PARKER — The event warms hearts and fosters smiles. On Tuesday, a battery of Broncos players – Emmanuel Sanders, Justin Simmons, Tim Patrick, Shelby Harris, Jake Butt and Justin Hollins among them – pushed carts through the aisles of King Soopers off Parker Road, buying supplies and clothes for kids from the Boys & Girls Club.
“This is important because we are more fortunate than a lot of people. That’s why I brought my daughter – to show her how lucky we are to be in this position. Also, it’s good to give back. Some of these kids can’t afford this stuff. I was one of those kids,” Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris told Denver7. “We always had programs through my high school that took us Christmas shopping, gave us Thanksgiving dinner, so it’s always important for me to give back because people did it for me.”
The back-to-back school event, fantastic as it is, could not prevent questions about back-to-back disappointing seasons. The Broncos players report to training camp on Wednesday. They are looking to avoid three straight losing campaigns for the first time since the 1963-1972 drought, leaning on their fifth starting quarterback (Joe Flacco) and second different coach (Vic Fangio) since the team won the Super Bowl in 2015.
“We are mad, motivated, all of the above,” safety Justin Simmons said. “I can’t speak for the team, but me personally, being part of such a prestigious organization and knowing its history, we are motivated. We know we haven’t accomplished what this organization is used to. … so we know the pressure that’s built on a season like this to get back on track.”
On Monday, players across the NFL reacted to Madden ratings, upset about their scores. Well imagine being picked to finish 2-14, as some prognosticators have pegged for the Broncos? Since 1977, only once have the Broncos missed the playoffs in four straight seasons – 2006-2010, resulting in coach Mike Shanahan’s firing. The Broncos have not sniffed the playoffs since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl 50, three years and counting. Put simply, Broncos players and fans are not accustomed to losing. And this season takes on added importance as the club will wear a “Mr. B” sticker on its helmet to honor late owner Pat Bowlen, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month.
Yes, it feels personal. But will the results match the emotion?
“We have a new quarterback, a new defense, we have great players, and we already have people at NFL Network and ESPN writing us off, that we are going 2-14 and will have the 31st ranked offense,” said receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who will not be full-go early in camp by design as he returns from Achilles surgery. “I am listening to all of that, and not only looking forward to proving everybody wrong, but also proving ourselves to be right.”
The Broncos face a steep challenge in Fangio’s first season. They are a team in transition – they don’t use the word rebuilding at UCHealth Training Center. They possess veteran stars on defense – Von Miller and Chris Harris – sprinkled with experienced standouts and kids.
Offensively, the Broncos feature more questions than an episode of “Jeopardy.” With new line boss Mike Munchak, will left tackle Garett Bolles figure it out in a crossroads season for the former first-round pick? Can the tight end position become a weapon in the passing game? Is Rich Scangarello, who has never called plays in the NFL, the answer at offensive coordinator? And can a 34-year-old Flacco entering his 12th season rebound after losing his job in Baltimore?
I asked Sanders why he thought the offense would finally percolate for the first time since Peyton Manning retired.
“I believe in Joe,” Sanders said. “And I believe he will flourish in this system.”
Optimism has returned. The Broncos look and act differently under Fangio, who will create a more disciplined football team. But a winning one?
“We have to prove ourselves. We are not going to be given anything,” Harris told Denver7. “We have to earn everything. Everyone is going to write us off. Somebody said we are going to win two games, and hey, we deserve that. We haven’t performed at all. It’s up to us to prove them wrong and that’s what we are going to do.”