DENVER—Vance Joseph stepped in front of his players and coaches at the team’s pregame meeting Saturday night at the Denver Broncos' home hotel in the Denver Tech Center.
Among the topics he addressed was the comment made the previous night by John Elway, otherwise known as the head all of things Broncos’ football. Elway was asked Friday if there was one thing specifically that explained how the team’s five-game losing streak – where the average defeat was by nearly three touchdowns – had started.
Elway started talking around the question until he abruptly made a turn toward the blunt truth.
“I will tell ya, I think we got a little bit soft,’’ Elway said. “To be dead honest with you, we got a little bit soft.’’
The motivational words – sometimes you make a player better with a pat on the back; sometimes it’s better to try a whack on the derriere – punctured to the core of a male athlete’s pride.
And so the next night, Joseph, as the Broncos’ head coach, was not going to ignore the provocative assertion hanging in the chandeliers.
“Coach reiterated last night about the ‘soft’ part,’’ said Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, who had five catches for 64 yards and a touchdown with his mom and grandma watching close by as they flew here from Georgia on Sunday morning. “He told us, ‘We don’t want to be that team. He called us soft. No man wants to be called soft.’’’
Thomas thought Elway’s stinging comments were going to rally the team.
“We had the edge,’’ Thomas said. “We had the edge but at the end of the day, the turnovers, you can’t do that. And when you get the field position we had, you have to score more than 17.’’
That’s just it. The Broncos seemed to play with plenty of effort. They did not get blown out, as they did in their previous five losses. But they still couldn’t outscore the worst offensive team in the league, the Cincinnati Bengals, and lost, 20-17.
Only two teams since the NFL merger have not lost seven in a row: The Broncos and the Steelers. The Steelers are safe for another year. The Broncos carry a six-game skid into the Black Hole next week.
Joseph told the media following the game he “was initially offended,’’ by Elway’s “soft” characterization of his team. Joseph also added, “in some aspects, he’s right.’’
In the locker room, the feelings about Elway’s "soft" remark were similarly mixed.
“He’s right,’’ said Jordan Taylor, a role player who had a nice game as a punter returner and added a 14-yard catch at receiver. “We’ve lost, what, six in a row? I don’t necessarily think we played soft tonight. But I think we had some issues and still have some issues, obviously that we need to get fixed. He’s the man, he’s the boss. He calls it how he sees it. He’s got every right to say what he said.’’
The player who most forcefully dismissed Elway’s comment was inside linebacker Brandon Marshall, who is known to stand up, or kneel down, against authority from time to time.
“We definitely didn’t take kindly to those remarks,’’ Marshall said. “I understand this is his team and he put it together so his name is on it, but it’s our skin in the game. Nobody is soft on this team. … We just fall short.’’
Other players were more diplomatic.
“I tried to take it as constructive criticism,’’ said Domata Peko, who made his 122nd start at the manliest of manly positions, nose tackle, Sunday. The first 112 consecutive starts were while playing for the Bengals, the team he lost to Sunday. “It (stinks) anytime someone calls you soft. That ain’t fun. It hurts. But I took it as a challenge.’’
C.J. Anderson, the Broncos’ starting running back, struggled to fight back tears after his fourth quarter fumble at his own 44 ended a promising drive that started at the 8.
“That’s his perception, his interpretation on how he sees this football team,’’ Anderson said. “Playing like that will put you in that category.’’
Said defensive end Derek Wolfe: “I think he’s the boss. Whatever he says, goes. I’m not going to say I agree or disagree. I’m going to say he’s the boss and if he thinks we’re being soft, then we must be being soft.’’
Said Thomas: “The boss is going to speak his mind. If he thinks guys are soft, then he’s speaking the truth. If he sees ‘soft’ then he’s speaking the truth. As a man, you don’t want your boss saying that about anybody. I’m sure everybody felt a certain way but (shoot) we lost six games in a row.’’
Ron Leary, who mixes it up in the trenches on every play while playing rightguard, said what he had to say without saying it.
“I’m not going to comment on that right now,’’ he said.
“I was kind of taken back by it, which you should be,’’ said Von Miller, the team’s biggest star who had a tackle for loss and pass deflection, but no sacks against the Bengals. “If you have any type of emotion about you, if you play soft, your reaction should be, “What? I’m not soft.’
“But if you take a look back at it, the truth is that’s what we’ve been putting out there. That’s the type of team we’ve developed into. That’s what we got. It’s the truth. He’s telling the truth.’’