Justin Simmons is standing at a lectern on the club level of Empower Field, talking about roots.
He is here two days after his Broncos lost to Kansas City and fell to 3-10 to present the franchise’s nomination for the NFL’s inaugural Inspire Change changemaker award to teenagers Nashara Ellerbee and Naja’Ray Wes. He speaks with ease about the pair’s accomplishments in the Montbello neighborhood because he didn’t just read about them on a white sheet before the program. He attended the meetings, kicked around ideas, provided his platform, did the work.
His roots, like theirs, are deep in this city by now, and most of the people in the room on this December day have watched them grow for years.
Down below, heat lights cover the field on which the Broncos have lost four consecutive games, coaxing the Kentucky Bluegrass to strengthen its hold despite the inhospitable conditions.
Simmons is straining to facilitate on-field growth, too, despite circumstances far from ideal. The Broncos captain is everything in the locker room that he is in the community — a leader, a captain and a standout performer — but the seventh-year safety has seen nothing but constant churn since arriving in Denver as a 2016 third-round draft pick out of Boston College. No playoffs. A revolving door of coaches.
His frustration came to a head after Denver lost to Las Vegas on a walk-off Davante Adams touchdown in mid-November.
“It’s Year 7 for me, (head coach Nathaniel) Hackett is my fourth head coach and that’s just wild to think about,” he steamed that night. “There’s so much turnover. Everyone wants to point the blame on certain people. I was just having a talk with a lot of the guys that have been here, the select few that have been here over the years, and we talk about culture. We have a tight-knit group, but something is not going right, obviously.
“It’s our job, my job, a guy that has been here now for a while, to figure that out.”
Simmons has played one year for Gary Kubiak, two for Vance Joseph, three for Vic Fangio and now most of one season for Hackett. He’s played for four defensive coordinators and two general managers. He’s patrolled the Broncos secondary through the end of the Bowlen ownership era and into the Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group’s early days. Virtually everything in the organization has changed — many parts several times over — in the past seven years except for the free safety.
The NFL is the notorious home of fleeting careers and journeymen. Simmons has experienced neither and yet change, transition and tumult have happened all around him.
“For a lot of different reasons,” Simmons told The Post. “Kubiak, my first year, health reasons, had to step away. We bring in ‘VJ’ and unfortunately it didn’t work out. Then you head over to Vic, but then there’s the GM switch, so you go from John (Elway) to George (Paton). Vic had that continuity for three years, you build the rapport and things, unfortunately, didn’t work out there. Then you bring in Hackett and you finally are out of that weird, awkward ownership stage and now you have new owners and they have their views and their opinions.
“It’s just, like, it’s a lot. You try to control what you control.”
This weekend, there are two reminders of that instability. The first is the arrival of Arizona (4-9), where Joseph is a fourth-year defensive coordinator. He makes his first trip back to Denver since he was fired after the 2018 season.
Joseph told reporters in Arizona that he doesn’t dwell on the firing or hold ill feelings.
Asked what would have happened if he’d have had a franchise quarterback — like, say, Hackett receiving Russell Wilson a month after getting hired — during his time with the Broncos, Joseph smiled and said, “I’m assuming we would have won some games, because defensively it was right. It was right. That’s been stated numerous times, but that wasn’t the case. It was a fast two years in Denver. I can’t say it wasn’t warranted, I mean, we didn’t win.
“They wanted change and I was the guy to change. That’s part of being the head coach.”
Wilson’s arrival, though, has not brought the stability Denver hoped. Instead, an underwhelming season leaves an open question about whether Hackett will return for a Year 2.
“Right now, I am living week-by-week, so I’ll be able to reflect on (things) later,” Hackett said when asked about what he’s learned the past three months. “I’m just trying to learn and take notes. I’ll reflect as we go. Right now, I just want to get another win with this team and with all these guys together.”
If the Broncos fire Hackett, Simmons will be playing for a fifth head coach in eight seasons come 2023. How do roots take hold in this environment?
“There’s no doubt about it, it’s tough to have a consistent culture,” Simmons said. “Obviously winning is the No. 1 thing and all that stuff, but it definitely is not easy when you have different head coaches, for example, four in seven years. It’s different for everyone, but I wouldn’t imagine that anyone else around the league has really had to deal with that much.”
Joseph won five games in his first season with the Broncos and Fangio won seven before dropping to five in 2020. Denver has to split its final four games just to get to five. The franchise has just one season (2010) of four or fewer wins since 1977, excluding a strike-shortened 1982 season.
Simmons has tried all sorts of things to try to keep this from happening again. He met with Hackett early in the season to help give him the lay of the land. He’s picked the brains of respected coaches and teammates about how to instill a winning mindset in a place that’s now seen six consecutive losing seasons.
“As a team leader you worry about the team,” he said. “And then, more specifically for me, the defense and even more specifically, the DBs. A leader is a direct reflection of your room and how you respond and how well you’re contributing. That’s really what I try to focus on and I’m just hoping that, while I’m leading them well and to the best of my abilities, that will trickle from room to room and before you know it we have a leader in every position room and that’s what kind of helps lead the team, because it’s all player-led accountability.
“Then, in my opinion, you don’t need a certain coach to have been there for X amount of years or a GM or ownership. That’s controlled by the players.”
Simmons doesn’t profess to have all the answers, and staffing decisions, ultimately, don’t fall to him. Maybe spinning the coaching wheel again will hit the jackpot, a la standout rookies Kevin O’Connell in Minnesota and Mike McDaniel in Miami this year. Maybe Hackett and Denver have a Year 2, Nick Sirianni-in-Philadelphia turnaround in them, from laughing stock to contender.
Regardless of what happens, Simmons figures to be here. He’s been the organization’s constant, as much a part of the root system as anybody in the building.
“We talk about player-led accountability, how you don’t really need X, Y and Z,” Simmons said. “You have to have the right guys in the room. Overall it puts it in perspective for me in just being blessed to at least be able to call one spot home for the past seven years. I’d like to think that means I’m doing something right, doesn’t mean you’re doing all things right.
“I try to look at the glass half full rather than half empty.”