ENGLEWOOD — The Broncos refuse to use the term rebuilding. Their roster and record scream something else. This is a team in transition, searching for future foundational pieces. With the trade of Emmanuel Sanders to San Francisco, one thing remains clear: the offense is in the hands of Phillip Lindsay and Courtland Sutton. On and off the field.
For the Broncos to experience illumination from the dark side, it begins with young leaders. The platform exists for Lindsay, Sutton, and when he returns from his torn ACL, Bradley Chubb to make a difference. Let's not kid ourselves. This is their team now. The roster boasts no offensive players from the Super Bowl 50 victory. The defense features Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe -- both of whom will be free agents at season's end -- and Von Miller.
Where have you gone Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware?
Broncos Country turns its lonely eyes to you
As The Smiths sing, "How soon is now?" You're up, kids.
They don't need to be yellers or screamers. Leaders come in all forms. However, the future is present for Lindsay, Sutton, Chubb, and, in my opinion, rookie left guard Dalton Risner. They need to set the example as grinders. Their passion and purpose – accompanied by elevated status as the team's wrinkled vets depart – can accelerate the franchise's reclaiming of relevance. Nothing would microwave that like the right quarterback, but that's a column for a different day since the team is slow-playing the return from injured reserve of rookie Drew Lock with no certainty he plays this season.
These final nine games are soil to plant seeds. The results matter to fans, as they should, but that is not my focus. The key is steady improvement and creating cornerstone players who are solid and selfless. Call it culture or a necessary blueprint. Whatever. The Broncos need an identity. These players can bring it into focus.
Lindsay gets it. His love for the game, his love for his teammates, is contagious. He need not hold back his feelings. The eggshells, previously underfoot, vanished with the departures of Demaryius Thomas and Sanders. He learned from them. He remains close to Sanders. But this is his time.
The Broncos offense has lacked a dominant figure since Manning retired. Lindsay can fill that role for two reasons: he has the personality, and he is good. Marginal players are rarely viewed as leaders. It remains a sobering truth in a week-to-week league. Lindsay is a Pro Bowler in line, if only barely, for his second-straight 1,000-yard season.
"The thing is, you go in there and you just play football. You let things develop. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘It’s my team. It’s Courtland’s team.’ As a team, this is our team together and we just need to stick together," Lindsay said. "Everybody has to do their part. If you do your job and you do it to the best of your abilities and leave everything out there, you’ll win a lot more games.”
Cohesiveness. Chemistry. Direction.
The Broncos are not good enough to win without strong leadership. The right young voices are in the room. It's about developing a deeper connection. Nothing is more powerful in sports than when players take ownership. When they invest in each other, the dividends are startling.
I have too much experience covering losing teams, having spent 15 years as the Rockies beat writer. Colorado was terrible for several years before embarking on an unannounced youth movement -- the Rockies were reluctant to say they were rebuilding, fearing adverse fan reaction that happened anyway because of their on-field product. In 2005, the Rockies embarked on what I coined "Todd and The Toddlers. The lineup consisted of perennial all-star Todd Helton and kids Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, Clint Barmes, Brad Hawpe and Cory Sullivan. They were predictably terrible, winning 67 games and finishing last in the National League West.
Yet. they forged a bond. Helton served as the pillar. The others watched and learned from his preparation, but coalesced over their shared experience. Holliday led with quiet advice in the dugout and in the clubhouse. Atkins hit, hit, and hit some more. Barmes and Hawpe were lunchpail players, embracing the work required to morph into everyday players. Sullivan provided attitude. Ryan Spilborghs joined the group in 2006, creating the perfect levity and humor to balance the personalities. And it would be impossible to overstate the addition in August of Troy Tulowitizki, who instilled an edge and confidence with his breathtaking talent.
After a 76-win season in 2006, the Rockies reached the World Series a year later. It featured a magical ending -- winning 21 of 22 games -- before the Rockies crumbled against the Red Sox. While an aberration statistically, the success was not an accident. Those players cared for each other. They came of age together, riding on minor league buses, getting married, starting families.
I know those versed in analytics roll their eyes at this. I get it. But it's tangible. I have covered it, watched it, seen it unfold before my eyes. It is the secret sauce.
When Lindsay spoke this week, I returned to that 2007 clubhouse.
“This is the thing. You do this and you play the game because you love the game. You shouldn’t have to tell another man to come on because this is their job. This is why they get paid. Every time they wake up and they see their family, they see their little kids, they see their wife, that should motivate them enough right there to be like, ‘I need to handle my business.’ Because as fast as you’re here you’ll be gone just like that. I shouldn’t sit here and have to baby somebody and tell them let’s go," said Lindsay before providing a key to success. "It should be more like we come together, we get closer and we learn more about each other because the more you know about that person that you’re playing on the left and right for the more you’re going to battle for that person. The more you know their family, their background with their kids and their wives and everything like that, it makes you play harder. That’s what I mainly focus on with it."
Like Lindsay, Sutton owns a top spot – he's the clear No. 1 receiver in title and production – and has the professionalism to match. He began asserting himself more this offseason, becoming more vocal. It's time to turn up the volume.
"I just continue to do what I do, continue to lead in my own way and continue to be the best version of myself — not only for myself, but also for the team. That’s mentally, physically and spiritually," Sutton said. " I’m going to continue to do that so I can do my job for this team."
When the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, they boasted immense talent, especially defensively. They followed the words of Manning and Ware. But talking to those players years later, they are quick to remind me of an important element: they played for each other. It echoed the message coach Gary Kubiak delivered after the late-season loss to Pittsburgh: Do it for something bigger than for yourself.
Risner and Chubb understand this. It is part of their DNA. And their gravitational pull is strong. Players respect them. They create followers. Lindsay, Sutton, Risner and Chubb are critical moving forward.
No one can look at the Broncos and see a quick fix. But there is hope for the future. It starts now with the young players.
Time for them to go where there is no path and leave a trail of hoof prints.
Right tackle Ja'Wuan James will start on Sunday, but his workload will be monitored. How much he plays depends on how his left knee feels and how he responds to playing on turf. The Broncos can rotate Elijah Wilkinson in at left and right tackle. ... Rookie tight end Noah Fant cut his foot cutting off tape from his ankle on Thursday and did not practice on Friday. Coach Fangio shook his head in amusement when describing the injury. Fant first attempted not to disclose how the injury happened, which was pointless after the coach's explanation. Fant became a good sport about it, saying, "It is 100, 1000 percent I am playing on Sunday." .... Fangio said it's "50-50" cornerback Bryce Callahan plays this season after dealing with an injured foot.