It’s one of the most-telling scenes from the “America’s Game” episode about the 1997 Broncos. In the NFL Network’s story about Denver’s first Super Bowl victory, they open with a description of the team heading into that season.
“The Broncos were a talented team with the consummate leader,” Alec Baldwin narrates. “Thirty-seven-year-old quarterback John Elway was so driven to win a Super Bowl that barely a month after the Jacksonville loss, he was back working out.”
It cuts to a shot of Elway cranking on the stair-stepping machine, working out all alone in the franchise’s deserted training facility in the wee hours of the morning. The scene provides a glimpse of what it takes to become a winner.
That defeat to the Jaguars was one that Elway had called the most-devasting of his career, even more difficult to deal with than the three Super Bowl losses in the 1980s. After 14 seasons in the NFL, it was hard to say if No. 7 would get another chance as good as that one to finally win a championship; the Broncos were the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but that all went up in smoke when they lost to Jacksonville.
For someone wired differently, that would’ve been a good time to call it quits. After all, maybe the football gods were trying to tell the future Hall of Fame quarterback something; perhaps it was just never meant to be.
He had plenty of money. He was heading to Canton whether he won a Super Bowl or not. He would forever be the Duke of Denver. There was no reason to keep playing.
Except for the fact that Elway wasn’t about those things. Fame and fortune weren’t at the top of his wish list.
That spot was reserved for winning. And until he was able to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, the desire to do so would drive him to keep working and pushing and trying.
Elway isn’t alone in this regard. Almost every great champion is wired that way.
Michael Jordan was notorious for being obsessive about winning. Kobe Bryant was the same way. Tiger Woods is arguably the best example, bringing a work ethic to a sport that hadn’t seen that kind of all-consuming approach to being a champion before.
Locally, Ray Bourque comes to mind, as the defenseman played into his 40s and moved from Boston to Colorado to chase a Stanley Cup. Peyton Manning did something similar, leaving the Colts to join the Broncos in an effort to pursue one more championship.
All of these athletes had interests outside of their sport. But none of them valued anything more than winning. At the end of the day, that always came first.
Contrast that to the 2019 edition of the Broncos.
What member of the current roster is wired that way? Who sets the standard for excellence that everyone else tries to match?
Von Miller is the team’s best player, but he’s not that kind of a guy. The linebacker is more of a fun-loving, keep-everyone-loose teammate. He’ll take everyone to Del Frisco’s to keep their spirits up after a loss, but he’s not the type to demand more from his fellow Broncos in the weight room and/or on the field.
Chris Harris Jr. is a high-priced member of the defense, but he doesn’t seem to be obsessed with winning, either. More often than not, he’s more concerned with his next contract, his rating on Pro Football Focus or making sure everyone knows that he covers the opposing team’s best receiver each game.
Joe Flacco certainly isn’t that guy. He quiet and reserved to a painful extent, offering soundbites that are a weekly cure for insomnia when he meets with the media. Plus, he was new to the team this season, so it would’ve been difficult for him, even as a veteran quarterback, to step in and assume that role.
In other words, nobody on the roster fits the bill. There isn’t a player in the Broncos locker room who seems to value winning ahead of getting a big contract, co-hosting from the Kentucky Derby or any of the other spoils that come with being an NFL star.
That leaves the team’s coaching staff and front office to set the standard. But on that front, Denver seems to be missing something, as well.
Vic Fangio is a football lifer, a coach who knows more about X’s and O’s than almost anyone else on the planet. But during his 40 years in the game, he’s never won a championship; he’s never been a part of a winning formula.
Elway has, however, which makes it surprising that the Broncos general manager isn’t the one establishing a “Super Bowl or bust” mentality at Dove Valley. But the fire just doesn’t seem to burn as hot as it once did. The cutthroat approach that No. 7 once exhibited, getting rid of anyone who stood in Denver’s way of chasing a title, seems to have faded.
He’d rather be in Santa Barbara the weekend before the draft. He’s too busy hawking pharmaceutical products during the season. He’s playing in celebrity golf tournaments in Tahoe. He seems more interested in almost anything more than the Broncos.
If Pat Bowlen were still in charge, he’d set the bar for everyone; that’s what the former Broncos owner did since buying the team in 1984, establishing a goal of being No. 1 in everything from the day he took over the franchise. But since his passing, with the team in a trust while Bowlen’s heirs jockey for position to take over, there’s a void at the top when it comes to being able to put winning ahead of everything else.
Joe Ellis is a good man who wants to win, but his fiduciary responsibility to run the organization sometimes makes it tough to have a win-first approach. Ultimately, it’s not his money that he’s making decisions about, so he can’t push all the chips to the middle of the table like a traditional owner.
Given these circumstances, it’s no wonder that the Broncos have veered off course since Manning retired. There has been no one to fill his shoes in terms of setting the tone that winning is the only thing that matters in Denver.
As a result, the team has gone 9-7, 5-11, 6-10 and now 3-8 since winning Super Bowl 50. That combined record of 23-36 is the epitome of a rudderless ship. And until the Broncos find someone to set a higher standard, they’ll continue their aimless drifting through seasons.
The good news is that there are some young players on the roster who seemed to be wired this way. Bradley Chubb is wise beyond his years. Phillip Lindsay has had to outwork everyone in order to succeed in football. And Dalton Risner is someone who doesn’t seem distracted by the glitz and glamour of the NFL.
But do any of them hate to lose?
Everyone likes to win, but very few people truly hate to lose. They’re the ones who maniacally pursue championships, doing whatever it takes to get there. And in the process, they inspire others around them to think and act the same way.
Until the Broncos find that person, whether it’s a player, coach, general manager or new owner, they’ll continue to languish in mediocrity. The franchise doesn’t need someone to buy fancy steak dinners; they need someone to grind on the stair-stepper in February, one month removed from the most-devastating loss of his career.
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