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Paul Klee: Are Denver Broncos nearing end of an era with Aqib Talib and 'No Fly Zone'?

By: Paul Klee
December 9, 2017 Updated: December 10, 2017 at 7:50 am
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FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2017, file photo, Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib (21) defends as Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper (89) runs a route during an NFL football game in Denver. Members of the Denver Broncos "No Fly Zone" secondary are relieved that Talib won't face a suspension over the shooting in Dallas last year in which the All-Pro cornerback admitted he accidentally shot himself.(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)

DENVER — Credit his wife. That’s a good idea, more times than not, and something we should do more often in professional sports.

In the historical and peerless case of the “No Fly Zone,” it’s the only idea.

Leah Harris — the better half of the Harris clan, and that’s saying something, since Chris Harris Jr. is a nominee for the NFL’s Man of the Year and a real-life role model — came up with the name. It was during the 2014 season and Mrs. Harris was in her usual seat at Mile High. They couldn’t recall the exact game — against the Colts? Dolphins? Bills? — but Harris was doing his thing, breaking up another pass attempt and swiping his arms across each other, starting at the center of his body and extending out to either side, the universal sign for “safe."

“I just kept doing it” on pass deflections, Harris told me. Still does and always will.

And when Chris got home that night, Leah had invented a catchy nickname for the eclectic, volatile, loved, loathed, thrill-a-minute secondary that made certain Super Bowl history couldn’t be written without it: “No Fly Zone.”

So that’s the beginning.

Now you’re probably watching the end.

It stings a little to write that. For almost four seasons, a lifetime in the NFL, the No Fly Zone has been the heart and soul of a franchise that thrilled a region as often as it befuddled the game’s finest quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers and his 77 passing yards. Tom Brady and his 20-plus quarterback hits. Cam Newton and his gold cleats. They came, they saw, they were grounded.

One of the big winners here was lucky folks like me. Harris, Aqib Talib, Darian Stewart, Bradley Roby and the departed T.J. Ward provided endless writing content on this laptop. Breathtaking plays. Eye pokes. Fights, with friends and foes. Trash talk, often with Peyton Manning. Swag, always.

“There wasn’t a ‘No Fly Zone’ till I got here!” Talib shouted as Harris told me the story of the nickname’s origin. “That’s just the truth.”

At the center of the secondary’s rise was truth. The toughest assignment for a No Fly Zone member never was covering Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson or Michael Crabtree (especially “Crab,” as Talib prefers); it was the critical film session the next day, the only time pride took a back seat.

The competition between each other always has been more influential than the competition with the opponent.

Now the truth tickles: the Broncos have allowed the most passing touchdowns in the NFL, an average of 2.2 per game. I tend to think that number says more about weekly deficits on the scoreboard, allowing opponents to ditch the pass for the run; the worst starting field position of any defense; subpar game plans and sluggish linebackers; more than washed-up defensive backs.

But the end result will be the same. Changes are coming to the Broncos, and they are coming to the positions that hog the most cash. The Broncos have the fourth-most expensive defense and third-most expensive cornerbacks in the NFL, according to spotrac.com. And both were worth every penny.

The unquestioned leader of the Broncos is Talib. He’s the guy who interrupted a team meeting this season to inform a rookie, in no uncertain terms, that it’s not OK to be late to team meetings. And when Roby eventually assumes a starting role for the Broncos, he’ll reflect on his mentorship under Talib with the same glimmer that Harris talks about Champ Bailey.

“Probably in film is where I’ve learned the most,” Roby said. “You should see him study.”

Love to. I’ve done a 180 on the wild card they call 'Lib. When the Broncos signed Talib in 2014 I wrote, "Which Aqib Talib did the Broncos get?" Turns out, they got 'em all. Now the loosest cannon in the locker room is the guy I’d want in my locker room. In a sports world full of phonies, the utter lack of fake is Talib’s best trait. He’s as real as a rug burn.

How the No Fly Zone came to fruition should offer hope for Broncos Country that John Elway ultimately can dig them out of the abyss of an eight-game (and counting) losing streak. His wasn’t a grand plan to make the Broncos the first team in NFL history with a pair of All-Pro cornerbacks in the same season, Harris and Talib in 2016. It was more like this: when the initial plan failed, Elway audibled. The price tag for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie rose too high for Denver’s pocketbook, so Elway showed the door to DRC and walked Talib through it. Likewise, Roby was off the Broncos’ board until they received new intel a few days before the 2014 draft. Roby fell to the Broncos, who adjusted course and drafted a rare luxury, a third cover corner.

This Broncos plan has failed. Sunday at Mile High, quarterback Josh McCown and the Jets can extend what already is Denver’s longest streak in 50 years.

If this is the end of the No Fly Zone, well, R.I.S.

Rest in Space.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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