ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The tendency comes easily. Von Miller must be fading like your favorite T-shirt or blue jeans. He entered the league when Tim Tebow was still a quarterback and LMFAO was rockin' parties with its anthem.
But a closer examination of the rings of his tree trunk reveal something differently. Von is aging, but he's not that old. He turned 32 in March, a number that creates concern, yet does not forecast doom this season. The number of elite pass rushers to excel in their age 32 season provides a lens into why Miller should not be viewed like he has more wrinkles than a Shar-Pei.
Bruce Smith (10.5), Reggie White (13), Kevin Greene (14), Chris Doleman (12.5), Michael Strahan (18.5), Jason Taylor (13.5) and, perhaps most notably, DeMarcus Ware (10 in 2014) boasted strong play as Father Time cackled in the mirror. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Miller sees no signs of graying in his game during voluntary OTA practice this week.
"I’m still running around here beating everybody’s (butt), so I feel like, 30-what? Until I see otherwise, I’m going to keep doing it and I’m going to keep going," said Miller when I asked him about playing up to his standard. "Like I said before, that mindset that I created last year is a permanent thing. It wasn’t a one-season thing. I felt like last season was going to be the season, but I feel like this season is going to be a great season, too. Just refocus with that same fire and that same intensity."
Inspired by Kobe Bryant's passing and Michael Jordan's "Last Dance," Miller vowed to become a more demanding leader last summer before missing 2020 with a dislocated left ankle tendon. He continued following that path this week, pacing in drills and providing pointers for teammates.
Whether he mocks the calendar or not, Miller recognizes the reality that the clock is ticking on winning another Super Bowl. He owns a ring because of the bedlam he and the Orange Rush defense created against the Carolina Panthers. A return to relevancy for the Broncos demands that their best players play well. In the case of Miller that means a Pro Bowl campaign, or even a flirtation with his eighth All-Pro selection.
"I’ll never want to put a ceiling on a guy, especially a guy with his talent and his ability. I think this is his (11th) season coming up, but I still see a guy that’s capable of playing like he was four, five, six years ago. It’s going to be up to him to put in the time and effort in the next few months to get his body right," coach Vic Fangio said.
"As we saw (Sunday) in golf, (Phil) Mickelson proved you can play great, but the one thing he did mention was he’s had to work harder and be more committed to his game to achieve that. I think that applies to football players, too —even somebody as talented as Von. You need to do more to maintain that level of play once you start getting into your 30s like he is and playing the position he is. There’s no doubt in mind that he can do it."
When it comes to form following function, Miller might possess the best edge rusher's body ever. He is 6-3, roughly 250 pounds with levers for arms and Teenage Mutant Turtle legs. Watching him in drills this week, nothing has changed. Von still looks the part. Whether he can play it hinges on two factors -- health and a functional offense.
If the Broncos are capable of keeping games close or -- gasp! -- leading, Miller will receive more opportunities for sacks as opponents must put their quarterbacks in harm's way. He will also benefit from playing alongside Pro Bowler Bradley Chubb, who is expected to be cleared for training camp after having bone spurs removed in his ankle.
In their lone full season together in 2018, Miller (14.5) and Chubb (12) posted 26.5 sacks. The Broncos flirted with Leonard Floyd in free agency, but the prospect of running it back with Miller and Chubb proved more tempting to new general manager George Paton as he picked up Von's contract option after first asking him to take a pay cut. Miller will make $18 million this season in the final year of his deal. His stated goal is to spend his entire career in Denver, but it will require production after he posted eight sacks in 2019, his lowest total since 2013.
"I always had an internal faith that I would be here. I said a long time ago that I want to be a Bronco for life. I always felt like that even though the business and all this stuff. I always felt like this was home and this is where I was going to end up. I’m an optimistic guy," Miller said. "I always feel like we can win the Super Bowl and be the best defense. I always feel like that, and that same optimism -- I brought into this offseason. I always felt like I was going to be a Denver Bronco. I always felt I was going to come back.”
There was concern this offseason that Miller could face an NFL suspension. On March 5, the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against Miller regarding criminal allegations, ending several weeks of the legal issue hanging over his future.
This case began in unusual fashion on Jan. 15 with the Parker Police Department announcing it was investigating Miller, but declining to say for what reason. On Feb. 23, Parker police turned the case over to the DA's Office, an indication that they believed there was enough evidence to charge Miller. Miller commented on the matter for the first time this week.
"We wanted to get everything resolved, and hopefully and gratefully, we got everything resolved. Everything is done and we’re just focusing on football right now. That’s all it is. Everything’s resolved and I’m in a great place to really put all that stuff behind me and just focus on football," Miller said. "To be here with the Denver Broncos for another year and be around my teammates and joke with all the guys."
Miller has shown energy, bounce and humor this week. Teammates embraced his return, loyal and appreciative of the veteran. Now the question remains: Can an older Von Miller be the Von Miller of old?
"I remember when I got hurt last year, I just had these memories of, ‘Dang.’ I was sitting on the turf and I was like, ‘Man, is this my last play as a Denver Bronco?’ I grinded and I worked hard to put that away and I never take that for granted. Every time I go out there, I feel blessed. It just means so much more to fight back from injury. Especially this late in my career, to fight back from injury and get out on the football field and being back to being present, it means so much more," Miller said. "I am ready to compete and play to the best of my ability."