comparisons. Forget [that you’re] a second-round pick. Forget everything you did at Wisconsin. Just go out there and play. You’ve been playing in games since you were eight; just go out there and do it.”
That day, Ball rushed for 117 yards. It’s still the best mark of his career.
A year ago, Denver’s running backs posted exactly four 100-yard games: two by Anderson, two by Hillman. In 2013, they had half that many, one each by Ball and Moreno. Compare that to Kubiak’s teams; the 2014 Ravens saw Justin Forsett alone rush for 100+ yards five times, and in '12, Arian Foster hit the 100-yard mark seven times for the Texans. That’s what Kubiak will be looking for in Denver come fall: one back to shoulder much of the rushing load, to the tune of triple-digit yards. Yes, Denver’s No. 2 back will get carries, but what the Broncos need—for the first time in Manning’s tenure—is a back they can rely on for more than a handful of games. Denver’s baby running backs are growing up, and so are the expectations.
Going into 2015, Ball’s and Anderson’s outlooks couldn’t be more different. Anderson will happily admit he’s having the time of his life. Undrafted and inactive might have been the farthest he made it in the NFL, except for injuries to Ball and Hillman that gave him the unlikeliest of shots. Now, he’s confident, lighter—after former Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase called Anderson “chubby” to Chicago media, the running back revealed he’s down 20 pounds from this time last year—and in control of his destiny.
“Who is going to be the bell cow?” Kubiak wondered after the Broncos’ first day of organized team activities. “Who is going to be a three-down player? They have to sort that out. C.J. showed the flashes of doing that. The fact that they are young, I like that. So we’ll give them all a chance and see how it pans out. Obviously C.J. had a good head start on things.”
Ball, though, is creeping up to the point where he feels he has to prove himself or be labeled a bust. Kubiak’s first impression of the former Wisconsin star was that he’s one of the team’s quieter players, an observation that those coaches who remained from Fox’s regime initially laughed at—until they realized it was true. Once boisterous, the third-year back has quieted and focused since a year ago.
“He wants it,” Anderson says. “You can see he’s hungry. In the back of his head, he knows he has to put up or shut up [because] he was a second-round pick.”
Throughout his time on the bench a year ago, Ball dealt with the mental anguish of his first major injury. “You’re all in your mind,” he says. “Hopefully people aren’t forgetting about me. Hopefully coaches aren’t forgetting about me. But I understand that they’ve got to move on, next man up.”
Still, he couldn’t help feeling like he was losing his footing, and so when he returned home to St. Louis last winter, he determined to add an extra level to his training. Along with his four typical workouts a week, Ball began to take Pilates. He’d been worried about his core strength after both the appendectomy and the groin issues, and he figured Pilates might be the solution. His coaches and teammates, certainly, can see a difference. Running backs coach Eric Studesville says Ball seems muscular, Anderson that he’s leaner.
“I haven’t felt this good since I’ve been in the NFL,” Ball says. “I’m just going to keep my mouth shut and work. There’s a lot I can do. C.J. deserves the starting spot right now based on what he did toward the end of the season helping the team. But I’m right there on his heels. We need two backs in this system.”
Strangely enough, Anderson agrees. He says he knows he and Ball will be splitting carries—or at least that both with get a decent workload—and that both have what it takes to be successful running backs in Kubiak’s system: vision, patience and decisiveness. And for all the competition, all the uncertainty, all the expectations, neither can help but be excited. For the first time in their pro careers, Anderson says, their coach wants to give them the ball.