ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When in the process of putting together a team, of filling out a locker room with the kind of players he wants, John Elway has often talked of the importance of finding “those guys who can be long-term Denver Broncos.’’
But the team’s executive vice president of football operations also understands the nature of the business. That, well, stuff happens.
Injuries happen, suspensions happen, life happens. And those carefully-crafted plans to maintain a franchise and chase Super Bowls over the long haul get shoved off the drawing board and decisions have to be made in real time.
“Sometimes things force you to look out there, look at that waiver wire, look on the street and see who can help you,’’ Elway said. “And those decisions have to be right, because they can help you at a time when you might need it.’’
The Broncos, who are one win away from homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, have made those calls this season. Whether it Von Miller’s suspension to start the season or Miller’s torn ACL this past Sunday in Houston, whether it a fax fiasco with Elvis Dumervil’s contract or a middle-of-the-night call to Broncos trainer Steve Antonopulos by safety Rahim Moore, the Broncos have lived their next-man-up life because of a variety of off- and on-field issues.
Defensive end Shaun Phillips, who has consistently called signing in Denver “a no-brainer,’’ was reeled in during the draft weekend. Phillips was signed to a one-year deal after Dumervil’s contract stumble and the likes of John Abraham and Dwight Freeney had priced themselves out of the job.
Phillips currently leads the team in sacks, with 10, and the Broncos will need him more than ever moving forward after Miller’s season-ending injury this past Sunday.
“I’ll do whatever they need me to do,’’ Phillips said. “You do the job that’s in front of you.’’
Then there’s 36-year-old linebacker Paris Lenon, who had been a team captain for the Cardinals in the 2012 season, but remained unsigned as teams plowed through August. But when Stewart Bradley went on injured reserve after wrist surgery, the Broncos were once again dialing.
Lenon is now playing middle linebacker in the team’s base defense, having played 23, 33 and 32 snaps in the last three games.
Or safety Michael Huff, signed Nov. 19 after Moore’s lower-leg injury, who had played for the Ravens against the Broncos in the season-opener and played 15 snaps on defense for the Broncos this past Sunday. Or defensive end Jeremy Mincey who was signed the last Tuesday and played 27 snaps on the Broncos defense five days later against the Texans.
It has all hit the defense particularly hard and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said this week that, through it all, he has simply try to arrange the players he had available the best way he knew how.
“I’ve got a corner memory when it comes to that kind of stuff,’’ Del Rio said. “I don’t dwell on that kind of stuff much. We just do the best we can each day and don’t get too caught up in it … really I don’t spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. I don’t encourage us to sit around and say, ‘Oh geez, what if we just had this guy?‘ I think for us we’ve got to look at who we have and how we can match them and mix them and put them together and come up with combinations that can help us win football games. That’s really all we’re doing.’’
The Broncos have even had head coach John Fox take a month leave of absence following open-heart surgery, a four-game span when Del Rio served as the team’s interim head coach and each member of Fox’s staff did a little more on the way to a 3-1 stretch. A stretch that included two wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and largely earned the Broncos their third consecutive AFC West title.
“That’s what teams are, what good teams are,’’ Fox said. “It’s everybody, everybody is going to be needed at some point. I’ve been doing this for a little while and one thing you learn is you’re always dealing with two things – prosperity or adversity – and how you deal with them both, and that’s everybody, usually determines how things go.’’
"It's not always going to be smooth sailing,'' said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. "You're going to to have to deal with things, things you didn't expect, sometimes maybe things you haven't even seen before, but you still have to go to work. And the guys you have just have to find a way to get it done as much as a possible. If you're replacing a guy, maybe you're not that guy, but you can bring everything to the table that you have, get in your playbook and prepare, do the work and be ready to give what you have. I always tell guys that, you don't have to be somebody else when you go in the lineup, but we need the best you.''