DENVER • Von Miller transcends NFL rivalries, backgrounds, politics. He gifts bottles of fancy red wine to AFC West enemies, the same as he greets jeering fans as if they were long, lost buds.
And in the days leading into a Week 2 bout with the Bears, Miller was as down in the dumps as I’ve seen in seven years covering The Man. Grumpy, bummed, smile-less. In a Drew Litton cartoon, the face of the franchise would have a gray cloud dripping raindrops on his helmet.
Why the long look, dude?
“If I don’t get a sack,” Miller said last week, “I’m going to be upset.”
Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High — the new stadium name Miller emphasized twice during a news conference, since he’s a marketing whiz, too — is a show-me game for the Broncos. Players rarely believed in Vance Joseph’s program. They believe in Vic Fangio’s.
Is Sunday when they finally show it?
For months since Fangio’s hiring, players have professed their adoration for the 61-year-old coach. They’ve exalted everything from Fangio’s no-nonsense evaluations to a defensive scheme that often disguises its true colors until the ball is snapped. Fangio’s their kind of guy, they say.
But words don’t equal wins. Actions do. The Broncos are 0-1, staring down their first 0-2 start since 1999, with Packers flamethrower Aaron Rodgers waiting to host them in Week 3. Dun, dun.
If the Broncos truly consider Fangio the coolest thing since three-day weekends, they will play for him in a way they haven’t yet. The first day of a joint practice with San Francisco, the Broncos got embarrassed by the 49ers, run off the practice fields. The first half of the season opener at Oakland, they fell flat and behind, 14-0.
Sure, this Fangio-led outfit was always going to be a work in progress. I predicted 7-9, and I’m sticking to it. The surprising part is the lifeless, mopey part. Shoot, I’m about to call T.J. Ward and inquire if that fireball’s still looking for a job.
Where’s the zest, the energy, the calculated abandon that’s been a hallmark of this Broncos ‘D’? Someone? Anyone?
Where’s the juice?
“We know this game’s critical. There’s not a lot of 0-2 teams that make the playoffs,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “We’ve got to win this one for sure.”
These days in Broncos Country, overreaction is A-OK. Three years without a playoff berth grants license to criticize even the smallest things. Among the transgressions that are fair game:
• The combination of Miller and Bradley Chubb playing an entire game at Oakland without hitting the quarterback is Tiger and Rory playing Patty Jewett without sinking a birdie putt.
“Just like ‘Madden,’ when you lose, you restart it and you play again,” Miller said.
• The Broncos’ decision to have both Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell on the sideline, instead of one or the other in the upstairs booth. Aren’t two views better than one?
“I think it’s great,” Scangarello said of his decision to call offensive plays from upstairs. “You can kind of see what’s unfolding.”
• On second viewing, Joe Flacco’s Broncos debut was far better than I suggested. My bad, Joe Cool. But the offense has bogged down in the red zone, causing Fangio to call out the red-zone play-calls on two occasions — after the Seattle preseason game and after the Raiders game.
“We need to coach a little bit better. Everybody’s got to do a little bit better,” Fangio said.
The Broncos coaching staff should bring with it a peerless game plan on Sunday. If anyone knows the Bears it’s Fangio, who coordinated the NFL’s top-ranked defense in Chicago in 2018.
“I don’t think it’s a tremendous advantage other than knowing the players,” Fangio sandbagged.
Fangio downplayed his reunion with the Bears. Not buying it. No one wants to see their ex in anything less than a brand-new gray sweatshirt.
In the opening act, the Broncos forced zero turnovers. Miller, Chubb and Co. finished 0-fer in quarterback hits, a first for a Broncos ‘D’ since 2014. The Raiders stink. The Broncos stunk worse. This one’s on the Broncos defense.
“I think it’s going to be a low-scoring game, an old-school football game, a tough defensive game and that’s how I see it,” Harris said.
Does the veteran core of the Broncos defense still have something left, or is it washed for good? If the Broncos sincerely appreciate their new coach, they’ll beat the Bears for Coach Vic.