The Broncos tight end reflects on Gary Kubiak’s first season back in Denver, the wild ride it took to get home-field advantage in the playoffs, and how the Broncos managed to win with two very different quarterbacks this season
Late in this NFL season, depending on the outcomes of the final two games, the Broncos could have ended up as either the AFC’s No. 1 overall seed or out of the playoffs entirely. And that hasn’t even been the wackiest part of their season. Denver has started two quarterbacks, a future Hall of Famer (Peyton Manning) and his possible successor (Brock Osweiler), and somehow the Broncos didn’t veer off course. Now they’re opening the playoffs against the Steelers, with home-field advantage, for a postseason ride that even Manning has said, “I’d be lying to say I’ve never thought” about it being his last one. For some perspective on the Broncos’ season, we talked to veteran tight end Owen Daniels, a trusted target for both QBs.
VRENTAS: You last played the Steelers a month ago, a loss in Pittsburgh after which the Broncos weren’t assured a spot in the playoffs. How critical a juncture was the team at after that game?
DANIELS: That game in Pittsburgh was tough for us. We had a great first half and felt like we were really in control, and then a really bad second half put us in a tough spot. Even to get into the playoffs at all, we had to treat the last couple weeks as if we were already in the playoffs, just to try to get to where we wanted to get. It’s a good example of what we have here in terms of how strong we are mentally and able to bounce back from things. That was a tough game, and other teams won that we didn’t want to win, so there was a lot of pressure on us the last couple weeks to get it done. But that was a little bit of a turning point for us.
VRENTAS: And the big overtime win against Cincinnati the following week?
DANIELS: We were down 14 early in that game, and we only had three possessions in the first half. To be able to bounce back after the tough second half against Pittsburgh and the tough first half we had against Cincy the following week, that gave us a ton of confidence going into the last week and the playoffs. That was huge for us, to be able to refocus. The previous three games before that, we scored zero points in the second half and lost two of those games. So that was big for us in the grand scheme, to be able to have a good second half and put ourselves back in position to win the game.
VRENTAS: In a season when we’ve seen backup quarterbacks around the league struggle, the Broncos have won with both Manning and Osweiler. Why has this offense been able to succeed with two quarterbacks?
DANIELS: Obviously we all know about Peyton and how good a player he is and has been for a very long time. He did a great job of leading us to victories early in the season and then we dropped two after being 7-0, and then we won some games with Brock and then had another little skid. We’ve been able to bounce back no matter who is in there. This offense is friendly to a backup who has a good feel for the game like Brock has, to be able to step in and match things. And having a great defense on the other side doesn’t hurt, either.
VRENTAS: Gary Kubiak has been pretty up front all along about the quarterbacks, saying that Manning would be the starter when he was healthy again, and sticking to that. How much has his guidance helped the team navigate this situation?
DANIELS: It could have been a very delicate situation. But he comes to us first and foremost every week and lets us know what the deal is, who is going to be in there and what the whole situation is so we aren’t in the dark. We’re not guessing; we’re not wondering as the week goes along what the plan is. For him to do that is awesome of him. I think him doing that allows us to focus on the game plan and what our individual jobs are, and that helps us deal with the distraction of all those questions you might get asked during the week: Who do you want in there? Who is looking good? Who does this offense function best for? All that stuff that gets asked, it’s pushed to the side just because we established who was the guy every week, so that helped out a ton.
VRENTAS: And you especially get asked that a lot because you have played in Kubiak’s offense for 10 seasons—in Houston, Baltimore and now Denver. Is this the same Kubiak offense that you have played in at every stop, or did it change with Peyton vs. Brock?
DANIELS: The Kubiak offense I have known for the previous nine years, it seemed like it was a little bit more along those lines with Brock in there, and maybe that’s just because he is a little more mobile so we could run more keepers and stuff with him. When Peyton was dealing with his foot injury, we couldn’t really get him out to do stuff like that. That movement is a big part of our offense, it always has been—or part of Kub’s offense, I should say. But we did implement some of what Peyton had done in the past, what we had done earlier this year with Peyton in there, in terms of the up-tempo stuff. I think that is a great thing to have, to be able to use. We used that to get back into a couple games, the Cincinnati game being one of them, we kind of went back to the up-tempo style. It was good to be able to do both, especially when you are playing up here in the elevation. It is Kub’s offense, but we like to mix some things in there. The more stuff you can do, the more stuff the defense has to prepare for and the more thinly spread they are.
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VRENTAS: Is there an awareness around the team in practice that this could be Peyton’s last postseason, and does that play into the urgency at all?
DANIELS: I think we are as urgent as we can be. It’s the playoffs, and I am sure there is a chance, like Peyton said, that it could be the last one. And he could go play more, who knows? He’s not the only one who is in that situation, and there are a lot of guys who haven’t been here, where you win two games and you are in the Super Bowl. We are really excited for the opportunity for what it is, not just because there are some guys who might be at the end of the road.
VRENTAS: You’re one of those guys who’s never had a first-round bye, right?
DANIELS: It is new. I’ve had to play wild-card weekend the three other times I’ve been in the playoffs, and that was fine, because that was the situation we were in and we were excited about it. But having a bye week, and watching teams beat themselves up a little more while we are getting healthier is a good thing. Sometimes people debate, is it better to keep playing and stay in the rhythm or get some rest? Now having both experiences, getting rest is huge. I am 33, so a week of rest at this point in the season is huge for a guy like me. My experience in the playoffs to this point has been clawing to get in, which we kind of had to do this year, but with the people we had we were able to earn that bye and earn a No. 1 seed. I haven’t had either of those throughout my career. I am looking forward to the opportunity to advance to a round I have never been to before. One win will do that.
VRENTAS: What was the feeling around the team at the end of the Chargers game in Week 17 when Manning led the comeback?
DANIELS: Going into that game, pretty much everyone knew what had happened earlier in the day and that all we needed to do was take care of our business and then the playoffs ran through Denver. That was big to know. Unfortunately, we had a tough first half with turnovers, but having Peyton come in, it was definitely a spark for the team, for the fan base, and for everybody.
VRENTAS: Manning has faced a lot of questions this season, both on the field, about his level of play, and off the field, with the Al Jazeera report alleging his link to an HGH supplier. Have you seen him draw any extra motivation as a result?
DANIELS: Both Peyton and Brock have done a tremendous job of handling all the questions they have been getting every week about their health and how they have been playing. Those guys being very professional and being able to handle it the way that they did says a lot about them. And I know a lot has been said about Peyton. If he is who I think he is, he hears everything but he doesn’t let everyone know what he hears, and he definitely uses it. Great players use everything that they can as motivation and inspiration. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did get motivated by all the comments that people are talking about all season. I think that’s a good thing for us.
VRENTAS: What does going into the playoffs with a guy like Manning do to the confidence of the guys on offense?
DANIELS: It’s just an experience factor. You can’t put that on paper; you can’t replicate that. A guy that has been in as many big games as Peyton has, and played in the playoffs as many times as he has, to have that experience on our side is a tremendous confidence builder for us, knowing that there is nothing he hasn’t seen and he is always going to get us in the right play in any situation. That’s how I look at it.
VRENTAS: You were on a Ravens team last season that beat the Steelers in the playoffs. Can you draw anything from that?
DANIELS: You’ve got to play a complete game, and you have to be disciplined, especially playing against the Steelers’ offense. They always get a bunch of big plays out of scrambles and broken plays; they are tough to stick to, so playing every play through the whistle and carrying that through to the end of the game. I think that is what a lot of people say for any NFL game, but in the playoffs it’s even more important—and against this team it’s even more important. We obviously had a great start against them the last time we played. We didn’t finish, so we know we have to play a full 60 minutes to get it done.
VRENTAS: You mentioned Kubiak’s leadership in navigating the team through sticky situations this season. How much do you think it means to him to do that for the Broncos, where he played and coached previously?
DANIELS: I don’t think he will ever tell you how much it means to him, but it means a lot. It means a lot to him to be back here as the head coach, with the team he played for and won Super Bowls with as the offensive coordinator. Now he wants to get it done as a head coach. I have a ton of respect for Coach Kub and what he did for the franchise in Houston and what he was able to help us do last year in Baltimore. Now he is back home, so to speak, and I am excited for him that he is in this position and that we have the team that we have. We are trying to get it done for him.
VRENTAS: You studied meteorology at Wisconsin, and we all saw the weather play a role in the playoffs last week. What home-field conditions are you hoping for in Denver this postseason?
DANIELS: Nothing too cold. Nobody likes playing in cold weather, even cold-weather teams like Minnesota. No one wants to play when it’s that cold. Something that is comfortable enough where you aren’t thinking about how cold it is—30s, 40s is plenty warm enough for us. We’ve got the elevation on our side, so the weather can do whatever it wants.
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