ENGLEWOOD -- The Broncos have missed the playoffs five straight seasons. They have not had a winning campaign since we were all holding poses for the Mannequin Challenge. As coach Vic Fangio enters his third year, he is plotting to avoid another mess that will drive Broncos Country to the brink and his staff likely to cleaning out its desks.
Improvement requires self-awareness. Which brings us to center Llloyd Cushenberry.
He has a chance to get better because he realizes last season was not good enough. The former LSU star scuffled in his first eight games, but kept his job through resilience. More is required in his sophomore season. And Cushenberry only needed a mirror to realize it after Pro Football Focus ranked him as the game's 36th best center and worst run blocker.
“I feel like every year you have to get stronger and you have to get faster. You have to tweak certain things. Going into the offseason, I went straight to work, knowing how I played last year and how unacceptable that was. I had to change a lot of things," Cushenberry said. "That's going to be every year in my career. I focused on strength and focused on getting twitchier."
Spend time with Cushenberry, and you realize he cares. He wants to move forward, mirroring his growth in college after he was the last member of his recruiting class to sign. Cushenberry embraces the grind, and that should serve him well since, as former boss Gary Kubiak believed, players take their biggest step from Year One to Year Two. Cushenberry has the right mindset, and a coach in Mike Munchak who is a lighthouse in the storm.
“Working with ‘Munch,’ it's amazing. He's a Hall of Famer and he obviously knows what he's talking about. He's worked with a lot of great offensive linemen and a lot of great centers. I just try to soak in and take in everything that he's taught me. Throughout the course of last year, there was one thing I told him at the end-of-the-year meeting. Throughout the ups and downs, he always had confidence in me, and he always instilled confidence in me, even when I was struggling, and everybody knew I was struggling," Cushenberry said.
"When I was down on myself, he always believed in me to keep sticking with me. He allowed me to go through a rough patch. This year, and years down the road in my career, I'm going to look back on this and say, ‘Alright, I learned from that. It made me better.’ I can’t thank him enough and I look forward to him continuing to help groom me into the center I want to be.”
The differences remain striking this year. Cushenberry has added muscle, and he is benefitting from OTA reps that he conceded would have helped tremendously as he tried to microwave the playbook into his brain through Zoom meetings. There is another notable change: intriguing competition. A year ago, it felt like Cushenberry won the job when he was drafted, filling the void created by Connor McGovern's free agent departure to the Jets.
The Broncos selected modern day lumberjack Quinn Meinerz in the third round this spring. He brings a big belly, and astonishing strength. It will come as a surprise if the former Division III star supplants Cushenberry since he has never played center in a game, but the possibility exists.
"I expected (the team to draft a center) based on how I played last year. I didn't really think much of it. Competition is good for everyone. We're going to push each other and we're pushing each other already in OTAs," Cushenberry said. "(Quinn) is a great guy off the field and he's a great player. We're going to make each other better. Whoever steps up, that's who's going to get the job.”
Cushenberry never conceded last season, never played the victim. However, the next step is obvious: not to play, but to play well.
“He just needs to continue that growth mainly from a mental standpoint. He needs to play stronger and stouter and I think that will happen after he’s had a good offseason of working out and having a better understanding of the offense, his job and his position," Fangio said. "I think that confidence that he’ll have will allow him to play stronger and more physical along with the extra work he’s put in during the offseason. I expect him to improve mentally and that will help him improve physically along with him getting stronger.”