ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Looking back at the Denver Broncos' troubled 5-11 season, a scuffle between rookie wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie and veteran cornerback Chris Harris Jr. during a terse Thanksgiving Day practice served as a flash point for one of the Broncos’ biggest issues in 2017. When asked to describe what happened, Harris simply said: “You have to respect the vets."
With that simple, bottom-line response, the generation gap in the Broncos’ locker room was laid bare. The growing divide between the team's older, more established players and the new arrivals bubbled just beneath the surface until boiling over in late November. And it urgently needs to be repaired in 2018.
An offseason of change is already underway, and the Broncos will let some of their veteran players go as they bring in a new crop of young players in the weeks and months to come. They will have to find a way to bridge that substantial gap.
“Our veterans, in my opinion, did a great job of dragging those guys along," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. " ... That’s from coaches, to players and veteran players pulling guys along. That’s important. I’ll do a better job of assigning guys to rookies, pushing guys to spend more time with rookies and define those roles for those rookies so they know what we expect, because every year there are going to be four or five guys that we’re counting on to play. [But] every team goes through that -- having young guys who don’t understand what it takes versus veteran guys who have won games and are trying to catch the young guys up to help us win."
The Broncos’ locker room, however, included many players who had won a Super Bowl ring to close out the 2015 season. But it also was another year removed from losing the veteran presence of both Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware, who both retired after Super Bowl 50. Former Denver coach Gary Kubiak said in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl 50 that Manning and Ware were "in charge" of the locker room and "that's how it has to be."
So, the 2017 Broncos had a leadership void. Veteran players who believed they knew what it takes to win didn't mesh with a frustrated rookie class that didn’t meet expectations. Even in the season’s final week, there were defensive players -- including Von Miller and Shane Ray -- venting about having tried to help rookies such as left tackle Garett Bolles who didn't seem interested.
Bolles was the only player from the Broncos’ 2017 draft class who was a starter. McKenzie was benched twice as the punt returner. DeMarcus Walker, Brendan Langley and De'Angelo Henderson were all game-day inactives multiple times.
There were several occasions caught on camera during the season when Bolles refused to interact with teammates who were trying to help him during games.
“I’ll do whatever I need to do to get better," Bolles said as players adjourned for the offseason. "I work things out during games, but I can get better, and I know they brought me here for a reason."
Seventh-year tight end Virgil Green called it "a different thing with young guys now" and sixth-year defensive end Derek Wolfe said on a Denver radio station that the Broncos were dealing with just another example of "this entitlement problem around the entire league."
“I think we’re all in this boat together when we’re here," Miller said. “We have to find what works. But young guys need to understand what it takes. I didn’t always understand when I was first coming in, but I wasn’t afraid of the truth, either. We can’t be afraid of the truth, but everybody’s different too. Not everybody can take criticism that’s too hard, and not everybody can take it too easy, either. But we need everybody and the young guys need to understand, and if they do, there’s nothing we can’t do. But we need everybody."
Many of the Broncos are suddenly akin to parents from coast to coast, trying to reach youngsters before they tune them out, trying to balance tough love and teaching moments.
“Being honest is huge," said veteran running back C.J. Anderson. “But listening to honesty is huge too. I feel like I haven’t always liked what people I respect have told me, but they were honest, they cared and it helped. Guys just have to understand they won’t play for the team they want to play for until we’re all honest enough to fix it."