Selected one spot behind Cam Newton in 2011, the Broncos defender hit bottom two years ago and missed out on Super Bowl 48. Now, after outplaying his ’11 draft counterpart in Super Bowl 50, he’s solidified his status as a franchise player. Next up: one massive off-season payday
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The last name anyone expected to hear on Sunday night was that of Johnny Manziel. The soon-to-be-ex-Browns quarterback has stolen plenty of airtime this NFL season, but surely not on Super Bowl Sunday? But there was the Super Bowl MVP, standing in front of cameras in a sweat-soaked championship T-shirt, using that platform to try to get a message through to his old college teammate.
“Hey, Johnny Man, I know it’s a hard time,” Von Miller said into a TV camera. “I’ve been in the same situation. I’m here with you, buddy. Keep grinding, and you, too, can be here in two more years. I love you.”
Perhaps it was easier for Miller to talk about someone other than himself. The young star didn’t seem entirely comfortable in the MVP spotlight Sunday evening; he even tripped on the way to his press conference while still wearing his football cleats. But it was also that, in the spectrum of emotions players experience after winning a Super Bowl, one thing Miller felt was gratitude—for the people who helped him climb out of a dark place two years ago, to the top of the football world last night.
What was on display in Denver’s 24-10 win over Carolina was the very best of Von Miller, the unblockable outside linebacker who wreaks havoc on opposing offenses. He abused Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers, beating him for two-and-a-half sacks and two forced fumbles that tipped the game for Denver. “He’s faster, quicker and a better athlete than those guys,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.
But while that’s always been true since the Broncos made Miller the No. 2 overall pick in 2011—one slot behind Cam Newton—they hadn’t always reaped the benefits. The last season that Denver was in the Super Bowl was the worst of Miller’s young career. In 2013 he missed the first six games of the season for a violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy; he was arrested for failing to appear in court on traffic violations; and then he tore his ACL in December, missing the Super Bowl run.
“I wanted to be there with my teammates,” Miller said. “I wanted to share those moments with my teammates. I didn’t want to be injured. I didn’t want to be a guy who was getting in trouble. I just wanted to be great. I wanted to be the player this organization brought me in to be.”
The issues Manziel is struggling with appear to be much more serious, but Miller was also in need of a wakeup call just two years ago. How far he’s come since then seemed to be sinking in more and more as each wave of reporters approached his locker, where he was blasting Drake and The Future’s “I’m The Plug” and changing into sparkling gold hi-tops that could also have been MVP of the shoe game.
When Miller was sidelined, he said Peyton Manning texted him every week to check in and encourage him. A year later one of Miller’s pass-rushing idols, DeMarcus Ware, signed with Denver and immediately stepped into the role of his mentor, on and off the field.
“He was already a phenomenal athlete, but the maturity level of who he is as a person has been heightened,” Ware said. “I told him, when something is important to you, you start prioritizing. That’s what he really did this season.”
Ware added, “It’s when you’re on the sideline that you see how important the game is to you. When I first came here, in 2014, I could see how hard he worked when he hurt his knee. And I was like, he’s ready. He really wants it. Sometimes that time off is a bell-ringer for you.”
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That’s exactly what happened, and this year Miller and Ware teamed up as the outside linebacker bookends of the league’s No. 1 defense. Either could have been in contention for the MVP. As happened in Carolina’s only other loss of the season, to the Falcons, the Broncos pressured Newton with five rushers. The Panthers often keep in an extra back or tight end to max protect, so defensive end Antonio Smith said one tactic Phillips called upon was green-dog blitzing, where a defender will choose to rush the quarterback if the player he’s assigned to in man coverage stays in to pass block.
It didn’t take long for the Broncos to let Newton know just what kind of evening it was going to be for him. On third down in Carolina’s second drive of the day, Miller simply charged past Remmers and looted the ball right from Newton’s hands, jarring it free to be recovered by Malik Jackson in the end zone for a touchdown. “That play rattled Cam,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “That did it.”
Miller did it again in the fourth quarter, bulling past Remmers to swat the ball loose out of Newton’s hands and onto the turf, where teammate T.J. Ward recovered it near the goal line. Four plays later, the Broncos scored the touchdown that sealed the win. Earlier in that half, Miller had ended another Panthers possession with a split-sack using a spin move against Remmers.
“Whatever they tried to do against him,” Marshall said, “it didn’t work.”
“He’s got something with Cam, he likes to get after Cam, so he did today,” said John Elway, who made Miller his first draft pick as the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations.
Asked how much Miller earned these past two games, Elway chuckled and said, “We’re going to do everything we can to keep him.”
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Newton was drafted one spot before Miller. Both players, though, have been home runs for their franchises. Newton got his big contract extension this summer. The Broncos have tried to lock up Miller, who is due to be a free agent this spring, but the talks so far have been fruitless.
With each of his five sacks in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, his price tag only shot up. Multiple reports on Super Bowl weekend indicated Miller would be franchise tagged while the sides continue work toward a long-term deal. Asked how much money Miller earned these past two games, Elway chuckled knowingly.
“He’s a great player,” he said, “so we’ll have to see what that is. He’s just had a tremendous year, and I’m happy for Von, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep him.”
Miller’s value is so high because he is an all-around player, and not just a pass rusher. Case in point: In the third quarter last night he broke up a deep pass near the goal line while in one-on-one coverage with a wide receiver.
Said Phillips, more directly: “I don’t think there’s any doubt he was going to be one of the higher-paid defensive players.”
But there was doubt, as recently as two years ago. Would Miller realize his potential?
“Everything is not going to be pretty on and off the field,” Miller said. “I have definitely had my struggles, and it was because of my teammates and family, all these guys who never really quit on me, they kept believing in me, that got me to this moment where I am today. I say that to say, if you are having a hard time right now, keep pushing.”
Miller continued dressing, layering on gold chains and a metallic-trimmed green blazer. He’d missed the first bus back to the team hotel, and really the only worry he had in the world was when the next bus was coming. Miller’s last Super Bowl was bitter. This one was sweet.
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