DENVER -- The running joke for three years on radio and social media among Broncos Country was to let loose every time a yellow flag flew.
Garett Holds! -- the criticism supported by the matching evidence of the left tackle leading the Broncos in penalties from 2017-2019.
There is another cry this season -- ProBolles! -- the former Utah star providing a surge of hope, appreciated in a season where a fourth straight losing record seems a foregone conclusion.
It has been a startling transformation. From bust to beast. Bolles has gone from a liability to the Broncos' most valuable offensive player.
"The job's not done yet, my friends. I have six more games to prove to myself and the rest of my career to prove to people that I belong in this league. Like I told you all before, I truly believe a man goes through a rough patch in their life for a reason, to make them better, and it speaks highly of how a man comes out of that," Bolles said Tuesday. "This is a great organization. I love Denver, I love the fans here, I love everything about here. I know you all kicked me in the butt over the years, but that's just something that I took and was for me to change, and if it wasn't for me to change, I know I wouldn’t be where I'm at."
So spotty was Bolles' performance since the Broncos drafted him the first round that they declined to pick up his fifth-year option. And no one batted an eye. Yes, he played a premium position, but guaranteeing him $12 million next season represented a risk. Now, Bolles has put himself in line for a monster payday or a franchise tag in excess of $14 million.
A confluence of factors led to his remarkable U-turn.
First, it starts with Bolles. He boasted unique athleticism and a mean streak. Truth is he needed seasoning, despite his age (24). He played sparingly in high school -- he was a terrific lacrosse player growing up -- went on a Mormon mission in Colorado Springs, and boasted two years JUCO experience and one season at Utah. His arrival in the NFL represented an achievement, proof he had turned his life around after a difficult childhood.
Bolles walked into a starting job with the Broncos. He looked the part, but the nuances of the position escaped him. He struggled with his technique and often allowed one bad play to ruin a series or a half. He had three different coaches in his first three seasons. He and Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame player and decorated assistant coach, clicked last year. Bolles quietly improved over the season's second half, though not enough to erase the memory of too many penalties.
"I truly believe I came out of it on a high note (last season) — I learned from my mistakes. I know exactly what I need to do to not let those mistakes happen. Munchak and I talk on a regular basis. I love that man dearly," Bolles said. "I give him all the credit in the world because of what he's done with me and in such a short amount of time, and it's really nice to know that I have an O-line coach I can rely on, that I can trust and we can talk man to man. It's always nice to get recognition, but at the same time, I'm not in it to say, 'Hey, look at me', or anything like that. I'm in it because I love this game and I know what this game has done for me and my family."
While the pandemic turned the lives of many players upside down, Bolles found his footing. He retreated to California to train, incorporating film study. The latter cannot be overstated. Early in his career, Bolles repeated mistakes and caused friction in the offensive line room when it appeared he was not being held accountable. Multiple times he was saved from a benching by an injury to the right tackle, so Jared Veldheer and Elijah Wilkinson never challenged Bolles for his position.
An anecdote from his training provided a peek into Bolles' seriousness and desire to change this offseason.
"I took sets in my kitchen barefoot so when I get to my proper spot, I know exactly how my weight is between my feet and my toes. I had my wife line up and she would run after me and I would take sets and I’d put my hands on her -- not hard of course -- but just enough so I can get into a repetition of continuing to do the same thing over and over again. I’d run, I’d hit the bag, I’d get a pole and I’d fit it like I was fitting a run game," Bolles said. "I always found something to do to continue to get my body in shape and get my mind where it needs to be mentally and physically and really dial in what I needed to do."
It paid off in ways unimaginable 12 months ago. Bolles has gone from arguably the worst player on the Broncos' offense -- when considering his draft status, expectations and production -- to its best. I have covered the Broncos for a decade, spanning the mid 1990s and 2014 to present. And I don't remember a player flipping the script so dramatically. Neither could DNVR's Andrew Mason, a longtime chronicler of all things Broncos.
"I can recall players making the leap from lousy to decent," Mason said. "But I can't (recall anything like this)."
There are examples like J.D. Walton's improvement, Matt Paradis' rise from practice squader to anchoring the line or the emergence of receivers like Eric Decker and Rod Smith.
This type of startling awakening feels unprecedented. Credit Vic Fangio for showing patience in Bolles. He remained in the tackle's corner even as the walls were closing in on the former top prospect.
"I think (Bolles) validated the beliefs that I had in the offseason,” Fangio said. "I’ve had belief in him from the start. Although obviously he’s had some rocky times, I just think that he’s one of those guys that needs time to develop. The only way you get better is to play.”
Affirmation continues to arrive on Bolles' doorstep. This week, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the NFL's top tackle with a 90.0 overall grade, including high marks in pass and run blocking. This is the player the Broncos envisioned when they selected him 20th overall. Yes, he has benefited from no crowds, and the NFL's decision to de-emphasize holding calls, reducing the number roughly in half.
In watching Bolles' snaps, though, he has eschewed the wrestling techniques and grabbing that defined his first three seasons.
His form has finally caught up with his function. He has created a future in Denver -- and the Pro Bowl.
"I mean, (a contract extension) would be nice, but it’s not up to me. That’s why I hired an agent, he talks to Mr. (John) Elway. When they want to do it, they’ll do it. That’s just how I look at it. I just want to be consistent. I have to go out there and play at a high level every single week. Fix my mistakes throughout the weeks but go out there and shine," Bolles said. "I love what Coach Munchak says, ‘You get paid during the week, but on Sundays you play for free,’ and that’s what it is. You’re grinding throughout the week, you’re working on technical things, you’re doing everything that you can so when you get to the game it slows down for you and you’re ready to pick up whatever they throw to you."