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A $3 million gift can’t keep a Broncos cornerback happy

(Photo by Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)

In recent years, the Broncos have made a lot of head-scratching moves. The list is so long that it’s hard to compile a “greatest hits” of blunders and stumbles.

They’ve tried to defend a Super Bowl title with a quarterback who had taken a grand total of one snap in the NFL. They let the mastermind behind one of the greatest defenses in NFL history leave town over a few bucks. They hired a head coach who had only been a defensive coordinator for one season prior to getting the gig in Denver.

It’s been a string of missteps that have taken the franchise from hoisting a Lombardi Trophy to posting their first back-to-back losing seasons in more than four decades. And a decision they made during the 2019 offseason is looking more and more like it’s destined to become another reason why the Broncos have gone so far off course in such a short amount of time.

Heading into the season, Chris Harris Jr. was slated to earn $8.9 million during the final year of a five-year, $42.5-million contract. He wanted a new contract, but Denver was unwilling to give a long-term deal to a 30-year-old cornerback coming off a leg injury.

In order to avoid a holdout by one of their best players, however, the Broncos did something inexplicable. They gave Harris a $3.15 million raise without getting anything in return.

No more years on the deal. No salary cap relief. Just more money for the player and nothing for the team.

The idea was that it would buy the Broncos time. They’d get to see if Harris was healthy, while also determining if they were a contender that needed a veteran cornerback or instead should move into full-fledged rebuilding mode.

It was also seen as a way to keep a player happy. In a league that constantly provides reminders that it’s a “business” and not a “game,” the Broncos appeared to be doing something to simply keep the peace; it wasn’t in their best interests to give Harris money for nothing, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

Two weeks into the 2019 season, that doesn’t feel like the case anymore.

Things aren’t going well, as the Broncos are sitting at 0-2 for the first time in 20 years. And their well-compensated cornerback isn’t hiding his displeasure.

It all started after the home opener. When asked about fans leaving Empower Field in droves after Joe Flacco threw an interception at the goal line with 4:45 to play in the game, Harris was quick to take a jab at his offensive teammates.

“We’re not entertaining, so I can understand,” the veteran quarterback said in the locker room on Sunday. “We don’t score a lot of points.”

That’s true. So far this season, the Broncos are averaging 15.0 points per game; that’s not a lot. And in today’s NFL, when teams like the Chiefs are scoring 28 points in a quarter, Denver’s brand of football isn’t exactly scintillating.

But Joe Flacco and Company scored enough points on Sunday to give their team the lead with 31 seconds to play in the game. They were able to make enough clutch plays on fourth downs and on a two-point conversion to be ahead 14-13 in the waning moments against the Bears.

Of course, that lead didn’t last long. Thirty seconds later, Chicago was lining up for the game-winning field goal, in part because Harris let Allen Robinson catch a 25-yard pass on fourth-and-15 right in front of him.

That’s what made it such an odd time to throw teammates under the bus. After surrendering the back-breaking play that turned a sure victory into a gut-wrenching defeat, Harris decided to lob a grenade at the offense.

Apparently, $3 million doesn’t buy an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality. Or even a sense of self-awareness.

But the fun didn’t end there. On Tuesday, Harris met the media and dropped another subtle zinger.

The last time the Broncos faced the Packers, this week’s opponent, it was a battle of heavyweights. Both teams were 6-0. The quarterback matchup featured Peyton Manning for Denver and Aaron Rodgers for the Green Bay. And the game was on “Sunday Night Football.”

In arguably their best all-around performance of the season, a campaign that went on to see the team win Super Bowl 50, the Broncos destroyed the Packers by a 29-10 count. Manning threw for 340 yards, but it was the other quarterback’s performance that drew the headlines.

On the night, Denver held Rodgers to a grand total of 77 yards passing. That’s an amazingly low number for a future Hall of Fame quarterback who was leading an undefeated team at the time.

Of all the things the Broncos defense accomplished in 2015, including a dominating performance against Cam Newton in the Super Bowl, what they did against the Packers might’ve been the most impressive. It was that stunning.

So naturally, Harris was asked if this year’s defense, which was much ballyhooed during training camp and deemed the second coming of the “No Fly Zone” by many around the team, could match that effort. The cornerback didn’t seem confident in Denver’s chances of repeating the feat.

But he wasn’t being humble. And he wasn’t sandbagging. Instead, Harris was taking a shot at the current iteration of the Broncos.

“We were able to play man-to-man and bring the heat every time,” he explained when asked how they slowed down Rodgers in 2015. “We can’t do that (now).”

Apparently, the original “No Fly Zone” is that much better than the current version. Harris, Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart could lock people down, allowing Von Miller, Demarcus Ware and the rest of the Broncos front seven to get after Rodgers. But Harris, Bryce Callahan, Kareem Jackson, Justin Simmons and Company can’t do the same.

That’s clearly a shot at John Elway, the man who decided to trade away Talib, while letting Roby, Ward and Stewart walk. The Broncos general manager has replaced those players by drafting Simmons, and then spending big free-agent money on Callahan and Jackson. Harris doesn’t seem to think it was an upgrade.

Apparently, $3 million doesn’t but loyalty. Nor does it prevent one from living in the past and failing to turn the page.

In both instances, Harris isn’t wrong. The Broncos are boring. And there’s a good chance they can’t play the same style of defense they did in 2015.

But does it really serve any purpose for one of the team’s leaders to point out those facts? How is that helping the situation?

John Elway gave Chris Harris a gift during the offseason. It seems the least the cornerback could do during the regular season was return the favor. But based on the last three days, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.

Apparently, $3 million only buys two weeks of goodwill.