The Denver Broncos started the 2015 offseason in quite terrible fashion. The first player to go down with a significant injury was one of their most prized. Ryan Clady, the three-time All-Pro left tackle, tore his ACL in the first day of organized team activities May 27. Things didn’t get much better in the regular season. Rookie tackle Ty Sambrailo, who filled Clady’s spot, was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury after Week 3. Ryan Harris was brought back to the team a day after Clady went down and has turned his second run with the Broncos into a dream season.
“We had some tough situations with Ryan [Clady] and Ty [Sambrailo], losing those two guys to injuries. I remember John [Elway] and Matt [Russell] and I sitting in the office and [talking about] what direction do we go. You’ve got to try to find some experience here. Ryan [Harris] happened to be right in our backyard, happened to be free, living in Colorado. So we signed Ryan,” head coach Gary Kubiak said Thursday.
After playing his first four seasons with Denver (34 starts) he did not appear in a game in 2011; he started five games with the Houston Texans in 2012 and 2013 before starting 15 of 16 for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014 season. Harris was training in Colorado, weighing some offers when the Broncos called in desperate need of his experience. Harris was ready to sign with a team, but it had to be the right opportunity.
“I started training fairly early and often in the offseason. I got some calls and offers early on that just weren’t opportunities I was looking for,” Harris said Wednesday. “You’ve got to look at what is a real opportunity. At that time, I had already played in over 80 games in the NFL. For me, it was one of those things that I’m not just a guy out there on the street. If you want me to come in, I’m going to compete for a starting job and I’m going to contribute.”
Although Harris had several years of experience and quality starts, the Broncos were in need of someone who could play right tackle and possibly left, as Sambrailo and Michael Schofield, who had zero game action in the NFL, learned how to compete at two of the toughest positions in the league. He not only came in late but he soon had to shoulder additional responsibilities.
Harris started the first three games of the season at right tackle while Sambrailo protected Peyton Manning’s blind side. Sambrailo was coming along quickly, but a torn labrum and a bone spur in his left shoulder abruptly ended his season. Harris suddenly jumped to the left tackle position and didn’t miss a beat. Harris has not only started every game this season, he has played in 90.7 percent of the offensive snaps, second behind only center Matt Paradis.
“Oh, yes he has,” Kubiak said Thursday when asked if Harris had exceeded the team’s expectations. “I think it has a lot to do with how Ryan has played. We’ve kept him fresh, but he’s responded. I’m very proud of him. He’s a great example of having a career but then hanging in there and hanging in there, and look what happens for him this late in his career.”
Harris had several offers to go elsewhere early in the season but he felt that they were to simply be a role player or just a backup option. After 54 career starts, Harris still maintained the confidence he had in himself. The difference between the Broncos’ offer and other offers came down to a mutual opinion of his talent.
“It was clear when they called that there was going to be an opportunity to not only earn a starting spot, but to also make it worth my time. They did enough to tell me that they believed in me and my abilities and saw me the way I see myself, and that was enough for me to sign on the dotted line,” he said.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF) Harris has had a slightly worse 2015-16 season than his last in Kansas City. He has allowed only three sacks this season, compared to five last season, and he ranks 60th among NFL tackles, six slots behind where he finished in 2014. However, his PFF ratings are pale in comparison to the dependability he has brought to a Broncos offensive line that has struggled with injuries since Clady went down. Offensive line coach Clancy Barone coached Harris in 2010 and knew when he returned it would pay dividends.
“Tackles, especially good tackles are very, very hard to find,” Barone said Thursday. “He’s been a great addition to our room. The guy is a pro, he knows how to prepare, he’s been great for our young players. So yeah, I’ve been very, very pleased.”
Harris has battled through eight grueling seasons in the NFL; his return to the team that drafted him and their subsequent run to a Super Bowl has been surreal.
“I think it is so far beyond my dreams,” Harris said of playing in Super Bowl 50. “I think the dream of just being in the NFL was enough for me then. To be here, I couldn’t write a better story. Every single trial and triumph has been worth it to get here.”
Harris joined a team of several young, unproven players and some seasoned veterans; all of them share a similar mentality that has morphed them into a tight-knit group that truly believes they can win one more game. That unwavering belief is all the motivation they need.
“We just believe in ourselves, we believe in our team, we love our team, we love each other,” Harris said emphatically. “Its such a selfless team and to win on Sunday would just cement everything that we believe about each other, that we are capable, that we are champions, that we can fight through everything and overcome any obstacle. To do that, that’s what that ring would signify for us. The belief in this team has really been something unique here in all my seasons in the NFL.”
Harris started this spring by himself, a seven-year veteran tackle without a team. His belief, and the Broncos belief in his skills has them one win away from a wonderful ending. Whatever happens Sunday, certainly Harris has proven doubters wrong and the belief he has in himself has spread through the AFC Champions.