Standing on the corner in the league’s toughest neighborhood, the Broncos whistle a happy tune in the long shadow of their recent failures, certain that if they hop on the bandwagon driven by new quarterback Russell Wilson, everybody will be a happy camper, rolling down the road to the Super Bowl.
“We want to be going downtown, hoisting up the Lombardi Trophy,” receiver Courtland Sutton declared Tuesday, talking about a victory parade on the morning when a team that hasn’t made the NFL playoffs in six long years reported to training camp.
Hey, after the dark days of Uncle Vic and Miscue Drew, we like the sound of optimism and ambition back at Dove Valley headquarters.
But can we pump the brakes on the loose talk of winning a championship?
Wishing won’t make it happen. Denver resides in the AFC West, where Broncos safety Justin Simmons predicts “the best football in the league is going to be played.”
Even with the addition of Wilson, the Broncos could finish last in the division, if his teammates don’t do more than give lip service to the culture change long overdue in a locker room that became far too accepting of defeat.
“We have to find ways to be great. In terms of us as a team, in years past, it hasn’t been good enough. Point blank. Period,” Simmons said.
Wilson is a proven winner. He led Seattle to a 43-8 victory against Denver in a Super Bowl that Broncos Country would like to forget. His acquisition from the Seahawks in a blockbuster trade changed the vibe for a franchise stuck in a losing rut.
But outside of Wilson, the other 21 projected starters for the Broncos on offense and defense know virtually nothing about postseason success.
During their pro careers, defensive backs Kareem Jackson and Ronald Darby have both won three playoff games. Offensive tackle Billy Turner, as well as defensive lineman D.J. Jones, have won two playoff games. Linebacker Randy Gregory has won a single playoff game. It goes without mentioning that none of this success was enjoyed in a Broncos uniform.
No athlete likes to be called soft. But what has struck me about the Broncos during their playoff drought is how easily they got discouraged when the inevitable adversity of every NFL season smacked them upside the helmet.
During the six years of playoff drought, the lack of legit Pro Bowl talent on Denver’s roster was evident, but the lack of toughness between the ears was even more discouraging.
Case in point: On Dec. 19, 2021, Cincinnati came to Denver. At kickoff, both the Bengals and Broncos were fringe playoff contenders with identical 7-6 records.
Trailing 15-10 in the fourth quarter, Denver marched to within nine yards of a go-ahead touchdown, only to have quarterback Drew Lock make a bonehead read on an option play that resulted in the football being stripped from his possession by Bengals defensive end Khalid Kareem. It’s death by inches in a game of inches. That fumble was the beginning of the end for coach Vic Fangio, while it also was the beginning of Cincinnati’s unlikely run to the Super Bowl.
“You win that Bengals game and you get on a little streak, who knows what happens?” Simmons said. “You get into the playoffs as a wild-card team and things change. Obviously, the Bengals went to the Super Bowl and had a really good chance to win.”
Losing is a bad habit. Winning a championship is a long and arduous process.
“The players want to win. They are obsessed with the process of winning. And obviously we had the big trade. It was game-changing. We know what type of player Russell is,” Broncos general manager George Paton said. “It doesn’t do us any good to talk about it. We have to do it. But we are fired up inside this building, inside these walls.”
They don’t hand out trophies for breaking bad habits.
If the Broncos do nothing more during 2022 than learn how far they have to go and how many buckets of blood, sweat and tears are required to win a championship, this season will count as an unqualified success.