AFC West: John Elway

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If you sifted through all of the words both the Denver Broncos’ football decision-makers and players have already said a week into training camp, there are three that have routinely been peppered into the conversations.

Toughness.

Attitude.

Mentality.

If you’re looking for a theme, a mantra, a way of doing things in the 2014 season for the Super Bowl hopeful on the Front Range, there it is.

“No question,’’ safety T.J. Ward said. “They already had a great team here, Peyton Manning, they won a lot of games. Some of us came in new and we just want to help, add a little thump if we can. I know I wanted to be a part of a team like this.’’

The Broncos are a week into training camp, and as we work through the hope-for-the-best stories about better leadership, depth and the luxury of the fresh start each summer gives to every NFL team, they are working to clear their own hurdle to go from last February’s Super Bowl loss to what they hope this season will be.

There was plenty good about what they did last season as the highest-scoring team, with the highest-scoring quarterback in league history. They can’t just abandon that because of one dismal February night. But for all of the records, fireworks on offense and piles of touchdowns, it wasn’t enough to win the title.

So, hence the search for toughness, for attitude and for what the team’s football boss John Elway has consistently called that “championship mentality.’’

Elway has said “it’s hard to win a world championship. Nobody just waves you by so you can walk up and have it handed it to you. You have to go get it.''

A few days into camp and it’s already clear, moving Orlando Franklin to guard should help. In live run-game drills, the Broncos showed the ability to move people in the middle of the field. They still haven’t found a right tackle -- Chris Clark has taken most of the snaps with the regulars -- to play as well as Franklin did.

But the Broncos want, and need, to be tougher on the interior, to run better inside, to protect Manning more consistently from inside rushers. Franklin can aid that cause.

Then there’s the defense, which got most of the attention and money in the offseason. And their progress, which includes the return of some players who were on injured reserve last season, can be measured in how much better they have stared down Manning and Adam Gase’s high-flying offense in their own practices so far. It isn't as if there is a more proficient offense waiting on the schedule.

It’s been far more difficult for the Broncos' offensive starters to move the ball on the defensive starters already. And it’s not because the Broncos have lost traction on offense, it’s because to 11 players across from it are better than they were in 2013.

DeMarcus Ware has the look of a team captain a few months into his tenure with Denver, and he physically looks as if he will make a high-profile team to the East feel some regret about losing him. And while the preseason figures to be two scoops of vanilla from Jack Del Rio and his cast, this defense should be top 5 if it’s healthy.

In the end, the games decide how much improvement was really made. Through the years, the league has been littered with team who are happy in the summer only to miss the playoffs when December rolls around. But if people believe they will see a shell-shocked Broncos team, still limping after a 35-point title game loss, they won’t.

They think that one is so last year.

Broncos camp report: Day 2

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Highlights from the Denver Broncos' training camp on Friday.
  • One of the major objectives this offseason was to not only get a little more nasty on defense -- "that championship mentality," John Elway has called it -- but to get bigger in the secondary as well. They signed cornerback Aqib Talib (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) as well as safety T.J. Ward (5-10, 200) and then used a first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby (5-11, 192). Just two days into camp and Talib’s reach -- "length" in scouting terms -- and his comfort level in both man and zone looks have been on display plenty. He makes it difficult for quarterbacks, including the ultra accurate Peyton Manning, to fit the ball in, and has forced several over-throws and knocked down more than his share of passes from all of the Broncos' quarterbacks already. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio figures to match Talib on No. 1 receivers throughout the season no matter where those pass-catchers line up. "I definitely checked out the defensive scheme and knew a little about Del Rio’s scheme before I made my decision to come here. It’s perfect for me."
  • The Broncos are approaching a crossroads with tight end Julius Thomas, who is in the last season of his rookie deal. They’d like to sign him long term, but could also use the franchise player tag next season if they do not get a deal done. Either way, Thomas has done his part so far to build on his 65-catch, 12-touchdown season in 2013. Thomas has shown a comfort level in the offense, working on the line, out wide and in the slot. He also spent some time with Tony Gonzalez this past offseason for a little guidance as well. "For me, it was understanding how you continue to play at a high level," Thomas said. "What do you do to prepare for games? What do you do to get the most out of practice? Just some things that only a future Hall of Famer and a 17-year veteran would know."
  • Shortly after Orlando Franklin was moved from right tackle to left guard this offseason, he said he really wouldn’t know how good he could be at his new position in the NFL until "the pads go on." Saturday morning will be the first time the Broncos work in full gear. The Broncos moved Franklin, who started more games at guard than tackle in his college career at Miami, inside to try and beef things up on the interior after Zane Beadles' departure in free agency. The Broncos don’t want to necessarily run the ball more than their 461 carries last season (11th in the league), but they want to be far more productive when they do choose to run. Saturday will be the first of several preseason tests of the plan, including preseason games against San Francisco and Seattle. Or as Talib put it Friday; "That’s when the real football starts. This is like pajamas or whatever you want to call it. It’ll get a little more live [Saturday]."
  • Montee Ball had just 59 receptions in his four seasons combined at Wisconsin and many in the league said working in the passing game would be the most difficult part of his transition to a potential No. 1 back. Last August he did miss a blitz pick-up in Seattle when Manning took a huge hit from Bobby Wagner, a hit that paved the way for Knowshon Moreno to work his way back up the depth chart last fall. But Ball has looked steady catching the ball thus far, including a nice back-shoulder grab in team drills Friday.
  • Odd and ends: Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe briefly left Friday’s practice as trainers worked on his right leg/hip. Wolfe then returned to drills. … Running back Brennan Clay, who did take some snaps with the second-team offense at times Friday, suffered a right thigh bruise, but head coach John Fox said it was "nothing serious." … Best catch of the day went to Greg Wilson, who was on the Broncos practice squad briefly this past January, who reeled in a scoring grab from Brock Osweiler deep up the right sideline in team drills. … Safety David Bruton also picked Osweiler off in team drills, taking it in for a touchdown, adding a flip at the goal-line for good measure.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The last word rings the loudest, and when it comes to all the Denver Broncos accomplished last season, the Seattle Seahawks got the last word.

It came in the form of a 43-8 victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

For many, that nationally televised cave-in wiped away all of the touchdowns, league records and remember-when plays that the Broncos had assembled along the way. Because of that, the Broncos have moved through the offseason with questions about their mettle swirling around them.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware, Von Miller
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesAdding DeMarcus Ware, left, and getting Von Miller, right, back from injury has the Broncos excited.
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner went on ESPN and dropped the words "scared" and "timid" when asked about the Broncos and the title game. Others around the league have done the same in private -- asked the same questions, wondered the same things. How can the Broncos navigate a tougher schedule than they had last season and do it as they try to bounce back from the kind of high-profile loss that is often difficult to shake?

That's what everyone wants to know, and it's a burden the Broncos carried as they took the field Thursday for their first training camp practice.

Make no mistake -- the Broncos like the team they have. And why not? Peyton Manning is back, as are the coaching staff and the guts of a roster that has gone 13-3 in back-to-back seasons.

As cornerback Chris Harris Jr. put it, "Guys know what kind of team we have."

John Elway, the Broncos' general manager and executive vice president of football operations, was busy this offseason, signing high-profile free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders.

"Are we a better football team on paper?" Elway asked. "I think we are. I feel good about the fact that we're a better football team with free agents that we signed, as well as the draft, as well as the young guys taking steps from last season."

Ware arrived from Dallas with 117 career sacks. Talib and Ward were named to the Pro Bowl last season.

"DeMarcus came in and walked in like he'd been here for 10 years, because that's the kind of guy that he is," Elway said. "You know the way that Aqib practices and the competitive nature that he has, and the mentality, the toughness that he brings."

The Broncos also have the likes of Harris Jr., Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson and Rahim Moore -- defensive players who finished the season on injured reserve -- back on the practice field. They've seen Manning look as good as ever, with his receivers saying the future Hall of Famer has had a little more on his fastball this spring.

They see a deep team with impact players they believe is tougher, a little more calloused by what has happened. But training camp is the season of sunshine and rainbows in the NFL. Always has been, always will be. Everyone arrives to camp happy and optimistic, touting the offseason changes in players or attitude, the new day or new era.

"I'm never getting too optimistic, because this thing changes so fast, and things can change on a dime," Elway said. "But I am excited about the team that we have on the field, I'm excited about the coaching staff that we have.

"So we're excited about getting started -- plus we can put last year behind us. As tremendous as last year was, obviously there's always a bitter taste in your mouth when it ends the way it ended. When we get out on the field, that officially ends the 2013 season. We can now get going on the 2014 season."

It's a season where the Broncos hope they can be the team that hands out the exclamation point.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said this season was "Super Bowl or bust" earlier this month, that was one thing.

After all, folks all over the region are thinking the same thing as they look over the Broncos' depth chart that still includes Peyton Manning at quarterback with a fairly young roster around him and one of the league's biggest hauls in free agency as well.

But now new arrival DeMarcus Ware has brought another goal into the conversation. Asked about the expectations of the team's defense, Ware said he hopes the Broncos go to uncharted ground when it comes to the franchise's history.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware says the Broncos want their defense to play as well as their offense.
"We are trying to be a force to be reckoned with this year and you already talked about us being an offensive team, but at the end of the day, we are trying to be [No.] 1 and [No.] 1," Ware said. "The best offense in the league and the best defense in the league."

That's not just a lofty goal, but something the team has never done in five-plus decades worth of football business. The team has been to seven Super Bowls -- six of those on Pat Bowlen's watch -- and won two title games. But the Broncos have never finished a season with the No. 1 defense in yards allowed per game, which is what the NFL uses to statistically rank defenses each year.

The Broncos' best season in scoring defense -- when they allowed a franchise low 148 points in a 14-game season -- was 1977. They finished ninth in yards allowed and were third in scoring defense, behind the Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons. Former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan routinely has said a team will almost certainly be in the Super Bowl conversation with a top-five offense to go with a top-five defense.

Then, Shanahan has said, it comes down to playing your best when the lights are brightest. But even that will be no small chore for these Broncos. Overall the Broncos have had only four seasons when they even finished in the league's top five in yards gained per game on offense and yards allowed per game on defense -- again that's how the league ranks them each year.

In those four seasons -- 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2012 -- the Broncos won the Super Bowl only to close out the 1997 season. They were upset in the playoffs, at home, to close out both 1996 and 2012 and were thumped by Manning in the wild-card game to close out 2004.

But Ware has again raised the issue many of the Broncos defensive players, most notably defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, have touched on throughout this offseason. That it's great Manning and the offense can pile up the touchdowns, but the Broncos want, and need, to be known for something on the other side of the ball.

If the team can't win the Super Bowl in a year that they scored more points in a season (606) than any team in history, then it's clear the Broncos need to bring a little something more than offensive pizzazz to the table.

But the difference in saying you want a top defense to go with the top offense and actually doing it is galactic in size. Especially in the salary cap era, when many teams find themselves picking sides when they're doling out the contract cash. And that was something John Elway was trying to avoid this past offseason when he was waving Bowlen's checkbook around in free agency, securing players such as Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward for the team's defense.

"I think that we've got to get to be where we're a complete football team," Elway said Wednesday. "We can't rely on [No.] 18 to win it because he can't win it by himself."

The 2013 season will always have its place in the team's lore as Manning threw for more touchdowns on his own (55) than the 31 other teams each scored. But the team never, whether it was because of injuries, mistakes or simply a lack of personnel, showed it had a Plan B for the days when the offense and Manning couldn't pull the team through -- like the day Super Bowl XLVIII was played, for example.

The Broncos didn't run the ball well enough not to have to throw it all the time and they didn't play defense consistently well enough to close the deal. Although the Broncos defense may have actually had one of its better days against the Seahawks in February until things got out of hand.

"To win a world championship, you have to be a great football team and you have to be well rounded," Elway said. "I think we've moved closer to that. Seattle was a tremendous football team. But this is a new year and we've got to go out and we've got to play the best football that we can play, and do what we do best. And how the coordinators put our guys in the best situations to be successful and we'll create our own identity. I think if we continue to do that with the people that we have, we're going to be able to compete for a world championship."

"I think this is going to be a night and day defense from last year," Ware said. "You had guys that were hurt [last year], and have the opportunity to not have any holes in your defense … So I think the sky is the limit for us."

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Often folks look at John Elway and talk about steely resolve. They talk about competitive fire. They talk about the unblinking ability to turn pressure into football diamonds.

And Wednesday, Elway showed his heart -- showed it with tears welling in his eyes as he tried to talk about Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen's, and Bowlen's family's, decision to step down from the day-to-day work of running the team. Bowlen turned over control of the team to a family trust with team president/CEO Joe Ellis making decisions that were previously Bowlen’s to make and Elway running the team's football operations.

Both Elway and Ellis were emotional as they attempted to talk Wednesday about Bowlen's impact on them, the community and the NFL. Both have spent the better part of three decades working for Bowlen, as well as spending time around the Broncos owner and his family away from the team complex.

For some, it was the kind of emotion they hadn’t seen from Elway, in particular, since he retired from the NFL after the 1998 season. The tears welled in Elway’s eyes as he spoke Wednesday, as he took several pauses and a heavy sigh or two to try to gather himself.

“I’ve worked for him for 30 years ... it’s, uh, going to be very hard not to see him walk through that door every day," Elway said. “He’s given me so much. As a player to be able to play for him, and as I’ve said when I retired, I said as a player all you want is an opportunity to be the best and to be able to compete for world championships and ... that’s what Pat has given us."

Elway also said Bowlen’s tenure as a day-to-day presence in the building “will never be matched, he will never be replaced." In the end, Elway called it a “sad, sad day."

Later, after matters turned to football as Elway walked to return inside the Broncos’ complex, he said “it really just hit me when I sat down to talk about him" that he had not expected to feel so much emotion when he sat down in front of the cameras and digital recorders.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Every person who works inside the Denver Broncos' suburban complex knew this day was coming.

Pat Bowlen would ask the same questions in a meeting that he had just asked a few minutes before.

He stepped away from the tireless work he did on some of the NFL’s most powerful committees, including negotiating some of the groundbreaking television contracts that fuel teams' economic engines.

He started driving less, choosing to ride with the team’s now-retired security director, Dave Abrams, or Broncos general counsel Rick Slivka, or team president Joe Ellis as they routinely went to lunch at a restaurant that overlooks an executive airport.

He was in his office less, too. Former coach Mike Shanahan once said: "[Pat] was an owner you could always find, his office was right next to mine, so some coaches can’t find their owners, don’t talk to their owners. I saw Pat every day at work."

Then for the first time, Bowlen -- who once competed in the Ironman Triathlon -- didn’t go to the league meetings in March.

[+] EnlargePat Bowlen and John Elway
AP Photo/ Ed AndrieskiThe Broncos have enjoyed their greatest moments under the leadership of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and owner Pat Bowlen, left.
Through it all, those in and around the Broncos have always said Bowlen was "stepping away," choosing to let the people he has in place run the team in the way he hoped it would be operated.

On Tuesday, the Broncos formally announced Bowlen had surrendered control of the team as he battles Alzheimer’s disease. Ellis, who now will add the title and duties of chief executive officer to his duties as team president, will assume control of the team and represent the Broncos on all league matters.

A team statement said: "The Broncos are very saddened that Mr. Bowlen is no longer able to be part of the team’s daily operations due to his condition. We continue to offer our full support, compassion and respect to 'Mr. B,' who has faced Alzheimer’s disease with such dignity and strength."

Commissioner Roger Goodell said to the Denver Post: "This is a sad day for the NFL."

Bowlen publicly had said he suffered some short-term memory loss in recent years, even as far back as 2009, when he fired Shanahan. With tears in his eyes, Bowlen said: "This is as tough as it gets." He then hired Josh McDaniels, but fired him with four games remaining in the 2010 season, with the franchise reeling from on-field losses and its own Spygate scandal.

Early in 2011, Bowlen performed what might have been one of his last great acts as the franchise’s most successful owner. He convinced John Elway to return as the team’s chief football decision-maker.

The Broncos, it seems, always have been at their best with Elway and Bowlen together in some way. Bowlen raised the team’s first Super Bowl trophy, saying: "This one’s for John." There is little doubt if Elway could raise one as an executive, he would say: "This one’s for Pat."

Player and owner. Friend and friend. Boss and employee.

There are those around the league who believe the $35 million expansion of the team’s complex, including an indoor practice facility, was in part a spruce-up, a value-added item, if the team were to be sold. But Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, said in a statement Tuesday: "Long-term, I fully support Pat’s hope of keeping the Denver Broncos in the Bowlen family."

Ellis has been with the team for most of Bowlen’s ownership tenure in Denver. Ellis was the team’s marketing director from 1983 to 1985 -- Bowlen purchased the Broncos in 1984 -- and Ellis returned to the team in 1998 and has been with the Broncos since. Ellis was promoted to COO in 2008 and named team president in 2011.

Together, it now will be Ellis and Elway who will try to maintain what Bowlen always wanted for the Broncos: to be in the Super Bowl hunt.

Bowlen would always enthusiastically and without hesitation pick the Broncos to win the title game in the coming year in what used to be annual postseason sit-downs. Bowlen liked star power. He liked success. He liked the Broncos to be at the front of the line.

The Broncos will hold their first training camp practice Thursday, the 31st training camp since Bowlen became the team’s owner. As Bowlen battles Alzheimer’s, those he put in place -- Ellis and Elway -- to run his team when he no longer could, might have assembled his best team, at least on paper, with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback in Peyton Manning.

Whether this team closes the deal like Elway did in 1998 and 1999 remains to be seen. But you can see Bowlen knew what the future held, and knew what he wanted his franchise to be.

Countdown to camp: Linebackers

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Von Miller was the first player drafted by the Denver Broncos in John Elway's tenure as the team's chief football decision-maker. Miller, at his best, has shown the potential to be in the conversation as the league's Defensive Player of the Year every year.

But Miller has also shown some immaturity, accumulating some off-the-field baggage along the way.

And while Miller says he has shed the troubles of last season and is re-committed to becoming one of the league's chief on-field disrupters again, it is Danny Trevathan who just may best represent Elway's vision of the Broncos' developmental curve over the long haul.

"I hope he feels that way, I hope he sees me as a success," Trevathan said. "I have big dreams. I had them coming in and I have them now and I feel like I can do the work to make them be and help this team win big games."

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsA sixth-round pick in 2012, Danny Trevathan has the look and work ethic of a future captain.
Despite the free-agency shopping spree of this past March, Elway has consistently said his plan for the Broncos in the long term is a draft-built team with the depth to survive a spate of injuries. He wants a team that can put itself in the title conversation "year after year" with an occasional free agent added to the mix "when we feel like there is a guy out there who can really add to what we build in the draft."

The Broncos certainly feature that approach at linebacker with Trevathan looking exactly like the home-grown gem that separates the teams that know what to do in the draft and those that don't. The sixth-round pick in 2012 was the defense's most consistent player last season with 129 tackles with 3 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and 2 sacks.

Trevathan looks poised for more this season and then some. Because of his get-after-it approach to go with his production, I believe he has the look of a future team captain. But overall the Broncos will likely feature three starting linebackers who were all drafted by the team in Miller, Trevathan and whoever wins the job in the middle between Nate Irving (third round, 2011) and rookie Lamin Barrow (fifth round, 2014).

It's all part of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

Today: Linebackers.

How many coming to camp: 13.

How many will the Broncos keep: The 2013 season signaled a bit of a change from the two previous seasons. Last year the Broncos kept six linebackers as they exited the preseason with Miller having begun the year on a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

But when Miller returned to the lineup in Week 7 the Broncos kept the total at six linebackers. That was after they had kept seven linebackers in the initial cut to 53 players in 2012 and seven in 2011.

This year the Broncos seem intent on searching for depth, having invited 13 linebackers to camp. It's the same as the number of combined defensive linemen they have invited at two positions. Miller is still working his way back from ACL surgery and it's still a question as to whether or not he will be ready for his usual allotment of snaps when the regular season begins.

Miller is on track in his return and says he's dropped weight from last season, but the Broncos will play it safe with their Pro Bowl linebacker as they move through training camp and the preseason.

That may impact how many they keep here in the cut to 53, but the number almost certainly comes down at six or seven.

Break it down: The Broncos like their potential depth here and the battle for the final spots on the depth chart will be fierce. As will the potential battle for middle linebacker.

The Broncos have consistently lauded Nate Irving's work in the offseason, he worked as the middle linebacker with the starters in organized team activities and minicamp, but they have tried him in the middle before only to move on to other options. Irving has performed well as Miller's backup on the strong-side, but to stay in the middle he simply has to show he can consistently square up blockers in the run fits, shed and move to the ball.

In the past, including in college, he has tried to run around blocks and left running lanes in his wake that offenses have taken advantage of.

The Broncos will take a look at the athletic Barrow in the middle as well. Barrow was under-rated by many on this year's draft board for his ability to take on blocks and work toward to the ball. If Barrow shows the ability to play mistake-free, assignment football, he will make a significant push for the job. It will take Irving's best to hold him off when the decision is made.

In the end the Broncos want to find the guy who can man the middle in the base, which isn't the primary formation any longer, but also play along-side Trevathan in the nickel when Miller bumps down to defensive end. At minimum Barrow looks primed for that job, an important decision since the nickel is the formation the Broncos played the most last season.

But the scrap for the final spots with the likes of Steven Johnson, a quality special teamer, and Lerentee McCray, who was set to make the roster last season as undrafted rookie before an injury ended his season, as well as Shaquil Barrett, Jamar Chaney and Brandon Marshall, will bear watching.
John ElwayPhoto by Kevin Reece/Getty Images
Score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Date: Jan. 25, 1998
Site: Qualcomm Stadium

We have a winner. The voters and I agree that The Helicopter is the Denver Broncos' most memorable play.

John Elway played quarterback for 16 seasons for the Broncos, started five Super Bowls, and was the winningest starting quarterback in NFL history when he retired following the 1998 season. He went 148-82-1 with 47 game-winning or game-saving drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

For many, he will always be the face of franchise, now as the team’s top football decision-maker.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Broncos' history?

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    80%
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    6%
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    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 38,649)

And if Elway says his put-it-all-on-the-line dive for a first down in the Super Bowl is the favorite play of his career, as he has stated on several occasions, it’s probably worth a long look for any list, and it sits at the top of this one.

In terms of franchise context -- the context of Elway’s career before the play and what the play meant on the game’s biggest stage -- it is the most memorable play of all the plays the Broncos have run. It was Elway’s fourth career Super Bowl start, his career was in the homestretch, and a Super Bowl ring had eluded him to that point.

The Broncos -- with a passionate fan base that has produced an ongoing streak of multiple decades worth of sold-out home games -- had done plenty through the years, but had not won a Super Bowl since the team’s inception in 1960.

And with the title on the line and the game tied 17-17, Elway did what Elway had done so many times in so many situations; he turned trouble into football prosperity. But this time he hurled his then-37-year-old body at three Packers defenders to do it.

Tucked in the game’s play-by-play, it reads simply as an 8-yard run for a third-quarter first down. But for the players on the field with Elway, those on the sideline, the coaches who saw it unfold, and thousands of the team’s faithful who simply call it The Helicopter, it will always stand alone.

The late Mike Heimerdinger, the former Titans and Jets offensive coordinator who was a wide receivers coach in Denver at the time, once simply called it "probably the greatest thing I ever saw on a football field. You just knew when he started to run he was going to do it, and when he got up and went back to the huddle you just knew we were going to win that ring."
John ElwayPhoto by Kevin Reece/Getty Images
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the third of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. We have already featured Tom Jackson’s 73-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Denver Broncos' quest for the franchise’s first playoff spot in the 1977 seasons, as well as John Elway’s 18-yard completion to Shannon Sharpe on third-and-6 in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game following the 1997 season.

Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.

Score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Date: Jan. 25, 1998 Site: Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego

The underdog, wild-card Broncos and the heavily-favored Packers had taken their best swings at each other and were deep into the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXII, tied 17-17. Still in search of the first title of his Hall of Fame career, Elway had the Broncos moving during a possession that had begun at the Broncos' 8-yard line with 7 minutes, 46 seconds left in the third quarter.

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Which is the most memorable play in Broncos' history?

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    80%
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Discuss (Total votes: 38,649)

With Elway sprinkling in a well-timed pass or two, including a 36-yarder to Ed McCaffrey that had moved them into Packers' territory, the Broncos had used running back Terrell Davis’ 27 yards on six carries previously on the drive to get the ball to the Packers’ 12-yard line where they faced a third-and-6. The Broncos would have gladly taken a field goal at that point, but Elway knew the Packers had the NFC's top scoring offense in the regular season and a touchdown was needed.

Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan sent in a pass play, and when Elway initially dropped back he was looking for fellow future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. But the Packers had Sharpe, with safeties LeRoy Butler and Eugene Robinson, bracketed nicely with no room for Elway to fit the ball in.

And with the Packers' defensive front closing in, the then 37-year-old Elway had run out of options to do anything but, well, run.

Elway charged into what he has called "the first open space I kind of saw." After eight yards, three Packers -- Butler, Mike Prior and Brian M. Williams -- crashed into a leaping Elway, spinning the quarterback around, before he landed hard on the grass.

The Broncos had their first down, and two plays later they got their touchdown when Davis plowed in from the 1-yard line. And just more than a quarter later, the team and its best-ever player had their first championship.

It was a 13-play, 92-yard drive, pounded out on the game’s biggest stage, punctuated by what Sharpe has called "a 37-year-old quarterback throwing himself at the one thing he didn’t have in his career. You don't forget something like that."
Shannon SharpeTIM CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the second of three nominations for the most memorable play in Denver Broncos history. On Monday, we featured Tom Jackson's 73-yard interception return for a touchdown in 1977 to power the Broncos to their first Super Bowl trip and tomorrow we’ll feature Hall of Famer John Elway’s scramble in Super Bowl XXXII, known simply as the “helicopter play" to most of the team’s faithful.

Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.

Score: Broncos 24, Steelers 21
Date: Jan. 11, 1998 Site: Three Rivers Stadium

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Which is the most memorable play in Broncos' history?

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    80%
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    6%
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    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 38,649)

After a crushing playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars abruptly ended what was thought to be a Super Bowl run the year before, the Broncos entered the playoffs following the 1997 season as a wild-card team, having finished 12-4 and a game behind the 13-3 Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.

They arrived to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh having already thumped the Jaguars 42-17 in the wild-card round to go with a survival-of-the-fittest 14-10 victory over the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round, a game former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has always called “the hardest-hitting game I’ve ever been a part of in the National Football League."

And with the clock on Elway’s career starting to tick loudly at this point, the Broncos certainly had their eyes on the prize.

After a 17-point second quarter gave the Broncos a 24-14 lead, the Steelers had narrowed the gap to 24-21 with just under three minutes to play -– the only score of the second half for either team -– and the Broncos needed a quality possession to wind the clock and close things out.

However, following the Pittsburgh score, the Broncos took over on their own 11-yard line with 2:46 to play. Elway hit Ed McCaffrey for a 6-yard gain on first down to move the ball to the Broncos' 17. Running back Terrell Davis was then thrown a for 2-yard loss on second down, which left the Broncos facing a third-and-6 from their own 15-yard line and the all-too-real prospect of handing the Steelers' quality field position if they did not convert.

Shanahan sent in a play the Broncos, according to Shannon Sharpe, had not practiced in weeks and was not part of the game plan the team had made to prepare for the Steelers. And Sharpe has said after Elway called the play in the huddle, Sharpe said to the quarterback, “We don’t have that play in."

Sharpe then asked Elway, “What do you want me to do?" Sharpe said Elway responded with words now in the team’s championship lore -- “Go get open."

Sharpe did, to the tune of a 18-yard gain before the Steelers’ Lee Flowers made the tackle. The Broncos ran four more plays to run out the clock and keep the opportunity of the franchise’s first Super Bowl win in their grasp.
Tom JacksonDenver Post/AP Photos
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Denver Broncos history. In the next two days, we’ll also feature: Hall of Famer John Elway’s 18-yard completion on a third-and-6 with two minutes to play in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 11, 1998 in Pittsburgh as the Broncos went on to earn the franchise’s first Super Bowl win two weeks later; and Elway’s scramble in Super Bowl XXXII, known simply as the "helicopter play" to most of the team’s faithful.

Please vote for your choice as the Broncos’ most memorable play.

Score: Broncos 27, Colts 13
Date: Nov. 27, 1977 Site: Mile High Stadium

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Broncos' history?

  •  
    80%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 38,649)

To sift through 53 years of plays to try to find three quality nominations for the most memorable play in Broncos history, some former players were polled, along with a former coach or two as well as the recently retired Jim Saccomano, a team employee of more than three decades. Fans also shared their thoughts on Twitter.

But the bottom line is the plays had to have some symbolism, the historical context that makes them important. And while Elway’s Hall of Fame career is an enormous presence in all the Broncos have done since their inception in 1960, Tom Jackson’s play has plenty of meaning, particularly for the Broncos of the Orange Crush era and even those who came before.

When the Baltimore Colts arrived in Denver for a Week 11 matchup between two 9-1 teams, the Broncos were a team that had never been to the postseason, in position for the franchise's first trip. The Broncos took a quick 14-0 lead on two touchdown passes from Craig Morton, only to see the Colts battle back to 14-13 on a Bert Jones to Bobby Mitchell touchdown pass with 11 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.

With Jones driving the Colts toward another potential score midway through the fourth quarter, the Colts quarterback tried to squeeze a pass to running back Don McCauley -- McCauley had 11 catches for 112 yards in the game -- but Jackson snatched the ball from the air and raced 73 yards for a touchdown. He tossed the ball into the stands after he had crossed into the end zone to extend the Broncos' lead with 7:20 to play.

Fellow Ring of Fame member Louis Wright added an interception later in the fourth quarter that led to another Broncos touchdown on the way to a 27-13 win. The victory went a long way toward giving the Broncos home-field advantage in the playoffs, and they went on to defeat the Steelers and Raiders in back-to-back weeks to earn a trip to Super Bowl XII.

It was the first of what is now seven trips to the league’s title game for the Broncos, including Super Bowl XLVIII to close the 2013 season.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos launched themselves into free agency earlier this year, many in the league were quick to compliment the team's salary-cap standing that enabled them to be so aggressive. And John Elway, the team's top football decision-maker, has routinely said he doesn't want to do so many things "that we're right up against the cap. We want to stay competitive, compete for world championships and that means handling ourselves in that arena, too."

But as the Broncos continue to try to get a long-term deal done for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, they are nudging up against their cap restrictions.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesDenver will have to adjust its salary-cap number in order to give Demaryius Thomas a contract extension.
Currently, at least until the rosters league wide are cut to 53 players following the fourth preseason game, teams only have to be under with their top 51 salary-cap figures. That puts the Broncos under the cap right now, but with their top 51 coming in at just over $132 million (the cap baseline is $133 million per team) they will have to do at least some work before the end of the preseason -- even with some accounting benefits like rolling over some unused cap space from 2013 -- to sign Thomas, get 53 players under the cap and have enough room to effectively deal with any potential players on injured reserve.

And for a team that had just $24 million worth of salary-cap charges for players on injured reserve by the time they loaded the plane for their Super Bowl trip -- most of that was left tackle Ryan Clady, who signed a new long-term deal with the team last offseason -- that is not something to take lightly.

Overall, the Broncos have about $4.6 million of workable cap space after counting their top 51 contracts, including rollover from last year, as they turn toward training camp. So it’s a good time to take a look at some money matters and where things stand at some of the notable spots on the depth chart.

  • Quarterback Peyton Manning has the team’s highest cap figure, at $17.5 million and the Broncos have the biggest cap gap of any position between starter and backup with No. 2 Brock Osweiler, still on his rookie deal, coming in at $959,094 against the cap.
  • Wide receiver Wes Welker’s $8 million cap figure is highest among the wide receivers and the fourth highest on the team behind only Manning, Clady and defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
  • Decisions are coming at tight end. Of the seven tight ends on the roster at the moment, the top five will be unrestricted free agents following the 2014 season, a list that includes Julius Thomas, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. Tamme’s $3.5 million cap figure leads the way at the position, just in front of Dreessen’s $3.1 million. Dreessen has not participated in the team’s offseason program because of knee troubles.
  • Of the six Broncos players who currently have cap figures of at least $7 million for '14, four play on offense and two – Clady ($8.6 million) and guard Louis Vasquez ($7.25 million) – are offensive line starters. So, to be Manning, or play nearby in the formation, is where the big money is. Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib – both free agency signings this past March – are the defensive players among the six.
  • The Broncos’ biggest dead-money hit – salary-cap charges for players no longer on the roster – is $2.1 million for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had the second year of his original contract with the Broncos voided five days after the Super Bowl. Other notable dead-money charges are $1.83 million for the retired Chris Kuper and $500,000 for Willis McGahee, who was cut over a year ago.
  • Best value contract for the Broncos has to be linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the team in tackles last season and checks in at a $596,018 cap figure, or behind Von Miller ($6.613 million) and Nate Irving ($848,750). Overall, Miller is the only linebacker on the team’s roster with a cap figure over $1 million, a fact that will change when Trevathan’s deal is up after the 2015 season.
  • Though defensive tackle Terrance Knighton’s representatives had been hoping for a renegotiation after Knighton’s high-quality play down the stretch last season – the Broncos declined the overtures – he still leads the team’s defensive tackles with a $2.75 million cap figure.
  • Both Broncos kicking specialists – kicker Matt Prater and punter Britton Colquitt – have cap figures over $3.6 million for ’14. Prater’s is $3.81 million while Colquitt’s is $3.67 million.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever the Denver Broncos' chief decision-maker, John Elway, describes the developmental process, he will routinely offer "we don't draft All-Pros, we have to make them."

And over the course of the next week we'll take a glimpse at a few key players who are at various stages of the developmental process. Some have been named to the Pro Bowl, while others will be starters for the first time in the coming season.

But what they all have in common is more is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season's run to the Super Bowl.

Today: Tight end Julius Thomas

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJulius Thomas averaged 64.4 plays per game in 2013, which could increase this season if the tight end improves as a blocker.
Thomas, who essentially recuperated for two seasons after suffering an ankle injury on his first NFL catch as a rookie, blossomed this past season into most everything the Broncos could have possibly hoped for during those arduous months of physical rehab.

This past season Thomas finished with 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in the highest-scoring offense in league history. He repeatedly created mismatches as a receiver wherever he was in the formation. His touchdown total as well as yards per catch (12.1) put him behind only Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis at his position and in today's NFL that is elite company as a tight end. Thomas' catch total ranked tied for eighth among the league's tight ends in the epically balanced Broncos' attack, and his receiving yards were good for eighth too.

Elway has been clear he wants to find a way to get a long-term deal done with Thomas, even as the team tried to hammer out a long-term deal for Demaryius Thomas. Julius Thomas may be a candidate for the franchise player tag following the 2014 season, depending on what kind of work the team can do against the salary cap.

But the business of business will certainly come later. Right now the Broncos' coaching staff is interested in elevating Thomas' play a little more. Sometimes -- as Thomas shows his athleticism and fluidity in pass routes or when he's winning a contested pass because of an innate ability to get his body in the right spot -- it can be easy to forget Thomas played just one season of college football.

It can be easy to forget Thomas' first two years on the developmental curve as a pro were largely spent with the team's trainers as he worked his way back from ankle surgery. In short, he has room to grow, a thought not all that exciting to some defensive coordinators around the league.

Thomas' options as a receiver will only open up when the Broncos can use him more down in tight in the formation, lined up just outside the tackle. Many defensive coaches believe Thomas is still a weapon as a receiver when he starts his route down inside, but they believe it's easier to gauge what's coming because of the Broncos' reluctance to put Thomas in some situations as a potential blocker.

Look, nobody should want a receiver as gifted as Thomas to be some kind of lock-it-down blocker instead of running a pattern. But the more Thomas can function in a variety of roles, the more places the Broncos can put him and the more Thomas can do from an inside position, especially in the play-action passing game when the linebackers are headed toward the line of scrimmage.

But blocking, as you would expect from a four-year basketball player at Portland State, has been a hurdle for Thomas at times. One of the adjustments the Broncos made last season was to let Thomas line up with his right foot forward when he was on the outside shoulder of either tackle.

That angled Thomas toward the middle of the field, rather than with his right foot back when lined up to the right, as would be customary. It was a fairly significant concession to try to keep him on the field as he worked through his blocking issues. But when Thomas has lined up in a traditional stance to the right, he often took an extra step as he moved into a blocking position which would end up with him off balance and with the improper foot forward as he engaged the defender across from him.

Certainly the Broncos like their depth at tight end with Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen (even as Dreessen works back from knee troubles) and Virgil Green. But there is room for Thomas to get even more playing time if he can attack this part of his game with the same zeal he has everything else so far.

Thomas was one of the few young players the Broncos had who made it a point to attend the player-organized workouts the Broncos offense had shortly after Peyton Manning signed with the team in March of 2012. Thomas never wavered in his effort as he returned from his injury.

"I never really lost my confidence, I knew I had it in me if I just kept working at it and didn't lose sight of the goal, which was to get healthy and get back on the field to show what I could do," Thomas said.

But last season he played 74 percent of the Broncos' snaps on offense, a total that likely would have been higher had he not missed two games with a knee injury. He averaged 64.4 plays per game, just behind Eric Decker's 65.6 plays per game and ahead of Wes Welker's 59.2 plays per game.

But if the Broncos could get Julius Thomas into the same range as Demaryius Thomas, who led the team's pass-catchers with an average of 69.1 plays per game, the tight end could get about 75 more plays over the course of the season. The Broncos believe Julius Thomas is among the most productive tight ends in the league, but they also see an opportunity for him to get even better if they get creative and he does the work.
I caught part of a replay of Super Bowl XXII the other day on NFL Network, and it was the start of the third quarter between the Washington Redskins and the Denver Broncos when announcer Al Michaels said something that caught my attention.

It actually made me pause the DVR, hit rewind and play again so I could hear Michaels one more time. And then another.

Sure, there had been rumors that Al Davis had been enamored with quarterback Doug Williams. But in the third quarter of that Super Bowl, after Williams had essentially won the game for Washington with an epic second quarter that featured five touchdowns, Michaels told the tale.

[+] EnlargeDoug Williams
AP Photo/Amy SancettaThe Raiders and Redskins reportedly discussed a swap for quarterback Doug Williams before the 1987 season.
He reported that Williams had been ticketed to the then-Los Angeles Raiders the Monday before the NFL’s 1987 regular season was to begin. Then-Washington coach Joe Gibbs had even told Williams he was on his way to the Raiders.

But then, according to Michaels, the Raiders balked at Washington’s price -- a first-round draft pick, or a very good player.

Now, we’ve already heard the tales of John Elway coming so close to being a Raider, and how the Raiders should have drafted Dan Marino in that same 1983 draft after the purported draft-day trade to land Elway fell through. And while the Williams-to-the-Raiders story might not have that same intrigue as either Elway or Marino wearing Silver and Black, it is interesting nonetheless.

Especially when you consider what Williams accomplished later that strike-torn season, and when you realize who the Raiders instead used that first-round pick on in the 1983 draft.

Williams, who had been the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting quarterback from 1978 through 1982 and had helped author three playoff appearances for them, was also a pioneer as an African American quarterback, following in the footsteps of James Harris and Joe Gilliam.

And we know that Davis looked beyond skin tone when it came to players he believed could play --Davis selected QB Eldridge Dickey in the first round of the 1968 draft -- and Williams had the big arm Davis was always in search of.

But after a contract dispute ended his time in Tampa Bay, Williams played two seasons in the USFL before resurfacing in Washington in 1986 as Jay Schroeder's backup.

Williams had not started an NFL game since Jan. 9, 1983, a playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys, so yeah, you could imagine the Raiders not wanting to give up a first-rounder for him less than a week before the 1987 season.

Still, the Raiders were relatively unsettled under center entering that season as Jim Plunkett had retired and Marc Wilson and Rusty Hilger were the returners.

But even as the Raiders got off to a 3-0 start, the wheels quickly fell off, thanks in part to the strike, which cancelled one week of games and led to three weeks of replacement player games. The Raiders finished 5-10, their worst record since going 1-13 in 1962, the year before Davis arrived in Oakland. And two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Tom Flores resigned following the season.

Would Williams have saved the season and steadied the Raiders' ship?

Meanwhile, in Washington, Williams still had to bide his time. Sure, he relieved Schroeder a few times in 1987 and even started two regular-season games, but he did not become Washington’s starter for good until there was 6:51 remaining in the third quarter of its regular-season finale against Minnesota.

Williams, a huge team favorite, led Washington on its playoff run, upsetting the Chicago Bears in the divisional round and then upending the Vikings in the NFC title game.

Then came Super Sunday, in which he threw all four of his touchdown passes in the historic second quarter and passed for a then-Super Bowl record 340 yards in Washington’s 42-10 victory over Elway’s Broncos as Williams became the first African-American starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, a feat not matched until Russell Wilson did it with the Seattle Seahawks this past February.

The trade that never happened between Oakland and Washington seemed to work out best for Washington, at least on the surface.

But if the Raiders had given up their first-rounder in 1988, they probably would have missed out on Tim Brown, though the Raiders did do some wheeling and dealing later to acquire three first-rounders, which they used on Brown, Terry McDaniel and Scott Davis.

So, with hindsight always being 20/20, do you essentially trade Doug Williams for Tim Brown if you’re the Raiders?

Whatever your answer, remember this: the Raiders and Washington would get together for a trade in 1988, a deal that would haunt the Raiders as they sent offensive tackle Jim Lachey to Washington for… wait for it … Schroeder.

Williams would only play 15 more games over the next two seasons before retiring, while Schroeder could not fully win over the hearts and minds of the Raiders' locker room in five seasons.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –- Plans are one thing, turning those plans into action is another. The Denver Broncos certainly believe their pass rush should have one of the better one-two combinations in the league with DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.

That's the plan anyway with two guys who have been named to the Pro Bowl a combined nine times.

Ware is looking to bounce back from an injury-marred 2013 season when he missed the only three games of his career and the team expects Miller to fully recover from December ACL surgery. And after watching Ware and Miller go through the team's offseason work, including the just-completed organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp, there is no reason to believe those plans won't move quite nicely from the drawing board to what happens this season.

[+] EnlargeQuanterus Smith
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, FileAfter missing last season while recovering from an ACL tear, Quanterus Smith is ready to challenge for playing time.
But the Broncos also got a look at the wild card in what can be done in their defense. They got a look at a guy who is also squarely in their plans -- a guy, with Miller still on the mend, who got plenty of premium snaps when the defense went to work over the past few weeks.

And Quanterus Smith could well be one of those options the Broncos didn't have last season who turns out to make a difference this time around.

"This is a great opportunity to learn from those guys, guys that you watched growing up, especially DeMarcus Ware," Smith said. "It's a great opportunity to just watch those guys as they play their career."

The Broncos used a fifth-round pick on Smith in the 2013 draft because they thought player who was good enough to get three sacks against Alabama would be worth the wait. Smith suffered a torn ACL in November 2012 against Louisiana-Lafayette.

At the time he was leading the nation with 12.5 sacks, a total which included five sacks against Florida International. And after being held out of most of the Broncos' 2013 offseason work, the team had him on the field for training camp, putting him through a full docket's worth of work.

But as the preseason drew to a close and it was time for final cuts to be made to get the roster to 53, the Broncos decided Smith's knee wasn't ready and placed him on injured reserve where he remained for the rest of the season.

"We just felt like it was a good chance for him to get healthy," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "He just wasn't ready and needed more time."

"I wasn't disappointed, I kind of knew towards the end of the last preseason that I really wasn't ready," Smith said. "So I took as ... 'I can get bigger. I can let my knee heal all the way.' Just doing the training camp, getting the experience of the NFL, was a big help. So I kind of knew what I was coming into this year ... I looked at it as something that can help me."

Broncos executive vice president of football operations/GM John Elway has talked about Smith's "unique ability to rush the passer," skills that include the ability to duck and take the outside corner against opposing tackles with the leverage to keep the advantage and get to the quarterback.

Smith also showed in his last season at Western Kentucky the ability to do what many young pass-rushers don't do enough: work to the inside. One of his sacks against Alabama -- his second of the game -- came when Smith powered through a double-team block that included Chance Warmack, a player some scouts believed was the best player available in the draft and was an eventual first-round pick in '13.

To that end, Ware has already worked with Smith on the finer points of consistently winning the one-on-one battles up front in the NFL, lessons that have included winning those close-quarter battles to get to the quarterback.

"It's more with your hands and just going through the tackle instead of trying to get around him -- using your hands and going through him, he taught me that," Smith said. "So I'm trying to work on that."

With Miller on the sidelines over the past two months, Smith got plenty of snaps with the defensive regulars. And the 252-pounder figures to be in the mix, at minimum, when the Broncos move into their rush packages out of the nickel and dime.

Smith also said this past week he wants to be about 255 or 260 pounds by the time the players report for camp July 23.

"Last year, like I said, I took it as a learning experience, just to watch and learn the playbook more and all that stuff," Smith said. "So I just took it as a learning experience."

Smith said his surgically repaired knee started to feel 100 percent about midway through last season as he went through daily workouts with the team's training staff.

"... Watching the Super Bowl was kind of hard," Smith added. "I didn't like watching that. But I knew we were going to have a better team next year. A lot of people were going to come back healthy. So I know that we've got another opportunity this year ... I've waited a long time, I think I'm ready to show what I can do and hopefully they like what the see."

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