CARSON, Calif. • There is hope.
It wears No. 30, like TD once did. It crunches quarterbacks, like Von still does. It sprints like the Santa Ana winds nudge it along.
There’s hope for the Broncos in Phillip Lindsay, Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Royce Freeman. The future of the franchise arrived with a whoa! on Sunday under the sunshine of a southern California afternoon. What the Broncos’ 23-22 win over the Chargers says for this year, I can’t pretend to know. What it means for the team’s future was as apparent as the scowl worn by Philip Rivers as he left StubHub Center in a pair of rockin’ cowboy boots.
The kids are going to be all right. Sutton, 78 receiving yards. Chubb, one sack and constant pressure of Rivers. “That’s the defensive rookie of the year,” Miller said. Freeman, touchdown. Lindsay, 106 yards and two touchdowns. For the Broncos it’s been a long slog to reach 4-6.
The 2018 rookie class showed it’s gifted enough to speed up the process.
“Beautiful to see,” Lindsay said from behind a podium for the first time as a Bronco.
Shoot, it wasn’t just Lindsay’s first time at the podium. According to folks who would know, Lindsay also was the first Broncos rookie (non-Paxton division) to earn the podium since Von Miller. And when’s the last time “beautiful” was a word associated with the Broncos? Perhaps this is a better question: when’s the last time the Broncos introduced rookies with this much pizzazz and punch?
Their secret to success? They listen, such as when Sutton heard offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave predict Sutton would be open on a 30-yard reception that set up the winning 34-yard field goal by Brandon McManus with 00:00 on the clock.
They study. Before his second score, when he gave the Mile High salute to honor Terrell Davis, Lindsay noticed the Chargers defense was aligned in a manner that would smother the play. So he took the direct snap and rerouted.
“Honestly, it wasn’t supposed to go backside,” Lindsay said. “Things happen.”
They are smart enough to congratulate the teammates who won before them. Midway through his question-and-answer session, Lindsay snuck in an attaboy to Von Miller, a Super Bowl MVP.
“What was it, his 100th (career) sack?” Lindsay said, knowing his math was correct.
Bad things, mostly, have happened to the Broncos. These are bummer days in Broncos Country. Sundays had become a bad dream easily avoided by raking the leaves, watching the Nuggets start 9-1 or jotting down a short list of the next coach (or quarterback, or top-10 draft pick).
They needed something like this — exactly like this — to know there will be better days ahead.
The young fellas delivered.
The Broncos have lost four games by a touchdown or less, and this one cruised toward another sour ending. Rivers threw for 401 yards. The Broncos were stopped on fourth-and-inches deep in Chargers territory. They played without three starters on the offensive line. And they won.
“This team deserves to win, man,” veteran Chris Harris Jr. said.
The Broncos remain on the outside looking in at the AFC postseason. Vance Joseph remains a coach under fire. To return to the top of the wild West — not this year, but later on — the front office must stack another quality rookie class on top of this one. And then another.
Because Sunday was how this season was supposed to unfold: the veterans with championship rings mapping the way, a talented bunch of rookies falling in line. Miller picked off Rivers to reverse momentum, and Harris did the same. On offense, three consecutive play calls showed how the Broncos feel about their rookies: Sutton with a catch, Freeman up the middle, Lindsay around the end. Combined, the Sutton-Lindsay-Freeman triumvirate entered Sunday with 1,462 yards from scrimmage — the sixth-most by a rookie trio since the NFL’s merger in 1970.
“Everyone says the fun is in the winning,” Sutton said.
To prepare for the final-play field goal attempt, Case Keenum found his position coach, Mike Sullivan. Call it a superstition thing. They had stood together for the game-winner against the Raiders, and the Broncos won. They were apart when McManus missed against the Texans.
This time they attached at the hip: “Close as we could possibly get, without our wives getting jealous,” Keenum said.
As Harris checked his FitBit to learn he had run the equivalent of 11 miles during the course of the game, Chubb took a deep breath and exhaled: “Just happy to get a win, man.”
These days they are rookies in time and stature only. Inside the happiest locker room in the NFL, defensive tackle Shelby Harris shouted at the top of his lungs in the direction of Sutton.
“Hey, boy! You done smiling yet?”
(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)