ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Relevance, something that draws eyes and embraces bandwagoners, vanished over the last six seasons.
It feels like we all lost something during the pandemic. The Broncos lost their footing in the NFL in general and the AFC West specifically. It seems weird to write, let alone say it aloud. The Broncos have not reached the postseason since Peyton Manning retired, tied for the longest active drought with the New York Jets. They have not posted a winning record since 2016, a five-year skid last matched from 1963-72, pre-dating joining the NFL.
It explains why this spring has been so fulfilling without a game being played or a score kept. The veil of darkness has been lifted. Wednesday, the Broncos finished mandatory minicamp with a field day in the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse, a chance for coaches to build trust, rather than conduct a walkthrough or get limited reps.
While this act seem forced under Vic Fangio — it was not his personality — it fits coach Nate Hackett's blueprint for connecting with players, strengthening relationships and making work fun and learning interactive. What happened Wednesday is merely footnote in several chapters written over the last three months that have made the Broncos a page turner again.
This is a team that has hope without having to qualify it or cross its fingers behind its back. They have a new coach, a new quarterback and a new owner, only the third team to change all three in the same offseason since the NFL merger.
No longer is the most important ingredient missing. The Broncos have Russell Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback with a Super Bowl ring who believes "winning is a lifestyle." And he walks it.
Wilson's obsession can be seen in the small details. He has an office in UCHealth Training Center. His footwork in drills looks like it was edited because it is so flawless. His attention to detail surfaces everywhere — on his charter while he texts coach Hackett, his personal QB coach and teammates or when he remembers the names of interns he met on their first day and then follows up and asks them how their fourth day of work is going.
This is who Wilson is. Football is always there. As one player told me, "He's there early, he's there late. He's always working."
"First of all, football is the No. 1 priority. That’s why it never suffers. You do everything you can to spend the extra time, you get here early, leave late. You do all that stuff. One of the things that I believe in is that you pour your whole self into it, no matter where my feet are, I’m going to pour everything that I have into it. When I’m here, even when I’m away from here and everything else, the coaches and I, we’re constantly talking, players, we’re constantly talking. So that investment into players getting better and trying to help them, vice versa, it’s a key thing," Wilson said.
"You have to make your whole entire being and your thought process about winning, about being successful."
Wilson arrived at the right time with teammates open to his leadership, desperate to restore this franchise's glory. It helps that Wilson's attitude is matched, if not exceeded, by Hackett. He has leaned completely into technology and energy, fostering learning disguised as competition, while maintaining a firm hand.
"He's not afraid to make guys uncomfortable. He's not afraid to hold them accountable. That's going to be a huge attribute for him as a coach. And he constantly does it," left guard Dalton Risner told Denver7. "He will let you know when you do something wrong. He's going to push us out of our comfort zone. He wants to win games, man. We haven't done that the last three years. I respect that."
The offseason workouts showed Wilson connecting on long passes, including a perfect placed pass to Courtland Sutton on Monday over cornerback Michael Ojemudia and in front of safey Kareem Jackson. There have been seam route darts to Albert Okwuegbunam, chain-moving connections to Tim Patrick and, before he injured his groin, quick slants to Jerry Jeudy. While K.J. Hamler (knee) might start training camp on the PUP list, the receiving corps has intriguing potential. It's time to prove it.
Jeudy acknowledged that Tuesday.
"I motivate myself because I know the player that I could be and the potential that I have. Having Russell, it’s just going to make me a better player also," said Jeudy, who failed to score a touchdown last season in 10 games. "(It's about) just doing better than I did last year. Just focused on the little things, the details, and just becoming a better player than I was the past two years. ... I mean, our offense is a better offense. I’m excited for this year.”
While Broncos Country wants to smell what The Russ is Cooking, the Broncos will not abandon their running game. They feature a two-headed monster in Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. The pair split carries evenly last season, finishing with 1,821 yards and 17 touchdowns. It won't be even this year — more likely the hot hand gets more reps — but the ground game in the zone blocking scheme remains paramount to setting up deep strikes and making all plays look the same.
The offensive line features uncertainty but strong options. The likely starters are Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Quinn Meinerz and Billy Turner. Netane Muti rotated at both guard spots this offseason, Graham Glasgow, returning from a broken ankle and ligament damage, is taking second-string reps at center and Calvin Anderson and Tom Compton saw time at right tackle with Turner recovering from knee surgery.
Defensively, the Broncos brought a reminder this week that this unit can win a game, if necessary. The Broncos were good last year, not great. Too few takeaways and sacks stained the statistics. However, a plethora of deflected passes from the D-Line and interceptions from Pat Surtain II and Justin Simmons showed the tantalizing upside of Ejiro Evero's nuanced scheme. The secondary remains a strength — Michael Ojemudia showed dramatic improvement and could morph into a key role player — the defensive line will be anchored by D.J. Jones, an elite run stuffer, and the trio of Josey Jewell, quickly-developing Jonas Griffith and Alex Singleton showed promise at linebacker.
Outside linebacker offers promise and pause. Bradley Chubb made plays repeatedly this offseason and is healthy. He aims to bounce back, and it will be needed with uncertainty surrounding Randy Gregory's debut. He had offseason shoulder surgery with the hope that he will be ready for the season opener at Seattle. Malik Reed, Baron Browning, Jonathon Cooper and rookie Nik Bonitto will be asked to provide the "waves of rushers," sought by general manager George Paton.
The Broncos are much improved because of Wilson. It's that simple. He waived his no-trade clause to come to Denver. The Broncos are relevant again. Now comes the hard part, proving it.