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GamePlan: How the Broncos Have Come Together and a Window Into COVID-19 Precautions in 2021

How Denver’s players have taken ownership of the season, including establishing trust on the field and making decisions about traveling to Florida during the pandemic. Plus, Week 3’s best games, best bets and what to watch.

Vic Fangio couldn’t have done it unilaterally if he wanted to. Still, last week, there was real intention to his decision to gather his six captains and get direction on where they wanted to take their work week, coming off a season-opening win, the Broncos’ first September win in three years.

Normally, the Broncos go in two days before game day, on East Coast trips, to acclimate to the time difference. But as the team gathered information on just what it would be like traveling to Jacksonville, and what that might mean for its season, warning sign after warning sign came up that the players and coaches were probably best off spending less time, not more, in the state of Florida.

Therein lay a fork in the road. Either make the trip a more efficient in-and-out, and risk players’ not being at their very best, or stick to the plan and risk exposure to the coronavirus.

The team’s six captains—Teddy Bridgewater, Kareem Jackson, Brandon McManus, Von Miller, Justin Simmons and Courtland Sutton—affirmed to Fangio they wanted to go in on Friday. As for the rest of it? The players in the room said they’d take care of that. And later in the day, they did, holding a players-only meeting that laid out exactly what they needed to do in order to make the whole thing work.

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Broncos coach Vic Fangio

“With the abundance of COVID in Florida, and in the Jacksonville area, we wanted to make the players aware, and make sure they were comfortable,” Fangio said over the phone on Wednesday morning. “And once we decided we really did want to do that, players were going to have to buy in to not treating it like a normal road trip. We basically treated it like a road trip last year. We stayed in the hotel; we didn’t leave it, we didn’t see family, we didn’t see friends. And I couldn’t make them do that—that’s not the protocol this year.

“They had to buy in to it to make it successful, and they did.”

Later in the week, Fangio revealed to his players in a team meeting that, for going through all this, the front office had arranged for a Ruth’s Chris located across the river from the Broncos’ hotel in Jacksonville to cater Saturday dinner, the night before the game. And hours after those guys picked through their steaks and asparagus, Denver feasted on the Jaguars, with the players’ paying off all the goodwill of the days leading up to the game.

Does a 10-point road win over a struggling Jaguars team mean the Broncos have arrived in Fangio’s third year in charge? It absolutely does not. We’ll learn more on how far they’ve come in October, with the AFC North’s three 2020 playoff teams dotting the slate over that month.

But for now, Denver’s fast start at least reflects good vibes in the building as the Broncos go through a transitional phase—and maybe, just maybe, a bright future ahead.


Week 3’s here, and the GamePlan is too, to get you ready for everything. Inside the column this week, you’ll find …

• The reunion game that tops this week’s slate.

• What Justin Fields needs to do in his first start.

• (Bad) gambling advice.

• Thoughts on Week 2’s QB injury spike.

But we’re starting with one of the NFL’s seven remaining unbeatens, and one of the five of those teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year.


The key to last weekend, as Fangio said, was buy in. And it wasn’t just from the players. GM George Paton and his top lieutenant, director of player personnel Darren Mougey, looped a scouting trip to Florida/Alabama in Gainesville into the weekend. And when they came back, they stayed in their rooms for the rest of Saturday and Sunday, Ubered to the stadium for the game, stayed away from players pregame, watched the game from a suite, then Ubered out and flew back to Denver separately to preserve the team’s bubble.

And to make all of this more palatable for the players, the Broncos ops guys set up what amounted to a player lounge in the team hotel—where they could go play cards, chip golf balls and watch college football games on Friday and Saturday.

The point in all this? The grizzled, 63-year-old Fangio, the new GM Paton and their staffs are creating a sort of new-age partnership with the players, where they’re included in decisions, and those decisions reverberated throughout the entire organization. The hope is that the players take ownership in the team, which would naturally up their own level of investment. So far, so good.

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Von Miller (left) and Malik Reed (right)

“It’s important,” third-year linebacker Malik Reed, who’ll be taking an injured Bradley Chubb’s spot in the defense, told me Wednesday. “When it comes down to it, and we’re in the fire, on the field, we gotta be able to trust each other—and have that trust from our coaches, that we’re going to be doing the right things and doing things the right way. So to have that type of ownership, taking ownership of the team, making sure we’re policing each other and holding each other accountable, that’s huge for building a culture.

“It’s been amazing to be a part of it, and to see how it’s grown from Year 1 to now.”

Reed also pointed to how the players have taken it to heart by carrying the message off the field, too. He cited his fishing trips with Miller; unit dinners the outside linebackers had with the defensive linemen; Teddy Bridgewater’s gathering the offense for nights out; and the secondary, made up largely of guys new to the Broncos, having regular bowling nights.

And yeah, that’s all a little hokey. But there’s real belief that the benefits of that time spent together, and the ownership the players have in the team, have already shown up.

In both of the team’s wins, in fact, the Broncos trailed going into the final two minutes of the first half, a result of things’ being far from perfect early in those games against the Giants and Jaguars. But in both cases, and even with both games’ being early-window games on the East Coast, Denver found something just before halftime and then rode it to double-digit wins in the second half.

“That’s exactly what it is—being able to lean on each other and trust that each person is going to do their job. And if we don’t have such a good play or we don’t have such a good series, we’re going to be able to bounce back,” Reed said. “And being able to encourage each other and uplift each other and keep each other focused on the task. Those qualities come from building those bonds with each other. That carries over to the field.”

Then, there’s the makeup of a roster put together by two GMs.


Usually, when a new GM like Paton comes in, the old GM’s been tossed out of town on a rail, and there’s a tendency to tear the place down and completely rebuild the organization, top-to-bottom, in the new GM’s image.

That’s not what’s happened in Denver. The old GM, John Elway, is a team legend, and he’s still in the office most days. And whereas in some places, that could be awkward, Paton’s tapped Elway as a resource, rather than seeing him as any sort of impediment—siphoning the Hall of Famer’s institutional knowledge of players he acquired, experience in having played for, then built, championship teams, and knowhow on big-picture decisions.

“John handed him the baton, and George has been able to build on what John started here,” Fangio said. “Obviously, the team tried to hang on to the Super Bowl year, and keep it going there, so we needed to rebuild in a certain way. The bulk of these players that we’re playing with were acquired when John was the general manager. We basically had the free-agency class this year, we had the draft and we had the return of injured players from last year.

“So those three things have really helped us play better. … And George still leans on John, John’s available 24/7, he’s here many days and I know George runs a lot of things by him because John has the great experience of being a general manager for 10 years, I think, and all his NFL experience as a player.”

Eight months after Paton’s hire, it’s clear how he assessed the state of the roster Elway passed down to him, and how he’s augmented it.

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• A young offense needed tweaks—primarily at right tackle (they signed Bobbie Massie) and tailback (they drafted Javonte Williams)—but for the most part, just needed to get healthy and keep growing. So it was important to bring in a stabilizing force. Teddy Bridgewater’s given the team that proverbial adult in the room at the most important position on the field, playing a role Paton knew he could fill from their time together in Minnesota.

• With Miller’s coming back from injury on defense, like Sutton was on offense, the defensive front was in good shape.

• Corner was the one spot where the team actually did need to rebuild and, in a very emphatic way, that happened. Nickelback Bryce Callahan’s the one holdover, now surrounded by top-10 pick Patrick Surtain and two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller (a Fangio guy from Chicago). And to backstop that change, the team re-signed Simmons and Jackson.

And yup, the roster’s still a work in progress—but if you look now, there really isn’t a glaring hole anywhere. In fact, look close enough, and you could start to see this roster as similar to the one that Elway was able to put in front of Peyton Manning in 2012 (built by Elway, and before him Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders) to entice the Hall of Famer to come west for twilight of his career.

Now, that doesn’t mean there are a couple of Super Bowl appearances and a championship coming down the pike. But early returns show that Elway really didn’t leave the cupboard bare, and that Paton did the right thing in resisting any urge to perform a full reset here.

Also, that it’s come together like it has is due, in part, to the type of player—and dude—that Paton has brought in the last eight months. Bridgewater’s experience, as one of those guys, of course, helps bring knowledge in what it takes to get a team into contention, and then to the playoffs. That said, as important as Bridgewater is, it goes beyond just him.

“It’s not just the quarterback, it’s us as a team having that belief—us as a whole, from the organization, from the team, coaches and everybody included,” Reed said. “It’s not predicated upon one person. It’s everybody believing in each other and coming together each week to accomplish our goal, and that’s to be 1–0. We’ve done that so far, and it takes each and every person in the organization, it takes each and every person on the team.”

So, sure, it’s only been two weeks.

But those two weeks have shown a lot of good things happening in Denver. At the very least, now with the Chiefs looking up at them in the AFC West standings, there’s plenty for the Broncos to build on.

And the trip to Jacksonville proved that, even before the game itself kicked off.


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FIVE STAR MATCHUPS

1) Packers at 49ers (Sunday, 8:20 p.m., ET): This is one rich in story lines. Last year, Matt LaFleur got payback on his old buddy Kyle Shanahan for twin blowouts the year before, with a resounding 34–17 win over an injury-ravaged Niners team. Can the Packers build on their second-half rebound against the Lions, after six shaky quarters to start the season? Will Shanahan deploy Trey Lance more (or at all) this week? How does Elgton Jenkins hold up at left tackle with Nick Bosa opposite him? Can’t wait to see all of this one.

2) Buccaneers at Rams (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): Both teams have the highest of expectations. Both have red-hot quarterbacks, reborn in new cities. Both have stars on defense to combat those quarterbacks. And the hidden little thing here is that Tom Brady’s return to New England is next on the schedule, which is already being discussed like it’s happening tomorrow back in Boston. Speaking of which …

3) Saints at Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Bill Belichick, I’m sure, is doing his best to shield his guys from the early Pats-Bucs anticipation. But I can tell you, living up here in Massachusetts, that’s pretty much impossible now. It really is as if the Saints don’t exist on the team’s schedule, if you’re listening to TV and radio here. So it’ll be interesting to see how the Patriots play, and how their ball-hawking defense shows up against Jameis Winston.

4) Chargers at Chiefs (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Both teams are 1–1, and the other two in the AFC West are 2–0. So someone could find themselves in a two-game hole coming out of this weekend and going into October, which wouldn’t be ideal. And beyond just the stakes, you have a divisional quarterback matchup, in Mahomes/Herbert, that should be on the NFL’s marquee for the next decade, if not longer.

5) Eagles at Cowboys (Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET): There are other games here, but it’s always tough to top an old-school NFC East showdown and an opportunity for each of these teams to step forward in the division race in a big way. It’s also a big spot for Jalen Hurts, after an up-and-down Week 2.

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Josh Allen throws a pass against the Patriots during the 2020 season

FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW

Can Josh Allen break through? It’s hard to fully explain how confident this offseason the Bills’ staff was, and Allen himself was, that the fourth-year quarterback was going to take another big step forward in 2021, like he did a year ago. And it’s not like he’s been horrible thus far—the Bills are 1–1, he’s not turning the ball over that much (one interception, one fumble lost) and the two defenses he’s played (the Steelers and Dolphins) are good ones. That said, I certainly didn’t peg Allen to have a 5.3 yards-per-attempt average through two weeks, nor did I expect him to be completing only 56% of his throws. Last week, he did make some improvements, with the Bills’ showing more balance. And when I asked Sean McDermott about that the other day, he conceded the offense was working through some things. “Our offensive staff really did a good job making adjustments through the [Miami] game,” he said. “I think it was probably more of that, and their communication during the week and players understanding their jobs.” Still, if Buffalo’s going to end up where I think it can end up (playing in the last game of the NFL season), Allen needs to be better. And listening to him this week, it’s obvious he understands that. So we’ll see how he plays against Washington’s fearsome front four.

Could Justin Fields be the answer? A big reason the Bears set the quarterback position up the way they did was a belief, from the coaches and front office, that they had a roster that could ride its defense and run game to the playoffs, and that a chain-mover at quarterback would suit that sort of team well. Two weeks into the season, it stands to reason that formula will work. And now the Bears will get a real-time look at how Fields will fit into it, without having to create any drama to generate that kind of audition. Matt Nagy’s maintained that the job will go back to Andy Dalton when his bone bruise is healed and he’s healthy enough to play. But he also thought enough of Fields (and his readiness) to make him the backup ahead of Nick Foles, which is what put Fields in position to play now. So could Fields do what Justin Herbert did last year, and force the issue? It’ll be fun to see.

The Colts’ ability to hang in through their injuries. The AFC South appears to be a very winnable division. It took all the Titans had to get to 1–1. The Jags are rebuilding. The Texans are rebuilding. That leaves the Colts, in Year 5 for GM Chris Ballard and Year 4 for coach Frank Reich. In so many ways, they have the team primed—the defense has young cornerstones; the offensive line’s been invested in; the skill group’s got a blend of experienced vets and promising, ascending young guys. Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Indy’s likely going to be missing Carson Wentz this week, with Wentz’s having sprained both of his ankles. The Colts, of course, took the risk on the oft-injured Wentz this offseason for the same reason they rolled the dice with Jacoby Brissett and Band-Aided the position with Philip Rivers last year. They’re still chasing back the impact of Andrew Luck’s retirement. So being able to win in Nashville behind Brett Hundley (who I’m told got the first-team reps in practice this week and has been put on a track to start) would be a pretty nice statement. If Wentz can go, even better.

How do the Raiders handle success? This week, Jon Gruden’s crew is, seemingly, in a nice spot. Vegas gets the Dolphins coming off a 35–0 loss, and Miami’s without its starting quarterback and traveling cross-country for the game. So I think a big piece of this comes down to how the Raiders handle their newfound prosperity—which is different than where they were the first two weeks of the season. They’ve got a lot going on for themselves right now. Derek Carr might be playing the best ball of his career. Sophomore receivers Henry Ruggs and Brian Edwards look like they’re breaking through. The decision to get younger on the line behind center Andre James and right tackle Alex Leatherwood seems to be working out. And the pass rush that they needed to run Gus Bradley’s scheme has come along, with Maxx Crosby’s leading the way. Could this be the year that Gruden breaks through? I think the Miami game will show us a little something about the team.


TWO BEST BETS

Season record: 1–3 (A split last week is an improvement! But if you still wanna fade these picks, I totally get it.)

Steelers (-3) vs. Bengals: This feels like it’s a little too easy. Does Vegas know something? Maybe. But I’ll take Pittsburgh at home anyway, because even with T.J. Watt banged up, I think the Bengals’ offensive line has its work cut out for it in facing the Steelers’ front.

Chiefs (-6.5) vs. the Chargers: This one’s at Arrowhead, and Patrick Mahomes has only lost twice in a row twice in his NFL career. Six times, he’s come off a loss with a win, and the average margin of victory in those games has been 19 points. I think the Chargers are going to be really good later in the year. I also think they might be walking into a buzzsaw here.


ONE BIG QUESTION

Is there something to watch with the number of quarterback injuries last week?

I believe there is. Last week, we mentioned that a number of coaches raised to me that defensive pressure seemed to be up in Week 1, and that tackling is a mess. And with those guys’ help, I surmised that a lack of offseason work may have contributed to that—since fundamental work is taken care of in the spring and summer, and blocking and tackling are two areas where a lack of that sort of work might show up.

Throw in that, on balance, offensive skill guys are generally more athletic than defensive back seven players, and that defensive linemen are better athletes than offensive linemen, and that the return of crowd noise usually only helps D-linemen get off the ball faster (because visiting offenses are working off silent counts) and you have your mess.

Then, in Week 2, Dalton, Wentz, Tyrod Taylor and Tua Tagovailoa all went down, and Baker Mayfield had a scare that took him off the field for a bit.

Now, can I say scientifically that the makeup of this year’s offseason is why quarterbacks went down in Week 2? I can’t say that. But I do know that the number of quarterbacks that went down last week got the attention of coaches and scouts, so it’ll be interesting to see if there’s more of this in Week 3, and if teams do more to keep their quarterbacks clean (running the ball, leaving guys in to block) than they did in Weeks 1 and 2.

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