The negative narrative about the right tackle's knee injury stems from the head coach's comments, which were never clarified or amended
Vic Fangio has proven time and time again that he’s an old-school coach. He turned off the music during training camp, refused to offer even the slightest compliments when his players perform well and spent Christmas alone in his office, working on football while everyone else was enjoying the holiday with their family.
For the most part, these traits have been lauded in Denver. They’ve been hailed as just what the Broncos needed to get back on track.
But some revealing comments from one of the team’s most-maligned players may have provided a reason to re-examine that notion.
On Christmas Eve, Ja’Wuan James defended himself, answering questions about his inability to get back on the field. The right tackle’s candid remarks certainly put his season in a different perspective. And they bring up some serious questions about the way Fangio has handled the situation.
In the season opener at Oakland, James was injured after playing just 10 snaps. It wasn’t announced at the time, as the team hinted that the right tackle’s return was imminent, but it was a torn MCL that knocked him out of the game.
When James returned against Indianapolis, he didn’t play much more, leaving in the first half when he tweaked the knee again, as that what the Broncos let everyone assume. In reality, it was a meniscus injury that sidelined the right tackle this time around.
Despite these problems, James returned for Denver’s game at Houston. He played in the first half, but he didn’t return for the second. There was no report of another injury, but it was clear that the right tackle wasn’t comfortable on the field.
Since that game, Fangio has been asked every week whether or not James will play. He’s been pretty consistent with is answer.
“He’s cleared to play, but we have to get him ready to play,” the head coach said back in November, a message he’s stuck with ever since. “He’s got to get mentally ready to play, emotionally ready to play and be able to go out there and play good, not just go out there.”
That answer didn’t sit well in Broncos Country. Understandably, fans weren’t very sympathetic to the right tackle’s plight.
That comes with signing a four-year, $51 million contract. People expect a lot, looking for the high-priced player to make a major impact on the team.
James hasn’t made one, obviously. He hasn’t earned his money, in any way, shape or form.
If he was truly injured – like fellow free agent Bryce Callahan, who hasn’t played a single snap in 2019 – fans would be disappointed, but they’d be understanding. But to not go play because he wasn’t “mentally” or “emotionally” ready to be on the field was something people weren’t willing to accept.
They called him soft. They accused him of being a coward. They said he had taken the money and checked out.
Given how Fangio described the situation, these responses weren’t unexpected. They were a bit harsh, to be sure. But in the tough-guy world of the NFL, there isn’t a lot of sympathy for someone who simply doesn’t feel like playing.
Now, we find out that wasn’t the case.
“I’ve played football a long time; I’ve played through pain,” James said on Tuesday, when he opened up to the media for the first time about his situation. “But this was something way different. This was my knee giving out on me when I’m on the field and just buckling on me. That’s way different than pain.”
That certainly doesn’t sound like a mental hurdle. That’s a physical issue.
Nonetheless, the Broncos training staff cleared James to play. And Fangio was expecting him to be on the field.
The right tackle had a different game plan, however. He was thinking long-term.
“That (instability) was the biggest thing for me,” James explained. “After talking to (the doctors), they were like, ‘This thing just needs time to heal. We don’t want to do surgery right now. Let it try to heal over and scar over and you should be fine, hopefully in the offseason.’”
That seems like a reasonable response. If a player can avoid going under the knife, that’s always the best course of action. And getting healthy before returning to the field is also the prudent path.
So why didn’t Fangio provide that information to the media? Why didn’t the head coach say that they’re trying to let the injuries heal naturally, hoping it will be in time to be this season? Why didn’t he say the team was content with letting James get back to normal and be ready in 2020 and beyond?
That would’ve been honest. That would’ve been protecting his player.
Instead, Fangio tried to bully his high-priced right tackle onto the field, chucking him under the bus in the process. And when the backlash came, the head coach didn’t do anything to clarify the situation or defend James.
Instead, he left the right tackle on an island. He let him endure all of the arrows that came his way. He didn’t defuse any of the criticism.
That seems grossly unfair. And it feels like a good way to alienate a locker room.
Fangio let Broncos Country create a negative narrative about James, one that he fueled with his irresponsible and inaccurate comments about the right tackle not being mentally ready to play. The story quickly turned into James not caring about football; he turned into a pariah who got paid and didn’t want to earn his money on the field.
Earlier this week, James defended himself against those criticisms.
“I wanted to come here and make an impact on this team,” he said. “I’m more of a person who is going to lead by example than I will rah-rah and I feel like I haven’t had a chance to go out there besides camp to go show my play.”
While frustrated, the right tackle is prepared to move forward and help the team in the future.
“I just want to put it behind me, go forward with it and not worry about my knee this offseason,” he added. “Just get it healthy and so going into next year I’ve got a clear mind with it.”
A lot of people owe Ja’Wuan James an apology. They were quick to judge and assume the worst.
But at the top of that list is Vic Fangio. He let his player twist in the wind. He let one of his guys take unnecessary heat.
That’s not old-school. That’s bush league.