DENVER -- A few seconds into Wednesday's interview with Dalton Risner, I imagine Broncos Country listening in and feeling an intense longing for the 2021 season.
Remember what football was like before the pandemic — clumps of people, full throat, wedged into Empower Field at Mile High? Risner embodies these fans because he grew up as one of them, attending training camp on sojourns from Wiggins.
He boasts a rare view for an athlete: unfailingly optimistic, yet realistic.
"The last two years we have been trying to figure things out and that’s not acceptable. In the NFL you don’t have time to figure things out. You don’t have time for rebuilding years, especially as part of Broncos Country," Risner told Denver7. "They expect playoffs every year, if not the Super Bowl every year. What more could we ask for? I love that our fan base expects that."
The Broncos lost their way after Super Bowl 50, failing to reach the playoffs and posting four consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1963-72. In 2020, they did not come close to recapturing the magic, finishing 5-11 and in last place in the AFC West.
Yet, there are slivers of hope peeking through the clouds. New general manager George Paton – the first one in the building and the last one out – has provided a jolt of energy as he begins the collaboration of shaping his first roster. In many ways, it represents a fresh start for players like Risner, who are poised to turn the corner.
"I think it was a great move to keep (John) Elway around the facility and also bring in a fresh set of eyes with George Paton. He has a lot of hope and faith in this team and a lot of confidence in what we can do and the players we have," Risner said. "And we are trusting him to make the right free agency moves and use salary cap the way he knows how."
For Risner, the improvement, as always, starts in the mirror. He is blunt and authentic. While some metrics suggested his second year was ordinary, the internal grades reflected something different. He did not allow a sack and was not called for a single penalty, despite playing multiple games with a shoulder so painful it required a brace to limit movement.
Did he have some blown assignments ? "Definitely, and I own those," he said. However, he continues on an upward trajectory.
"I will always be the first one to tell you I need to improve, and there is some stuff I need to clean up," Risner said. "But I look back at last season and I am very proud of it."
Risner is tired of losing. He remains ready to embrace a bigger role. He will be 26 in July and has started every game in his career. It's time to demand more of himself and the team.
"To be a leader you have to do yourself right. No one wants to follow a guy who isn’t doing his stuff right. So my first year, as a rookie, I was focused on earning the respect of organization before I opened my mouth. This past season I opened up my mouth a little bit more. I felt like I became more of a leader," Risner said.
"Going into my third year, I feel like it’s all gas, no brakes. I can talk to guys and get on people’s (butt), and that’s exactly what I plan to do. I don’t care if I make friends. I think there’s a lot of guys on team that this feel this way that, 'Man, if I don’t make friends because I am hard on my teammates, I don’t care.' I would rather go to a Super Bowl than be friends with everyone and be 5-11.”
For the Broncos to return to relevancy, there are several hurdles to clear. Paton must make tough choices on the futures of Von Miller and Kareem Jackson by March 16. Justin Simmons isn't going anywhere, with the most likely scenario being the team applies the franchise tag by Tuesday, leaving the sides until July 15 to hammer out a deal.
Even with Simmons, the defense needs playmakers. The offense, though, remains an issue until it is not. Whether Drew Lock is the quarterback or a veteran, the Broncos require a unit that can score 24 to 25 points a game, and take better care of the ball.
A second year in offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's system should benefit the entire group, regardless of the quarterback. Risner remains bullish on Lock, who has stayed in Colorado this offseason and works out five days a week with Risner, Courtland Sutton and others.
"I just had a conversation with Drew the other day. His first year, he went 4-1 in the last five games, and we switched up the offense a lot. Especially for Drew. I think the whole year he was trying to get a grip on that and figure it out," Risner said. "I think it will be great for Drew to have Shurmur back, and allow him to really focus on his craft."
The offensive line made strides last season, highlighted by left tackle Garett Bolles' All-Pro status. Further stability could come from the return of right tackle Ja'Wuan James. He has logged 63 snaps in two seasons in Denver because of a left knee injury in 2019 and his decision to opt out over COVID-19 concerns last summer. While uncertainty surrounds James' status, Risner believes in him and offered a promising progress report.
"Oh, Ju’Wuan James is going to be back. He’s back man. He’s been working out all offseason. He’s going to be in Denver in three weeks and me, (right guard) Graham (Glasgow) and (center) Lloyd Cushenberry are all going to be making sure to be working out with him, where he’s hanging out with us and getting the feel for things," Risner said.
"He’s nowhere near done playing football. He’s excited to come to back, 100 percent he’s coming back to play and he wants to get back into the mix."
Professional sports doesn't always allow for dimensions. But there are many layers to Risner, many of them peeled back this offseason on his Twitter account.
He became engaged to girlfriend Whitney Clampitt, and spread a message of hope through his RisnerUp Foundation. He works as champion ambassador for the Special Olympics and is a member of the Athletes for Hope organization.
Don't be confused. Risner loves football. He talks in exclamation points when describing big plays and moments. He wants nothing more than to help the Broncos win again. But the achievement would ring hollow without roots beyond the sideline.
"I know that all that the stuff I do is possible with football. Nobody wants a player so busy in community he (stinks) at his job that he gets paid a lot of money to do. My first priority is to take care of business on the field. But I don't need to be a six-year veteran to start doing good work in the world," Risner said.
"My main focus is to be a disciple of Christ and make an impact. A game with a leather ball doesn't define you as a man. It's who you are as a person. I want to stay with the Broncos for 20 years if I can. But the man I am off the field is a true test of who I am."