DENVER — A year ago, C.J. Anderson spent the first half of his season on the bench, inactive and injured. He was an undrafted rookie out of Cal, eager to prove his worth but utterly unable. It was frustrating, and it could have paralyzed him. But Anderson opted to learn.
Among the Broncos' running backs a season ago, youth prevailed. There were no veterans’ brains to pick in that corner of the locker room and so Anderson looked down the sideline to an unlikely ally: cornerback Champ Bailey. The two had little in common; one hailed from the south and was on the brink of retirement, the other was a 22-year-old from California. Their jobs on the field were entirely dissimilar. And yet Anderson started talking and Bailey responded, and the young running back didn’t so much ask questions as he did find answers.
One conversation sticks with him. Bailey was explaining what he loved about playing corner: coverage. He hated tackling, he revealed to Anderson, which set the younger player thinking.
“When you see DBs in the open field, you just lay the boom on them because that’s what they get paid to do, to cover, not tackle,” Anderson said. “I’ve always wanted to be the smartest player on the field, no matter where you learn it from.”
Those smarts paid off Sunday, when Anderson started at running back for the Broncos and finished the afternoon with 167 rushing yards, 28 receiving yards and a touchdown. It was his third straight game with more than 100 all-purpose yards. For the first time in that streak, the vast majority of his yards came running the ball thanks to a rejuvenated Denver offensive line that’s been under fire in recent weeks. Thanks to the elusive balance these Broncos have been searching for all season -- the team finished Sunday with 257 passing yards to 201 rushing -- Denver was able to poke holes in the Dolphins’ vaunted defense, winning 39-36.
“It’s not about innovation,” Broncos coach John Fox said after the game of his team’s run game. “It’s just about doing it. We did it better, and we did it more.”
On the heels of a demoralizing 22-7 loss to the Rams just two weeks after being made into the Patriots’ playthings, Denver needed a hero on Sunday. It needed an underdog to step up because it knows its weapons, and it’s learned that a high-flying passing offense might not be enough. Enter Anderson, whose locker was flooded with cameras for a good 15 minutes Sunday night. He could do little more than laugh when one writer said he’s been saying how good Anderson is for a year and no one believed him until now.
“I have a lot of confidence in myself, and I play at a high level,” Anderson said. “I expect big things from me, no matter where I went: first round, fifth round, seventh round, undrafted.”
On Sunday, Anderson set a record for the most rushing yards in one game by an undrafted player in Broncos history. He clings to that word: undrafted. He savors it. Anderson points out that 32 teams passed on him in the spring of 2013, including the Broncos. And so as he aims to show the 31 he plays against exactly what they missed out on, there’s also a voice in the back of his mind that says he has just as much to prove to his own team. The ultimate validation, then, came as he talked and he talked, as he mugged for the camera and explained that he’d given the game ball to his uncle. That’s when a hand poked through the cameras, extended to shake. It belonged to Broncos president Joe Ellis. Congratulations were in order.
Described by Fox as “shifty,” Anderson excels at making defenders miss in the open field, in the passing game and the run game. He’s averaging a respectable 5.5 yards per carry this season, and he’s caught 20 passes, proving his versatility. Still, though, the most impressive thing about Anderson might just be his mind. With him, there’s no reason to think that distractions might get in the way, that he’s focused on anything but football. An avid reader, he’s lately become a fan of the books of Robert Greene, which focus on social manipulation and ambition. They are Machiavellian, calculating, concrete examples that Anderson knows that making it in the NFL is as much about the mind as it is the body.
To suggest that this is it, that the Broncos have found their running back and solved their issues on offense, would be premature. It’s barely been more than a month since Ronnie Hillman was the man on the ground in Denver, but now that he’s injured, his job might be lost. It was a job he was handed when Montee Ball went down with appendicitis in training camp and then a series of groin injuries, and the chain of young, injured Broncos running backs is enough to make Anderson wary of ever becoming complacent.
As the game unfolded on Sunday, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase dangled carrots for the team’s running backs. Get four yards here, he’d tell Anderson, and I’ll call another run. Anderson rose to his coordinator’s challenge, as did rookie Juwan Thompson, who averaged 6.6 yards on five carries, and both served as a reminder that the running game can work, that sometimes Manning’s arm isn’t the only answer.
Anderson might not be the answer, either. But for now, he’s enough. The offensive line living up to its promises to be better is enough. Forced to adapt for the first time all season, for the first time in two seasons, really, the Broncos adapted, and that has to count for something.