No Longer the New Guy

Emmanuel Sanders was steamed.

No Oklahoma Joe’s or Arthur Bryant’s was going to cure this anger.

Sanders needed to get the hell out of Kansas City – something he was about to do until the Chiefs made him turn around.

To truly understand why Sanders is so important to the Denver Broncos offense in 2015, you have to understand how close he was to never being here. Peyton Manning has two top-tier weapons in Sanders and Demaryius Thomas and a very serviceable tight end in Owen Daniels, but after that it’s a heckuva lot of unknown talent.

While Odell Beckham Jr. was busy making a one-handed grab last season that was, literally, the catch of the year, Cody Latimer was on the Broncos’ bench because, as he later admitted, he didn’t know the playbook. Rookie receivers like OBJ, Jarvis Landry, Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans and Sammy Watkins had no trouble getting their routes down. Each hauled in more than 65 passes in his first NFL campaign; Latimer caught just two.

Andre “Bubba” Caldwell’s been a trendy pick to be a new favorite target for Manning since he rolled in to town in 2012, the same year as No. 18. Caldwell’s three seasons have consisted of one, 16, and five catches, respectively. He’s been about as productive as the employees at Initech before the Bobs showed up.

Manning’s made plenty of unknowns stars throughout his career, but is now really the time to develop Jordan Norwood, Nathan Palmer and Bennie Fowler? This may be the last run at a Super Bowl for quite some time – save those projects for when the Broncos are in rebuild mode.

All this is why it’s so important the Chiefs told Sanders to make a U-turn, even though they weren’t telling the truth.

Flashback to the middle of March, 2014. Sanders was sitting shotgun in a car driving down I-435 in Kansas City, headed to their middle of nowhere airport (hey, Denver’s not alone on that one), when his phone rang. It was his agent. The Chiefs were going to give Sanders the money he wanted – or so they said.

“When they called me when I was on my way back, it wasn’t the number they had originally said. I was kind of upset about that because I knew at that point I was going to miss my flight. When I got back to the facility I was mad, but I guess they weren’t mad – at least not mad enough to match the number,” Sanders said as he sat on a bench outside the Broncos’ facility at training camp this summer, happy to take a seat and happy to be away from a big ol’ media scrum.

The next trip back to the KCI airport was a happier one, and not because the Chiefs had ponied up more dough. They were still short of Sanders’ expectations. According to a lengthy document released by Sanders’ agent at the time, Steve Weinberg, the wide receiver got a call from the Broncos “out of the blue” during that car ride that followed a second disappointing meeting with the Chiefs. Rather than take a long flight to San Francisco and talk with the 49ers as he had planned, Sanders decided to hop over the meaningless expanse that is Kansas and touchdown at DIA. He was going to be a member of the Broncos.

Kansas City’s little stunt caused Sanders to spend another night in a city he now only visits once a year – to beat up on the Chiefs.

“I don’t play flirtatious games; if you want me, then come get me, and if you don’t, leave me alone. When it came to the Broncos and John Elway, everything went so smooth. The deal happened within five minutes. This is an organization that wants to win and they’re willing to pay to win. I’m just extremely happy to be a part of it,” Sanders explained exclusively to Mile High Sports Magazine back in September of 2014.

And Denver got a bargain.

Sanders signed a modest three-year, $15 million deal – frankly a steal for a guy who was fifth in the NFL in receptions a season ago with 101 catches. He’s back for more in 2015 and the word “holdout” was never discussed. A lot of guys would have not shown up for camp, wanting more money coming off such a big year.

Not Sanders. He craves the game. And craves a playoff win in Denver. He’s 0-for-1 at Sports Authority Field as a member of the Broncos in the postseason, but he’s 0-for-2 in the stadium come January, overall.

Do you remember where you were for “Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas”?

Emmanuel Sanders certainly does.

***

Time heals all wounds, or so they say.

It can also transform memory. How did that all go down again?

The Pittsburgh Steelers were heavy favorites back when 2012 was just eight days old. The Broncos and Tim Tebow were finally showing their true colors. They were losers of three straight down the stretch including an embarrassing 7-3 home defeat at the hands of exiled Kyle Orton and the Chiefs the week before. The Tebow bus was breaking down. The game against the Steelers represented that jump Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock took in Speed; there was no way the bus was going to make it over.

But this was Tebow, and strange things happened when he was around. The laws of physics didn’t apply in Speed and the laws of logic didn’t apply to anything Tebow and the Broncos did during that magical run.

Ben Roethlisberger was battered and bruised by the Broncos all afternoon, but led the Steelers on a game-tying touchdown march with just 3:48 to go. The first player Big Ben hit on that drive? None other than Sanders on a pass to the left, good for a 15-yard gain and a first down.

Sanders actually led the Steelers in receptions that day. The then second-year wideout from SMU had a modest 22 catches in the regular season but reeled in six on that crisp day in January. He racked up 81 yards through the air, also good for the team lead.

But he never got his chance in overtime. No one on the Steelers offense did.

Describing Tebow to Thomas would be pointless. The only way a Broncos fan doesn’t remember that play is if they weren’t born yet. In that case, they can’t read yet, so just go ahead and picture Thomas striding down the sideline all the way into the tunnel as Jim Nantz belts “Denver’s going on to New England! They win it on the first play of overtime!”

The key word there is win. Even with the new overtime rules in place for the first time, creating some confusion, this much was still clear: If you scored a touchdown on the first drive you were the victor. It didn’t matter if the other team didn’t get a possession; the game was still over.

It’s been more than three-and-a-half years and it can’t be a happy memory for Sanders, but his version of events has changed slightly about what he remembers from the Pittsburgh sideline in that very moment.

“It sucked,” Sanders told MHSM a year ago. “I remember that was the first (season) that the new overtime rule was in place. Me, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown were on the sideline and I saw Demaryius score and I reached down to grab my helmet and everyone was running out onto the field. I was like ‘What is everyone doing. It’s not over.’”

These days, Sanders is giving himself a little more credit.

On this scorching August day in 2015, Sanders gave the following account: “I remember just sitting on the sidelines and seeing DT run and taking it 80 yards. At that time they had just changed that rule – first person to score, game over – I just remember him scoring and the crowd going crazy and me looking around like ‘what the heck just happened. I can’t believe we just lost.’”

Sanders’ exact reaction doesn’t matter. It’s just more evidence why that play and that whole season were all so odd. It almost has a Matrix-like feel to it a few years later. Did any of it really happen? Did Tim Tebow actually win a playoff game against the future Hall of Famer Roethlisberger and maybe the NFL’s most storied franchise? Maybe we all need that pill Keanu Reeves (reference No. 2!) took from Morpheus to show us the truth.

Between the Tebow miracle and the Broncos getting booed off their own field last year against the Colts, it’s safe to say Sanders’ playoff experiences at SAF have been less than ideal. He doesn’t want to change that with a single victory – he’s ready for more.

“I don’t want just one playoff game. I want multiple playoff games here and to win the Super Bowl. I don’t think about negative stuff like that, man. I just go out and play ball. I don’t care about the past, I’m locked in on the future,” Sanders said.

Getting Sanders to talk about the past is tough, but there was one play in the 2014 season that stood out more than any other.

Did Sanders die?

That was the joke; one he decided to have a little fun with.

***

It was a crisp November day in the Midwest. The Broncos Week 11 matchup kicked off indoors while snow lined the streets of St. Louis.

All of the sudden, the Edward Jones Dome was the quietest place on Earth and very low on oxygen. No, no the stadium isn’t that crappy – there’s still air to breathe – but the truly classy folks who call themselves Rams fans, along with a lot of people in Broncos jerseys, had just taken a deep gasp and gone dead silent – even if it was only for a split second. Sanders had just taken one of the hardest blows anyone had ever seen.

Rodney McLeod’s hit was flat out violent.

Peyton Manning floated a ball down the right sideline and Sanders had his eyes on nothing else. As the ball slowly descended toward Earth, and just a few feet above his outstretched hands, out of nowhere a blur emerged and rocked Sanders like a rag doll.

The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Sanders laid on his back in a heap of pain, trying to figure out what in the world had just happened. He reached for his helmet straps, unable to take them off before a Broncos trainer arrived and put his hand on the receiver’s chest. It took Sanders one minute and 17 seconds to sit up. It would have taken the average person one hour and 17 minutes. He was on his feet about 30 seconds later, wincing in pain on a longer-than-it-looked walk to the sideline and eventually the locker room. Sanders was later diagnosed with a concussion.

Still, more than eight months later, Sanders insists things never went dark.

“I remember it all,” Sanders said. “Obviously those types of hits happen. I was fortunate enough to play the next week.”

But because the Internet is the Internet, stuff like this started to happen immediately after the blow.

Every reporter has learned the hard way to double check sources – to not believe everything they read on the Internet. What surfaced on the web following the hit was peculiar at best. Sanders was listed on Wikipedia as deceased, having passed in St. Louis, Missouri on November, 16 2014.

He had to go on the offensive. He, indeed, was not dead.

The first step? A resurrection.

The second? A trip to heaven on Earth.

The crying-with-laughter emoji may have been invented for a tweet like that. It’s just brilliant.

Sanders deserves a ton of credit for how he handled everything in the aftermath of the play, especially given a concussion. First, his sense of humor was on point. Second, he kept his commitment to attend the event featured above (Ed note: referring here to the picture in the tweet) the following Tuesday night.

Yes, beautiful ladies surrounded Sanders, but it was for a worthy cause. The event was the fifth annual Wine, Women and Football, a charity function that raised over $50,000 for the Brandon Center, a shelter program for homeless women and homeless women with children, as well as those fleeing domestic violence. There’s no doubt Sanders’ presence (along with a couple of other Broncos) increased attendance and the dollars raised.

Forty-eight hours after getting into the equivalent of a nasty car wreck, many people would have still been in bed. Sanders was out raising money for charity.

In Denver, at least from a football perspective, a lot has changed since that time. That Rams game marked the beginning of the Broncos downward spiral. Maybe not from a record standpoint, but from a chemistry standpoint. The offensive line was unnecessarily tweaked, a group with arguably the greatest QB in NFL history decided it wanted to be a running team (huh?) and the head coach and two coordinators publicly, and not so publicly, began lining up their next gigs.

So how will all of this look in 2015?

Sanders isn’t quite sure yet. But then again, no one really is.

***

It was the first day of training camp and the media mob had let Sanders walk away. He had one task in mind: Get back inside the depths of the Paul D. Bowlen Broncos Memorial Centre before being asked to talk again.

But this was July 31 and football was finally back. About 100 media members (maybe more) had descended on the freshly named UCHealth Training Center and they all needed a sound bite. Sanders was nearly through the doors when more mouth breathers approached. With the help of a member of the Broncos media relations department it was made very clear: Sanders had to go lift and couldn’t talk anymore. The mob was disappointed; until they saw Gary Kubiak take the podium just a few yards away. The herd scurried over to listen to the new coach.

One thing to know off the top about Kubiak is that he’s in control. For one, he actually coaches during practice. That may sound like a no-brainer, but John Fox was infamous for just letting sloppy plays go. The prevailing thought is Foxy only liked to coach guys in the film room, with the media nowhere in sight, but this is also the same guy who couldn’t fathom that the Super Bowl, against the team with loudest fans in football, could be loud. So, we can’t be sure. Stuff like that won’t be happening anymore; Kubiak’s here to make fundamental changes.

That also means the offense will get a makeover. Gone are the days of exclusive shotgun formations and no huddle. Peyton Manning will line up under center the majority of the time and the team will likely talk about more plays than not in that little circle behind the line of scrimmage before snapping the ball.

Careful though; these are all just things we think will happen. No one knows for sure. Not even Sanders, a guy privvy to far more information than we are and arguably the second most important player in this system.

“No one knows how this offense is going to be until the regular season comes. All I know is I’m liking it. Everything’s predicated off the play action. Between me and Demaryius (Thomas) and Cody (Latimer) we’ll be able to go up top a few times and make some plays. I’m looking forward to seeing how we do against another opponent,” Sanders said .

Still, the former SMU Mustang is quick to note not everything has changed. A large majority of the talent that led this team to a 12-4 record remains, including the most important parts.

“It’s the same quarterback and almost the same wide receivers in the same room. Everything is a replica of last year besides the new coaches. I just feel like this year we’re a lot closer. I was the new guy last year – I was out to prove myself, but I’m still out to prove myself and always will be,” Sanders said, his final answer before disappearing back into the building with much more ease than he had done 10 days earlier.

Sanders was going to be the new guy wherever he landed, but thank goodness it was in Denver. The prospects at wide receiver behind him and Thomas are loaded with potential but nothing more; none of those guys are “proven.” Sanders certainly is.

It’s a good thing the Chiefs told Sanders to turn around – and then changed their mind on his salary. He may have never missed his flight to San Francisco and never received that call from John Elway. A phone on airplane mode could literally have cost the Broncos a Pro Bowl receiver and key member of another possible Super Bowl run.

Thanks, Kansas City – you’re too kind.

The Broncos are gunning for the AFC West title for a fifth straight time and Sanders is one of the biggest reasons why, something he’s very happy about.

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