C.J. Anderson is a complicated soul.
Ask him a question, and he might dissect it, examining every word with the care of an enraged surgeon. He’s usually on the verge of getting mad because he runs on negative fuel, which is powerful stuff. He searches, always, for doubters.
“It’s you guys,” he said to me after a 2016 Broncos practice. Sports writers, he said, doubted his durability and his speed. We wondered if he belonged in an NFL backfield.
Anderson smiled, but this was not one of those everyday happy smiles. This smile featured a touch of vengefulness
“But I got to prove you guys wrong, so thank you.”
Anderson will depart Colorado with a full tank of fuel. On Monday, C.J. encountered yet another doubter. You probably know this doubter, who walks through life as our state’s resident sports legend.
It was Elway who informed Anderson he no longer would play for the Broncos. Elway was not making a statement on Anderson’s ability to attack NFL defenses. He made a statement on Anderson’s scheduled 2018 salary, which would have run $4.5 million.
Anderson will be running the ball somewhere in 2018, quite possibly reuniting with Adam Gase and Brock Osweiler in Miami. Count on this: C.J. already is scheming for the day he goes to battle against Elway and the Broncos.
Elway made the right move, although I’m sorry to see Anderson depart. He was one of the league’s ultimate underdogs, a player who endured football rejection since he was a teen, a player who refused, always, to let others define his future, a player who willed himself into a valuable piece of a Super Bowl champ.
He failed to get a D-1 scholarship out of high school and spent two seasons laboring at Laney, a junior college in Oakland. He was certain an NFL team would draft him after his promising, if not overwhelming, two-year career at Cal. He was wrong. He spent draft day watching ESPN, waiting in vain to hear his name.
He arrived in Colorado in 2013 as a short and not especially swift free agent. He was given little chance to make the roster, but Anderson had another view. He saw himself celebrating in end zones after long runs while silencing all the teams that failed to draft him.
While laboring on the 2013 practice squad, Anderson constantly peppered Champ Bailey with questions. Bailey, NFL great, took time to nurture a no-name teammate. Champ commanded Anderson to stampede into the secondary with violent intent. Defensive backs, Champ revealed, quiver at the sight of a vicious ball carrier.
When C.J. was at his best, you could see the result of the Champ conversations. He crumpled cornerbacks with stiff arms. He busted three, four, sometimes even five tackles. He inspired fear, even among the allegedly fearless.
Off the field, Anderson could be refreshingly reflective. One afternoon, he sat in front of his locker, eating a salad garnished with mushrooms and hardboiled eggs as we embarked on a wide-ranging conversation, one that veered into philosophy books, the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the brutal, accurate football criticism he received from his mother, Neva.
His mind was, and is, fully alive. His mind is what took him from unwanted free agent to a back paid $6 million for the 2016 season.
Elway made the right call. Anderson was not worth a $4.5 million investment in 2018. With Anderson gone, the Broncos must attempt an upgrade at running back. In other words, they shouldn't go with Devontae Booker as lead back in 2018.
I realize running backs are not as precious as they once were. The NFL is a passing league. I get that.
But an elite running back could do much to lift the Broncos sagging offense. Reasons abound for the franchise’s failure to reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons, but the main reason is the often pitiful offense. Free agency and the draft offer Elway a chance to repair his broken attack.
Anderson was solid. Anderson was determined, as only a football underdog can be determined.
But even when filled with all that negative fuel, C.J. wasn't elite and will never become elite.
Yes, I’m doubtful. Maybe someday a triumphant C.J. will thank me again.