On a morning filled with September sunshine, darkness lurked on the horizon.
Anyone who understands football and winning was confused on the morning the Broncos announced their captains for 2017.
As I was reading the list, some of the names looked fine. Demaryius Thomas. Von Miller. Brandon McManus.
Then, the shocks.
Aqib Talib? Um, what? The man who shot himself in the leg and poked a tight end in the eye and ripped a gold chain from the neck of Michael Crabtree? The swaggering football riot?
Trevor Siemian? Huh? The man who out mild manners Clark Kent. The quarterback who communicates in a perpetual whisper? A fine young man he is; an inspiring leader he is not.
Fast forward to the first day of December. Talib is suspended after, yes, yanking Crabtree’s chain once again along with throwing a poorly delivered punch to Crabtree’s helmetless head. Siemian, still The Whisperer, is the starter weeks after being benched and deactivated.
And the Broncos are 3-8 while falling fast toward the bottom of the NFL’s well, a depressing destination where the Browns dwell.
An upgrade – a big one – in leadership is required.
I expect Vance Joseph to return in 2018. John Elway never will be described as Mr. Patient. (Just ask John Fox.) But Elway will not end the Joseph experiment after one season. Joseph will try to prove he’s really the leader of men that Elway once believed him to be.
The coach will remain, but a major earthquake of change is coming to the Broncos. The team is severely lacking in offensive talent, but the leadership void is just as draining.
Elway must give Joseph the blessing of experienced players who will craft a more mature, focused and profitably confrontational locker room.
Much has changed since the 2015 Super Bowl title, but the biggest change is revealed by a glance at the captains of the title team.
In 2015, the Broncos locker room was overseen by Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware. Both were nearing their final days of NFL greatness. Manning was serving his 14th season as captain with Ware in his seventh tour. They were statesmen, and they were sheriffs.
Manning was the team’s old man. He was a celebrity, a supreme talent the young Broncos had watched while in grade school. Many were nervous the first time they met No. 18.
During Super Bowl week in Santa Clara, Calif., I talked with those younger Broncos, who noticed and appreciated the little things Manning did to make everyone feel, well, special.
When the team gathered for meals, Derek Wolfe told me, Manning usually sat next to the most anonymous players on the roster and then started a friendly conversation in that Louisiana drawl of his.
Sure, Manning towered in football stature over anyone on the team – and anyone in the NFL – but he took care to embrace his lesser teammates.
Ware oozed charisma and wisdom, but was never afraid to confront immature defensive colleagues. Ware served as mentor to the wandering Von, who traveled from danger to himself to danger to the entire NFL during his time battling alongside Ware.
The 2015 Broncos took a rugged march to the title. They outscored opponents by a mere total of 59 points, winning more by will than talent. They ruled the NFL for a lot of reasons. Leadership ranks near the top on that ladder of reasons.
Talib – a captain, remember – was the lead actor in the horror show of a moment that will define this 2017 season. He was swinging and bellowing at Crabtree while leading his teammates straight toward doom. He was acting childish. His teammates were acting childish.
Winning teams in the NFL are inhabited by men. Violent men, for sure, but men who rumble only when it’s time to rumble.
Elway will be busy in the offseason. He needs to shop for a quarterback, a running back, or two, and a flock of fresh, fierce offensive linemen.
Top of the shopping list: Inspirational, grown-up veterans who are worthy to serve as captains.