On Wednesday, Dec. 18, 1997, the Denver Broncos departed a closed-door, team meeting and didn’t lose another game for the rest of the season. Everyone knows the ending of this particular story – the Broncos went on to win the first of two Super Bowls and will forever be remembered as one of the greatest football teams of all-time.
But before that private, team-only meeting, the Broncos appeared to be something that more closely resembled a mess. Despite the team’s record at that point – a solid 11-4 – Denver had just lost two straight, and three of their previous five. Making matters worse was a distraction that was bigger than their recent losses.
Just two days prior, the Broncos were beaten badly by the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football, but the final score of 34-17 wasn’t the biggest problem. During the game, infamous linebacker Bill Romanowski was caught on camera spitting in the face of San Francisco wide receiver J.J. Stokes. The incident was ugly, and after the game, Shannon Sharpe, being the outspoken person he is, openly criticized Romanowski.
“I think that’s the worst thing you can do to a person, especially of our background and our race, is to spit in his face,” Sharpe said afterwards.
The media, of course, ran with it. Sharpe’s comments were spun into a racial issue and the story took center stage rapidly. The Broncos, just under a year removed from an unexpected loss that is now considered to be one of, if not the, worst losses in franchise history, looked like they were unraveling – again.
But then, the meeting was called.
“I was upset at Romanowski not because he is white spitting in a black man’s face, but because he disrespected another man,” said Sharpe, who urged his teammates and the press that there was no racial issue at hand. “I couldn’t condone what he did simply because he is my teammate. If my brother is wrong, he’s wrong. I’m man enough to tell him he’s wrong. And that’s what I did. I was man enough to tell Bill Romanowski he was wrong.”
The air was cleared and the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s July 23, 2013 and the Broncos are just five months away from an upset that rivals the loss to Jacksonville in the ’96 playoffs. Things at Dove Valley are a mess; Von Miller is in the midst an appeal of what is reported to be a four-game suspension for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, and two front office executives were recently charged with DUIs and subsequently suspended.
It’s safe to say that the air in Broncos Country needs some clearing.
The situations aren’t exactly the same, but the then and now Broncos have several things in common – namely distractions. Then, the Broncos were in the midst of a season. Now, the season is still more than a month away. Then, the Broncos were expected to avenge a terrible loss by winning the Super Bowl. Now, Denver can’t wait to get back on the field and avenge its most recent loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens. That wrong can only be righted if the Broncos are hoisting the Lombardi Trophy – something that practically every pigskin prognosticator has predicted will happen.
The pressure was – and is – on. So now what?
Legend says that it was Sharpe who called the meeting on that fateful Wednesday in December of ’97. Stories from behind those closed doors reveal that the vocal tight end addressed the team, as did the franchise’s greatest player, John Elway – as did Romanowski himself.
Which leaders will step up and get a team that appears to have its collective head in the clouds back on track? People talk about the influence of Peyton Manning and his ability to run a tidy ship; now would be a perfect time for Manning to bring precision and focus back to Dove Valley. And Elway is still around, too. Perhaps he will recall which buttons to push, just like he did back then.
In a recent interview that will appear in the upcoming issue of Mile High Sports Magazine, Alfred Williams – who suffered the loss to Jacksonville and who sat inside that closed-door meeting when the Broncos got back on track – said that the only thing that matters after a devastating loss is how a team responds.
“After a loss like they had against Baltimore, there’s a mourning period for football players, just like there is for the fans,” Williams said. “The guys that are really, really hurt – those guys will amp it up and take it to a new level.
“So, if they are really like our Super Bowl teams, that loss crushed them – they probably cried at night, privately. They probably had some serious arguments with the people that they loved. It probably forced them to train harder. It probably forced them to be more attentive to the details of winning, and if that’s the case, then this team has enough to win a Super Bowl. But you don’t know those things; when adversity hits, you have to see which way the team goes.”
Which way are these Broncos going?
If the recent headlines are any indication, the Broncos don’t appear to be taking things to the next level; there’s an apparent lack of focus and inquiries about training will only follow all the other noise. Fair or unfair, the negative headlines have people wondering what’s going on with the Broncos.
While the actions of Matt Russell, Tom Heckert and perhaps Miller shouldn’t be tied to everyone in the organization, the distractions will most certainly creep into the conversation at some level. Unfortunately, that’s the present day reality for the Denver Broncos, a team with all the goods to win a Super Bowl.
Perhaps it won’t be Manning’s arm that drives the Broncos to New York City in February; maybe it will be his mouth. Maybe Elway’s wise decision to draft Miller will ultimately be overshadowed by how effectively he guides his team and his young superstar through this recent squall. Possibly some other Bronco will decide that he too can help to right the ship.
These Broncos have the luxury of time on their side; in ’97, that wasn’t the case. But it could be argued that the mess is even dirtier today. Unquestionably, there’s some cleaning up to do.
Camp should not begin with wind sprints or walkthroughs. Instead, it should start with a meeting, where the air will be cleared and the focus is restored.
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