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The Forgotten Man

Knowshon Moreno was a first-round pick who fumbled too often and got banished to the scout team in Denver. Instead of sulking, he grinded his way back into the starting lineup to become the unsung hero of Peyton Manning’s offense

Shown here celebrating a touchdown against the Ravens last December, Moreno now leads the Broncos with 456 rushing yards and the league with eight rushing TDs. (Nick Wass/AP)

(Nick Wass/AP)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On the night before Sunday afternoon games, Denver Broncos coach John Fox gathers his players at the team hotel for a brief meeting. He says a few words and then calls on a player to address the group. Typically the ensuing remarks are perfunctory and predictable, with the player focusing on the need to be physical, smart and efficient. There are occasions, however, when the message is more personal and more profound.

On Oct. 26, just hours before the Broncos would roll to a 45-21 win over Washington, running back Knowshon Moreno was called to the front of the room. Moreno’s five seasons in Denver have been a testament to perseverance. He went from the thin air of being selected 12th overall in the 2009 draft to the humiliating low of not only watching the Broncos use second- and third-round picks on running backs the past two years, but also being a healthy inactive for eight straight games last season. The only work he got during those weeks was on the scout team running opponent’s plays.

A first-round pick in ’09, Moreno was a healthy scratch for eight straight games last season, a wake-up call that led to his career’s revival. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

CAPTION TK (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

But on this night he addressed teammates and coaches as a highly respected contributor on the league’s most explosive offense, having started every game and having scored in four straight outings. His message included the perfunctory comments about being physical, smart and efficient. But what resonated was his thanking teammates for standing behind him during difficult times.

“What he said was huge from a personal standpoint and from a team standpoint,” wide receiver Eric Decker said the next day, after Moreno had scored for the fifth straight week against Washington. “We all have trials and tribulations in our life, whether it’s off the field or on the field. Knowshon’s a guy that we always believed in; we always knew his potential. But I can’t imagine being in that situation he was in. I probably would’ve been down emotionally and been hard on myself. I’d almost be like, ‘Forget this.’ But that’s a testament to his character. He’s the kind of guy who’s going to buckle his chin strap and go to work and grind. That’s what I really appreciate about him. Those situations make you a better man and allow you to grow. I’ve seen that growth in him.”

That growth is among the reasons the Broncos (7-1) are a popular Super Bowl pick. Though he often gets overshadowed by record-setting passer Peyton Manning and his deep stable of receivers, Moreno leads the team in rushing yards (456) and the league in rushing touchdowns (eight). He also has 287 yards and a score on 29 receptions and has been a trusted blocker in passing situations, allowing Manning to make a run at another MVP award.

“He has been a stud for us through the first half of the season,” Manning says, “and we expect him to be even better in the second half.”

It’s not the first time Moreno has been confronted with heightened expectations. They were there in 2009, when new coach Josh McDaniels made him the first running back taken in the draft after rushing for at least 1,300 yards in back-to-back seasons at Georgia, where he averaged 5.5 yards a carry and scored 30 touchdowns. They also were there in 2010, after he gained 947 yards and rushed for seven TDs as a rookie. His future seemed bright, but there were warning signs.

For starters, Moreno lost four fumbles as a rookie, all within a seven-game span—including one on 1st-and-goal from the 4-yard line when the Broncos were trying to rally from a 13-0 deficit at San Diego. He also had an air of entitlement about him at times. Always a hard worker when on the clock, there was talk that he was immature and unfocused and too caught up in the trappings of celebrity. He had yet to grasp that being a true pro meant putting in work at home as well as at the team’s practice facility.

He has been a stud for us through the first half of the season,” Manning says of Moreno, “and we expect him to be even better in the second half.

He was slowed by a hamstring injury and rushed for just 779 yards in 13 games during Year 2. The next season he gained only 179 yards in seven games before tearing an ACL and missing the rest of the season. That injury, combined with a DUI charge in February 2012, led the Broncos to use a third-round pick on Ronnie Hillman. And when Moreno fumbled in Week 2 that year at Atlanta, losing the ball for the ninth time in his career, the staff buried him on the bench. He was a healthy inactive for the next eight straight games, which is about as embarrassing as it gets when you were drafted to be an offensive focal point.

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But instead of sulking, instead of being angry, instead of blaming others, Moreno quietly went about getting better and earning the coaches’ trust. He attacked everything they asked him to do without hesitation. Scout team? No problem. Special teams? Absolutely. He couldn’t control his playing time, but he could control his attitude and his effort.

“He had to change our mind, and that’s what he did,” says running backs coach Eric Studesville. “He changed it based on what he did every day—how he came to work, how he was with his teammates, how he was in the meeting room. He was never disruptive, never sat off in the corner by himself. There was never a negative interaction. It was just, I’m going to keep working. You asked me to fix this, I’m going to fix it. You asked me to do this, I’m going to do it. He did that every day that he came to the building. That was something inside him that led him to make that decision. Not everybody can make that decision.”

In a 51-48 win over Dallas on Oct. 6, Moreno ran for a season-high 93 yards on 19 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown plunge to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. He's scored at least one TD in each of the Broncos' past five games, six rushing and one receiving.  (Robert Backman/CSM/Landov)

CAPTION TK (Robert Backman/CSM/Landov)

When veteran Willis McGahee sustained a knee injury last November that would sideline him the rest of the season, the door was open for Moreno and he took full advantage of the opportunity. He averaged 85 yards over the final six games, twice surpassing 115. Even more notable was his proactive (rather than reactive) pass protection, which is critical for a QB as demanding as Manning. Yet despite his strong showing, the team still used a second-round pick this past April on Montee Ball, who ran for more than 1,800 yards in each of his final two seasons at Wisconsin.

“He knew they were bringing in young guys, and the thing about Knowshon is, he always wants to compete,” says wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “He always says, ‘They can bring in whoever they want to. Whoever wins the competition, that’s who deserves it.’ ”

Moreno got only 11 preseason carries, 13 fewer than Hillman amd 14 fewer than Ball. But just as he had done as a member of the scout team, he chose to work instead of complain. And when Ball missed a blitz pickup against the Seahawks in the preseason, resulting in a big hit on Manning, Moreno’s value soared without him being on the field. Ditto when Hillman lost two fumbles during the exhibition season.

“He let everything sort itself out and just kept doing his job,” says offensive coordinator Adam Gase.

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The respect and admiration that coaches and teammates have for Moreno is unmistakable when they speak about him. Even guys he competes with for playing time praise his leadership and professionalism. “His mentality is that he keeps on fighting,” says Ball. “He’s most definitely a leader. We feed off his energy and his vibe. He really loves the game.”

Moreno gets so emotionally wound up before games that coaches have had to ask him to throttle down a few times. After a 35-yard catch-and-run touchdown against Washington, he stomped off the field without stopping for congratulations and took a seat on a cooler. His face was a canvas of intensity, the score having given Denver its first lead of the day, 28-21.

Such emotion isn’t new with him, but there is added meaning behind it. “To put all that work in, during the offseason and throughout the week—game day is kind of like your reward, so go out there and give it your all,” he says. “I definitely wear my emotions on my sleeves, and I’m just being thankful and being grateful to be out on that field and playing this game.”

There were a lot of people who didn’t think he’d get an opportunity this year, but here he is, starting for the league’s highest-scoring offense and buoyed by the support of teammates and coaches who are as impressed with his character as they are with his ability. That’s why they stood behind him through his difficult times, and why he wanted to recognize them on the eve of the Washington game.