The Broncos were my 10th stop on an 11-day tour of NFL training camps -- sort of. I arrived in Denver Sunday morning to discover that Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels had canceled that afternoon's practice, a much-needed respite for his banged-up and injury-thinned squad. I still made my way to the team's Dove Valley team complex, where they have held camp in recent years, and talked to plenty of Broncos about where they stand as the preseason schedule comes into view. I just didn't get to see any actual training taking place the day I was in camp.
1. From the outside looking in, I was assuming I'd find a Broncos team that already was in some real disarray given the plague of injuries that has descended on McDaniel's 80-man roster early in camp. No other team in the NFL has lost more manpower than Denver since camps opened, with league-leading sacker Elvis Dumervil probably out for the season, his backup, Jarvis Moss, breaking a hand the day after Dumervil was hurt, all three running backs (Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter and LenDale White) sidelined at the moment, and key cogs like left tackle Ryan Clady, guard Chris Kuper and rookie receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker missing time.
But instead I heard from a collection of Broncos who seem convinced this team can weather the storm and maybe use this hefty dose of early adversity to its advantage. As McDaniels pointed out to me, every injured player except for Dumervil (the team's superb weakside linebacker) has a chance to be ready to go for the team's Sept. 12 opener at Jacksonville, so it's just a matter of August having to be endured at the moment. That's no small potatoes, of course, but it's better to have to deal with these injuries now than at midseason, when the games count.
"It's not the end of the world,'' McDaniels said, twirling a coach's whistle around in the air as we spoke in the Broncos' media workroom Sunday afternoon. "It's nothing that we're overwhelmed by. In a weird way, it's been slightly motivating to say, 'OK, we're facing some obstacles here, but that's all they are.' It's adversity, sure. But one of our goals from last year to this year was to handle adversity better than we did last season.
"So we hit it right away. But we're going to get the vast majority of those guys back. It's almost like you don't want to play a lot of your starters in the preseason anyway, in case they get hurt. Well in our case, we can't play them in August. We have to rest them.''
The whole next-man-up mantra in the NFL is deeply ingrained, but I found the Broncos' lack of panic to be fairly convincing. I think they believe they'll survive this spate of injuries and that other players will step up to absorb the loss of Dumervil. Either that or they're all very good at whistling past the graveyard.
2. If there's a guy on Denver's defense ready to take a significant jump this year and maybe pick up some of the slack created by Dumervil's injury, it's second-year strongside linebacker Robert Ayers. He looks like a different player so far compared to the low-impact 2009 first-round pick who started just one game last year, totaling 18 tackles, no sacks and two passes defensed. The former Tennessee Vol made everyone notice him in Saturday night's intra-squad scrimmage at Invesco Field, dominating in goal-line drills and twice breaking through the offensive line to register what would have been sacks if Denver allowed its quarterbacks to be hit in a scrimmage setting.
"It's a night and day difference with Robert,'' McDaniels said. "He came in with great focus this offseason. We've pushed him and he's responded incredibly well. We'll see how far this guy can come.''
Ayers told me the mental part of the game has clicked for him in a way it never did in his rookie season, and he feels ready for a much bigger role in his second year of playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense after being a collegiate defensive end in Tennessee's 4-3. With him on the strong side, the Broncos will replace Dumervil on the weak side with a combination of eighth-year veteran Mario Haggan, and Moss, once he shows he can play with a taped-up club on his broken hand. Haggan started all 16 games at strong side linebacker last season, and while he was slated to move inside and start alongside D.J. Williams this year, injuries have now bumped him back outside.
"Don't get me wrong, losing Elvis is a big deal to the pass rush,'' Haggan said. "But everybody's acting like we've got sloppy linebackers. We don't. We'll be OK. We'll be fine, man. I think people are blowing it out of proportion. That's why they have depth charts. That's why they do the draft and free agency.''
3. It made for a good offseason storyline, but there's no three-man quarterback competition unfolding in Denver this summer. Not in any real sense, because incumbent starter Kyle Orton looks locked in with McDaniels' offense and has taken a stranglehold on the starting job. Orton was razor-sharp in the team's scrimmage Saturday night, which was a 180-degree turn of events for him compared to last year's intra-squad scrimmage at Invesco, in which he was booed lustily after tossing a couple interceptions. That, of course, came in the aftermath of the Jay Cutler trade, with Orton trying and failing (at least early on) to earn the trust of the Broncos faithful.
Denver traded for Brady Quinn and drafted Tim Tebow this offseason, but those moves only served to focus Orton's resolve to leave no doubt in anyone's mind regarding the No. 1 job. Orton is miles ahead of Quinn and Tebow in terms of knowing and executing the Denver offense, and he's both comfortable and thriving in it. Don't try telling Orton this is not his team.
"I told Josh and everyone that asked, I've been in a situation in Chicago where I wasn't given a chance to compete, and that was awful,'' Orton told me. "That's the worst situation you can be in, where they say, 'Well, it doesn't matter how you do, we're going with this guy (Rex Grossman).' In Chicago, your play didn't really matter.
"But any time I've had the chance to compete, I've won the [job], and I'm fine with that. Certainly I'd love to have a [long-term] deal and be the guy, and I think it's going to happen for me at some point, I really do. Hopefully it's next year. But that's just how it is right now. I haven't let that get me off course. I'm all about winning and getting this team in the playoffs.''
The last player I met with Sunday at Broncos camp was Tebow, who gave me 10 minutes or so after he was done doing his typically exhaustive weight-room workout. He arrived in the media work room slightly out of breath, and wearing a Broncos baseball cap. This was almost 24 hours after teammate Wesley Woodyard had given the former Heisman winner the worst haircut of his life, which was promptly sent viral around the internet thanks to LenDale White and his Twitter account.
So while I didn't get to see Tebow's "monk's'' cut first-hand, he smiled broadly when I referenced the cap. "It's really not a big deal,'' he said. "The guys had fun with it. It was all in fun. You've got to expect that.''
So far this camp, Tebow has had his "rookie'' haircut, his feet turned blue by some veterans who put something in his practice cleats, and he took part in Denver's now traditional post-practice rookie "Slip and Slide'' day, in which he went water-sliding like an 8-year-old on a hot summer day. "Oh, yeah, I was the first one,'' he said.
In between all that he's been working on this football thing, and he had a pretty strong showing in Saturday night's scrimmage, throwing a 24-yard touchdown to his fellow rookie, receiver Demaryius Thomas, and scoring a second on a quarterback keeper.
Sunday in Cincinnati, Tebow will make his real NFL debut in the Broncos preseason opener. Naturally he's jacked for it. "It'll be a very exciting moment for me, and it'll be a very proud yet humbling moment for me,'' he said. "Regardless whether it's preseason or regular season, just to be in an NFL uniform and be on the sidelines and be part of the team, it'll be a special moment for me. Just because it's been a dream of mine since I was a little boy to play in the NFL. It'll be an overwhelming feeling.''
Thomas sparkled late last week in practice and again in the Broncos scrimmage, showing already that he knows how to use his 6-foot-3, 229-pound frame to his advantage against defenders. But then he landed awkwardly on his left foot after catching a touchdown pass late in the scrimmage and did not return. It's the same foot he broke in a pre-draft workout early this year, causing him to miss the workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
"In terms of a timetable, I don't know yet how long he'll be out,'' McDaniels told me Sunday. "We do know it's not broken. I'm hopeful that it's not going to be long. Not too terribly long.''
Thomas, Denver's top draft pick, has shown signs that he'll be the rare rookie receiver who can contribute right away. The Broncos drafted him 22nd overall to replace the departed Brandon Marshall, and while his foot issue is a setback, he has lived up to the first-round billing so far in Denver's camp.
I didn't get to see any on-field action in Denver, but there was one surreal moment that I won't soon forget. While I was interviewing Tebow in the Broncos media room, the guy who wears the team's "Miles the Mascot'' horse outfit kept ducking in and out of the bathroom that was about 15 feet behind Tebow. He was in full costume at the time, but I guess he needed a potty break. It was like being in one of those ESPN commercials, and it kept cracking up me, Tebow and Broncos public relations director Patrick Smyth.
1. With both Oakland and Kansas City looking improved, and San Diego still loaded with talent despite having contract situations with a few of its stars, the Broncos face a tougher go of it in the previously mild, mild AFC West this year. Improvement for Denver will likely come down to doing better within the division. The Broncos were 3-3 last year in the AFC West en route to their rollercoaster 8-8 finish, but bizarrely they went 0-3 at home and 3-0 on the road. Taking care of business at home in the division is the focus this year.
2. Broncos 12th-year cornerback Champ Bailey really likes playing for new Denver defensive coordinator Don Martindale, who replaces the departed Mike Nolan. "I like the way he's doing things,'' Bailey said. "He really talks to the corners and lot of the veterans to get our input on certain things. A lot of coaches are so arrogant they don't do that. I've played for a bunch of them.''
Wow. That was a zinger that Champ had locked and loaded for a while now I'm guessing.
3. I get the feeling linebacker Mario Haggan wouldn't trade places with Tebow even if he could.
"He's a spectacular guy, he really is,'' Haggan said. "I just feel bad for the guy. He can't go anywhere, and can't do anything that a normal person can do. Normalcy is not part of his life. Even before the haircut.''
4. McDaniels just seems so much more comfortable in his own skin this season, his second in Denver. There's no way to learn how to be a head coach in the NFL until you do it for a year, and McDaniels at least has that out of the way now. He gave me a very honest assessment of his team's shortcomings last year, when it started 6-0 and still missed the playoffs at 8-8.
"We all, myself included, need to handle the ups and downs and the flow of the season better than what happened last year,'' he said. "We didn't handle it well, whether it was being too down or low, or being too excited about and accepting the performance we put together in a win. We can't go too high or too low. I think last year when we lost, it led to another loss, and when we won, we got too satisfied.
"So there are certainly some things we're going to do differently. I think that I've tried to stay on an even keel much better than I did last year, and I learned a lot from last year.''
5. The 3-4 Broncos are running some 4-3 defensive sets in practice this year, going big at defensive tackle with both the 348-pound Jamal Williams and the 314-pound Ronald Fields in the middle of the line at the same time. That's going to be a tough wall to run against.