TBT: Who Are These People? – Meet Denver’s new-look O-line

Throwback Thursday: Each week we crack open the content vault at Mile High Sports to bring you a story from yesteryear.

Heading into the 2015 season, the biggest question looming in Broncos Country was the same as it’s been for the past two seasons: Can the Broncos win behind a questionable offensive line?

That year, playing in front of Peyton Manning (a master of protection schemes and keeping his own jersey clean), the o-line somehow managed to pull it together just in time to win Super Bowl 50. The line was never “great” – always in flux and riddled with injuries – but somewhat Manning and head coach Gary Kubiak found a way to hide the unit’s deficiencies. Two seasons removed, however, those deficiencies are not only there, but they’ve grown worse. And there’s no Peyton Manning to craftily point out an oncoming blitzer, or change into a play that allows for better protection.

So far this season the Broncos have trotted out the same starters at offensive line in seven out of eight games (Garett Bolles, Max Garcia, Matt Paradis, Ron Leary and Menelik Watson). Only Paradis was a consistent starter on the 2015 team; Garcia made five starts in 2015 and 16 in 2016. But for whatever reason, the current unit has not gelled.

Back in 2015, we asked: “Who are these guys?” The answer, as it played out, was satisfactory: They’re Super Bowl champs.

At the midway point in 2017, we now ask: “Can these guys salvage the season?”

We begin to find out this week against the Patriots. – Editor

***

Who Are These People?
It’s an unexpected cast of characters on the new-look o-line

By D-Mac
Originally published Sept. 2015

Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, “Who are these people?”

He may have been talking about people that work for airlines. He may have been talking about people who leave their turn signal on too long. He may have been talking about close talkers, slow walkers or old folks wearing blue blockers.

However, if he were looking at the Denver Broncos this season, he certainly would be talking about the extremely wet-behind-the-ears No Name Offensive Line.

Who are these people?

“If you don’t want Ben Garland to start at left guard, then you must hate America,” said a somewhat tongue-in-cheek media member.

“Hey D-Mac, lay off of Ben Garland,” said a person who is extremely close to Garland. I hadn’t realized I had been all that harsh to the greatest American who has ever played for the Broncos.

Ben Garland certainly doesn’t need me sticking up for him. The things that Ben Garland has done as a human being far surpass anything I could ever imagine as a human being. He went to Air Force. He continues to serve his country. He switched positions to make it in the NFL, going from defense to offense. He works to prevent sex slaves in America. He and his family have persevered through the horror of his grandparents’ house burning to the ground in Colorado Springs during a wildfire rampage.

It feels like he’s been with the Broncos longer than John Elway. He has done every drill, every sprint and every meeting at 100 percent. He is a hero, a “somebody” kids should absolutely look up to.

So, when he got the chance to start in training camp at left guard, it created the perfect story in the perfect state for the perfect team. Things seemed to be going great, until the Broncos took a day off.

And then he got demoted.

The first week of camp is always a learning process. There is only so much one can glean from OTAs and minicamp. During that stretch of time, it’s very possible to be a workout warrior and earn a spot based on effort. But, when camp starts, you then have to earn your spot based on talent. A week went by with Garland as the starting left guard. When the Broncos took a mandatory day off, he came back to find himself as a second teamer.

The Disney story that had been shaping up was dashed quicker than an F14 flying a sortie over Baghdad.

In Garland’s place was the rookie fourth-round pick Max Garcia. Garcia is lacking in the American hero department, but that probably wasn’t a factor when John Elway made a late-August splash with the signing of All-Pro free agent Evan Mathis, who started his last 56 games at left guard with the Eagles. Where Garcia plays is anyone’s guess, although he did play every o-line position in college.

***

Out of all the actors on his show, Seinfeld was by far the best comedian. But, he was rarely the funniest on any given show. He set up others to succeed. The chemistry of the characters centered on Jerry. Without him, the others were lost. Quick: Name all other failed sitcoms that starred Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards. When they started on Seinfeld, they were basically no-names. When they left Seinfeld, they were all huge stars. Pulling together in a singular, comedic direction created the best sitcom of all time. Individually, despite massive fame, they failed miserably. The “collective” is stronger than the singular star.

I asked Gary Kubiak what the identity of this line was, “Well, we’re fixing to find out,” Kubiak responded honestly. “They’re a young group led by a heck of a player in (Louis Vasquez). I just think watching them grow up here throughout the course of camp, I’m excited about what they can be. “

In terms of what Kubiak hopes is their defining characteristic?

“That they play together. I think that the offensive line is not about having one great player or two great players. It’s about five guys playing together scheme-wise and staying out there on the field together. The great ones that I’ve been around, they all stay out there and find a way to be there every snap. That’s the sign of a good offensive line, or a good group, so we’ll see. They’ll build their identity, but we just need them to play good enough for our football team to be successful.”

Ryan Harris had become the journeyman’s journeyman. This is his third separate stint with the Broncos. He has bounced around with the Eagles, Chiefs and most importantly the Texans. Harris is a smart guy who has started his own medical business for the elderly. Harris is a Golden Domer and has a bright future beyond football, no matter what he chooses to do. In fact, football was becoming more and more of an afterthought not so long ago. Back and toe injuries were derailing his career. Harris was living in Colorado and starting a young family; his days were more focused on changing diapers than containing mad-dog defensive ends. Then the Broncos called.

They called him. Not the other way around.

Get off your couch and let’s give this whole thing one more shot. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe his body felt good enough. What’s the worst thing that could happen? He could end up back where he was already happy to be? Sure, let’s go for it. Why not?

On the first day of camp, Chris Clark was the starting right tackle. On the second day of camp, Ryan Harris was the starting right tackle. Gary Kubiak said they were going to try all sorts of different combinations. He lied. Whatever they saw, or didn’t see, in Clark created an opportunity for Harris.

Let me repeat: Clark was the starter for one day.

Harris moved into the starting right tackle spot on Day 2 and hasn’t looked back. This position has truly been the Broncos Achilles heel. They drafted Orlando Franklin to hold that position for years. He played his worst game ever in the Super Bowl and became a guard.

Chris Clark had filled in for Ryan Clady for a year at left tackle, but for some reason just doesn’t work as a right tackle. The Broncos took their one All-Pro, Vasquez – a guard – and stuck him out there at right tackle last season and that didn’t work. Last year, they drafted a huge right tackle from Michigan, Michael Schofield, and now he’s the back up… left tackle! This year, they drafted Tyler Sambrailo to be their starting right tackle; with the season-ending injury to Ryan Clady, Sambrailo is now the starting left tackle.

There is more job security as the drummer for Spinal Tap than at right tackle for the Denver Broncos. Now, the starter at right tackle is a guy who has been with the team and dismissed by the team – twice.

Abbott and Costello would have had a blast.

***

Why will this offensive line work?

“Because it has to,” Harris deadpanned, as he stared down at me in a menacing fashion.

Uh…Okay…

Sambrailo looks so much like former Broncos guard Zane Beadles it’s scary. Beadles started as a rookie and never looked back. He signed a gargantuan deal with the Jaguars after the Broncos gave up on him following the 2012 season. Beadles knew for an entire year that the Broncos weren’t interested in him returning to the team. But, he stayed focus and got paid. Beadles, according to a former teammate, was sometimes a bit too into “being Zane,” rather than being part of the team.

There once was a code within the Broncos offensive line to never put one’s self ahead of the team. Slowly, over the years, that code has worn away. Two of the stingiest Broncos, Mark Schlereth and Tom Nalen, shocked their former teammates by becoming media darlings – after years of silence, no less.

But it makes sense. Both are incredibly intelligent, smart and funny. They also were gritty and played angry. Behind them, the Broncos offensive line rallied against the media and were the pure definition of the “kicking and screaming” attitude that John Elway has envisioned returning to the organization. Sambrailo, despite being the doppelganger of Beadles, could be the cornerstone of this line for many, many years.

Schlereth sat down with Robin Carlin for this month’s Lead interview (pg. 2), where he offered these thoughts on Sambrailo and the other young linemen:

“The problem you get into with young football players, especially young offensive linemen, is the college game does a very poor job of grooming them to become professionals.

“They just really don’t understand the game. It’s just such a different game. There’s a huge learning curve. With that said, they’re aggressive, they’re tough and they’re going to play fast and hard. There will be mistakes along the way.”

“I don’t really know,” said Sambrailo when asked why this offensive line will work, “I’m just a rookie. I’m just taking this whole thing one day at a time. I always try to be the greatest I can be and I’m going to go out and do that.” With a hair flip and a “you better not mess with a Mountain West offensive lineman” attitude, Sambrailo ambled away – at least looking like he belongs in the NFL.

Shelley Smith was brought in by the Broncos as a free agent. Gino Gradkowski was acquired via trade for draft picks. Both have bounced around in their young careers. Both find themselves as back ups on this Broncos team. The bitterest pill is swallowed by Gradkowski. He was with Kubiak last year in Baltimore where, for whatever reason, he barely saw the field after being a starter the year before. Certainly Gradkowski would find his starting role with the Broncos within a system of which he was totally aware.

Well, that was true… for a week. When the Broncos told Ben Garland to step back, they also told Gradkowski to move. In his place came Matt Paradis.

Gritty doesn’t even begin to describe the hardscrabble attitude of Paradis. He came from 8-man football in Idaho to become a star at Boise State after joining the team as a walk on. Now he’s a potential starter in the NFL. If you take this kid lightly, he will eat your soul. He doesn’t stand a chance at winning a sun tan competition. His light, red-headed complexion and his self-deprecating demeanor would lead you to believe that he is the George Costanza of this group. However, that’s far from the truth. Hell, he’s replacing a guy named Gradkowski – maybe the epitome of a football name.

No, Paradis is not soft. However, he has always been underestimated. He has grown up with people doubting whether or not he could make it. Like Garland, he started out as a defensive player, but made the transition in college and started 26 games for the Broncos in college and hopes to do much more than that as the center for the Broncos in the NFL.

“I’m just taking things one day at a time,” Paradis clichéd at me as he huffed and puffed after practice one day.

The great thing about being unsure about everything is to simply say nothing. Paradis has the most pressure on his back. He is adding his name to a string of veteran centers that have worked with Manning. A list that includes Jeff Saturday, Dan Koppen, Manny Ramirez and Tim Montgomery. It’s been a long time since Manning has had somebody so wet behind the ears.

Gradkowski didn’t do himself any favors early in camp when he snapped a ball as Manning came up to the line – à la the first play of the Super Bowl XLVIII disaster. Paradis has been given the golden ticket. Can a center who has never taken a snap in the NFL actually blend in with the most sophisticated quarterback of all time? When you have no clue, make sure you answer in cliché.

“I’m just taking it one day at a time.”

If Paradis doesn’t work out, the Broncos could go back to Gradkowski or they could make the move to Max Garcia. Now, this is a guy who looks like he should be playing in the NFL. Well, actually, when he takes his helmet off, he sort of looks like a gigantic Krusty the Clown. With his wild hair frizzed out and sweat rolling down his gigantic frame, Garcia makes psychopaths from horror movies look like Carlton Banks from the Fresh Prince. Garcia is a blue chip guy. He was a big-time high school player. He was a big-time college player at Florida who played every position on the offensive line. He is exactly where he should be, but is it all a little too quick?

Clancy Barone, the Broncos offensive line coach, admits he’s had some sleepless nights thinking about starting three guys who have never taken a snap in the NFL. But, Barone loves the guys he has. They will make mistakes; the hope is that having a quarterback like Manning makes up for any youthful warts.

“If we’re the best five that are up there, then so be it,” Garcia flatlined, “We’re going to come out here; we’re going to compete, just like we’ve been doing.”

Who are these people?

Louis Vasquez has nothing in common with a Jewish comedian from New York, but he is Seinfeld. Vasquez is the one guy we all know. He is the hub. He was stupidly moved outside to tackle last year in a move that didn’t make sense then, and will never make sense, especially now. Those who made that decision are long gone. Ex-head coach John Fox, ex-offensive coordinator Adam Gase and ex-offensive line coach Dave Magazu are now free to make any foolish decisions they want running the Chicago Bears. Seeing Vasquez at tackle was like seeing Scarlett Johansson in a Burka. What a waste! Vasquez is back where he should be and thriving as the leader of this group. He knows that the heavy lifting is on his broad shoulders and he’s ready for the moment.

“I don’t even listen to outside noise,” he told me. “My job is to get myself and the rest of the line ready to play. My mentality is by the end of the 4th quarter, we want to feel your soul wilt in our hands. So I’m trying to instill that in the offensive line because it’s dirty work. You might as well get nasty with it. That’s what I’m trying to instill in the young guys.”

***

The shake up in an offensive line that returns zero starters in the same position from last year is reflective of the turbulence that existed behind the scenes. Coaches last year were assembling fictitious staffs for their next job in quiet whispers. John Elway and John Fox were respectfully estranged from each other. Fox couldn’t wait to get out of here and Elway was happy to oblige. Jack Del Rio was positioning himself first for Foxy’s job, but in the end he fell out of sorts with Elway and was happy to put bland defense after bland defense on the field while looking for real estate in Oakland. Dave Magazu and the Broncos had ticked off Alex Gibbs the previous year and he wanted nothing to do with what was unfolding after the horrific Super Bowl. The fact that their team went 12-4 is actually stunning. The reality that the Colts crushed this team at home in the playoffs, upon reflection, isn’t surprising at all.

This team needed a cleansing and with that comes a no-name offensive line whose job is to protect a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Nobody really knows if it’s going to work. The players don’t know. The coaches don’t know. The fans don’t know.

But none of that matters.

As Schlereth noted, “Think back to just last year with the New England Patriots. They couldn’t block anybody the first three weeks of the season. People were talking about it’s time to trade Tom Brady and start the Jimmy Garoppolo Era, this team isn’t going anywhere. Next thing you know they’re 12-4 and in the playoffs and winning a Super Bowl.”

John Elway issued a directive to go out kicking and screaming. A bunch of leftover, forgotten-about, under-estimated stray dogs now front what may be the final footprint of Peyton Manning.

Who are these people?

“We’re fixing to find out.”

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