ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On the eve of the Super Bowl last February, Peyton Manning stood in front of the Denver Broncos’ players and staff and talked about being grateful for the opportunity at hand. He ran down all the obstacles the team had overcome in his fourth season in Denver, and he stressed taking advantage of the moment.
“It was very emotional,” says third-year Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby. “DeMarcus Ware spoke too, and it was just like, Damn, we gotta win it for these guys.”
Four months after the Broncos did just that, beating the Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50, a very different quarterback delivered a very different message to roughly the same group of men. Coach Gary Kubiak has a weekly tradition he calls Wise Words, wherein a veteran speaker is chosen to deliver some motivation to the team. Before training camp, Kubiak chose Mark Sanchez, the 29-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., whose career peaked in 2010 when he led the Jets to a second consecutive AFC title game appearance in just his second season out of Southern Cal.
Wise Words is whatever the speaker makes it, explains Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison: “Sometimes it’s a challenge, sometimes it’s praise, sometimes it’s whatever it takes that may stir somebody else.”
So Sanchez spoke on a topic he’s become familiar with in his 82 NFL games: mistakes. He told his teammates it was a blessing to be part of a group with so much talent, and he stressed the importance of learning not only from your own mistakes, but from those of others.
That Sanchez was given the opportunity to address the group so soon into his tenure in Denver, which promises to be overshadowed with the eventual succession of rookie first-rounder Paxton Lynch, speaks to Kubiak’s brutal honesty. No need to sugarcoat it:
Peyton’s gone. This is your quarterback, for now. Get on board.
And from the sounds of it, the players who form the strength of the Broncos, the core of football’s best defense, needed little convincing.
“We feel like we don’t care if George Bush was playing quarterback—we’re going to win because you can’t score,” says safety T.J. Ward. “You can’t score, you can’t win. That’s our mentality.
“So, you want to come play quarterback for the Denver Broncos? That’s how we feel—it doesn’t matter who’s back there. We’re going to carry this team, and we’re going to get it done like we did last year.”
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It’s typically assumed that Super Bowl champions will not repeat. Myriad converging factors—from draft order, to the instant celebrity enjoyed by individual players, to a natural and unpreventable degree of complacency that comes with winning it all—work against a successful title defense.
Yet it’s been done, twice in recent history in fact—with John Elway’s Broncos running the table following the 1997 and 1998 seasons and Tom Brady’s Patriots doing it in 2003 and 2004. What those teams had is what the Broncos indisputably lack heading into 2016: consistent, all-world quarterback play.
Then again, these Broncos didn’t have that last year, as Ward intimated and now-general manager Elway admitted in a press conference on Wednesday, on the eve of training camp. Said Elway of the 2015 campaign: “As much as we like to say we did the right things offensively, we hung on offensively.”
One of the biggest reasons the Broncos were able to hang on and win the division was also the biggest reason for optimism entering the offseason: Brock Osweiler, the fourth-year backup, went 5-2 to close the regular season in place of an injured Manning. Osweiler, however, was benched in the playoffs in favor of the future Hall of Famer, and after his contract expired following the 2015 season, he reportedly stopped taking the Broncos’ calls during contract negotiations. He eventually signed with Houston, never giving Denver a chance to match the Texans’ offer.
The Broncos settled for Mark Sanchez, a refugee of Chip Kelly’s crash run through Philadelphia, and now the Super Bowl champions find themselves in the rare position of not even being the clear favorites in their own division. (Bovada has the Chiefs and Broncos as even to win the AFC West.)
“I think it was a surprise [to see Brock leave] because we weren’t expecting it, but I can see why,” says Roby. “I talked to Brock during the season and during the playoffs when he wasn’t playing. I can tell he wasn’t necessarily happy. He played seven games, got us into the playoffs and now he’s not playing? I mean, it’s Peyton Manning—it is what it is. That year was meant to go that way.”
Honoring Manning’s legacy and giving the nod to his experience under fire served up a Super Bowl victory, but now there’s a gaping hole on a roster that boasts defensive talent to rival that of Seattle and Arizona in the NFC. The last time a legend retired at quarterback in Denver, the franchise subsequently went through 11 starting QBs, from Brian Griese to Tim Tebow, many of them homegrown, before rolling the dice on Manning in 2012, after he missed an entire season due to neck surgery.
Dennison, the offensive coordinator, was special teams coach for the Broncos in John Elway’s final season in 1998, and he was with the club through nearly all of the next decade. He’s encouraged both by Sanchez’s experience and by Lynch’s commitment to being better at this early stage. Elway said on Wednesday that Trevor Siemian, the 2015 seventh-rounder out of Northwestern, will also get a fair shot at winning the job.
When Lynch returned to the facility this week after his minicamp and OTAs, Dennison could tell immediately he’d dedicated much of his summer to improving his footwork. The Elway-Kubiak-Dennison decision on when to relieve Sanchez with Lynch (provided Sanchez doesn’t transform into a franchise passer overnight or Siemian doesn’t suddenly emerge as another Manning) could prove integral to long-term success. But the brain trust doesn’t want to think about that just yet.
“I think the thing you take away from the experience after John retired in ’98 is, it’s not all about one position; the rest of the team has to do your part,” Dennison says. “Certainly it’s harder to replace a leader like 18—you ain’t gonna do that real fast anyway—so, everyone’s gotta do their part, we’re trying to do the best we can to move forward.”
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In mid-July, Ward organized a charity golf event at the Blackstone Country Club to benefit his foundation, inviting several of his teammates and NFL friends to help raise money for underprivileged youth in the Denver area. At one point out on the course, Ward found himself alone with sixth-round rookie Will Parks, a fellow safety, and he made a promise to the Arizona product.
When Ward was drafted by the Browns in the second round in 2010, he told Parks, no veteran had any interest in taking him under his wing, tutoring him on the playbook or showing him the ropes. They were afraid to lose their jobs (though as Ward puts it, “their job was already taken”). Ward, in contrast, promised to mentor Parks and fellow rookie safety Justin Simmons.
“We drafted two young safeties,” Ward says, “and I’m going to give them all the information I have. I want to see them be the best they can be, and when it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. Until I’m done, you’re not going to be better than me. I can tell you everything in the world, but can you do it? Do you have the heart, the work ethic?
“Shit, if you beat me out, it’s time for me to retire. If somebody younger than me comes and beats me at my job, it’s time for me to stop playing. That’s how things are done in a winning organization, a championship organization.”
Simmons, the third-rounder, got the message in a few short weeks.
“Those guys demand a level of excellence and a way to do things in the secondary,” he told reporters this week. “They are not going to let a couple of rookies come in and lower the bar. There is a standard already set, being that they are already the best secondary in the league. We have to come in and match that; not come in, feel it out and see how it goes.”
If Elway were to create a checklist for the sort of qualifications he’s looked for in acquisitions over his five seasons GM, the dogged confidence of a T.J. Ward would be at the top of the list. The instinct to identify driven football players has served Elway well. He’s hit on first-rounders who have met expectations (Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams, Bradley Roby) and late-rounders who have blossomed into starters and playmakers (Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Virgil Green, Matt Paradis). Yet it’s one of those first-rounders who became his biggest headache this offseason.
Miller, the pass-rushing cornerstone of coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense and Super Bowl 50 MVP, spent the offseason jet-setting across the country on a celebrity tour of epic proportions while his representatives angled to make him the highest-paid defensive player in football. Days before the deadline, Miller and the Broncos settled on a six-year contract worth $70 million in guarantees.
While Miller became famous, cornerback Aqib Talib became infamous for suffering a gunshot wound to the leg in Dallas in June, after which he explained to police he was “too intoxicated to remember what happened,” according to the police report. (Talib could still face league discipline for his role in the incident in which no one else was injured.)
At least Miller and Talib are still on the roster; juggernaut interior lineman Malik Jackson and coast-to-coast linebacker Danny Trevathan earned wealthy deals in Jacksonville and Chicago, respectively, after leading a defense that allowed the fewest points and the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL last year.
This is what happens to championship teams: Players party hard and plunder salary caps, at home or on the open market. Those title teams have their mojo derailed, and it often takes years to rebuild.
In an effort to avoid overconfidence or complacency, defensive backs coach Joe Woods wanted to remind his players of their shortcomings right off the bat. He prepared a highlight reel of blown coverages and missed opportunities from the 2015 season, and set an agenda for 2016 much like a five-term congressman outlining his party’s platform on a stage in Cleveland or Philadelphia. On the docket: better technique and more turnovers created. We wanted them last year, now we need them.
“That’s Day One talk for us,” says safety Darian Stewart, who had one of the team’s middling 14 picks last season. “We led the league in the majority of categories, and the only one that stood out to us as a defense was a lack of interceptions. And we knew we were capable of doing better.”