ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Garett Bolles walked into his appointed interview session, not with a scowl but a friendly smile. His handshake was warm, firm, and large.
You can flag him and boo him on game day. You can criticize him around the coffee machine during the week. But you are not going to break Garett Bolles.
“It’s crazy. But I’ve got to do better,’’ Bolles said in a sit-down interview with 9NEWS this week. “I do. There’s no excuses for the way I’ve been playing. But I will tell you this: I’m the type of player who is going to learn from his mistakes. You might think I’m not learning. I am."
“Once I get that information, I grasp it, and I continue to move forward," Bolles said.
“I’ve had adversity my entire life. Adversity has made me the person I am today. It continues to make me humble and hungry and it continues to let me live the dream that I want to live by playing left tackle for as long as I can for this organization.’’
Bolles’ troubled childhood until he was rescued off the side of a Utah road, bag packed, by the Freeman family was well documented back in 2017 when he became the Broncos’ first-round draft pick, No. 20 overall.
Life’s experiences brought him the strength that he has carried with him through his three seasons in the NFL. He has not missed a start as a left tackle for the Broncos – it will be 45 in a row this Sunday against the Texans in Houston -- but his relatively frequent number of holding penalties have often made him a target of Broncoland scorn. He leads the league this year with 12 holding penalties, but only 5 have been accepted, a figure that puts him in a 19-way tie for 22nd place.
Considering the Broncos have run 718 offensive plays through 12 games, Bolles has played better than people realize. In fact, here’s something that will surprise the majority of Broncos followers: Bolles has been the team’s highest-graded offensive lineman this season.
It’s true. According to Pro Football Focus -- which is pretty much the only public forum that grades NFL offensive linemen, Bolles’ 68.2 grade is better than any other Broncos’ blocker.
Broncos offensive line grades (by PFF):
Blocker, Pos. ………….. Grade
Garett Bolles, LT ………… 68.2
Connor McGovern, C …... 66.4
Dalton Risner, LG ……….. 66.0
Elijah Wilkinson, RT …….. 62.4
Ron Leary, RG …….…….. 58.5
Additionally, Bolles’ pass-blocking grade has improved each year, from 70.9 as a rookie to 72.1 in 2018 to 72.9 so far this year.
He wasn’t penalized in five games this year, including last week’s 23-20 win against the Chargers when he spent most of the day keeping Joey Bosa away from Drew Lock, who was making his NFL debut as a quarterback.
“Joey Bosa, we have a good competition,’’ Bolles said. “I respect that man a lot.’’
This was in response to the question of who has been the toughest edge rusher Bolles has encountered. He was reminded that he handled Bosa last week.
“But you know, he’s got me a couple times, too,’’ Bolles said. “He’s the type of player I really truly do respect. You watch his film, he’s sacking quarterbacks left and right. I think he’s ranked in the top 10 pass rushers in the league this year with his percentage of hitting the quarterback and getting pressures."
“And that’s the type of guy you have to watch out for and get in the same set over and over and over again and just try to get in his head a little bit. We’ve had good battles over the last couple years.”
On one play near the end of the first half, Bolles dominated another Chargers’ defensive end, Isaac Rochell, legally lifting him up and dumping him to the ground.
“I’m a very aggressive player,’’ Bolles said. “I think that’s my style of football. But if I can play controlled violence, and controlled aggression, I think that’s where I separate myself from everybody else. I feel like that’s my game. As long as I can continue to be controlled and patient, I can pick and choose when to do it and I did.’’
Still, that aggression tends to draw the eyes of officials, who at times have been liberal in airing their yellow laundry in Bolles’ direction.
The most notable instance was in the Broncos’ game against the Bears in Week 2 when in a meeting against superstar pass-rusher Khalil Mack. Bolles was called for four holding penalties in a span of three series that sandwiched halftime.
The jeers from the crowd at Empower Field at Mile High grew louder with each holding call.
“It’s always tough to go through games like that,’’ Bolles said. “It’s a game nobody wants to have, especially when you’re a professional in a game you love playing. Some of those calls didn’t go my way and it was hard. But there was one thing Coach (Mike) Munchak told me when we were sitting on the bench after I got my second or third one, he said, ‘play consistent. Just keep going, keep battling.’ And then I got my fourth one and he told me, ‘How you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m fine.’
“I’ve learned from my rookie year to my second year to now with Coach Munchak to just stay positive. You can’t get too low with the lows, too high with the highs you have to just continue to keep going. I thought I finished that game pretty strong. That was a game where I could have sat in the tank and dumped it. I felt like I finished the game strong and I had consequences I had to face (with the media) but I felt like I did a really good job of blocking out the negative and really coming back to work and staying focused and grinding and get back to the basics of football.’’
The funny thing about penalties against offensive linemen, in terms of public perception, is they are considered worse than sacks. The offensive lineman’s jersey number is announced by the referee. Everybody hears who’s holding.
The casual fan – even the know-it-alls -- may not pick up who gives up the sack.
Allowing a sack is much worse than getting called for a penalty. Much worse. Elijah Wilkinson has been charged with allowing 9 sacks this season, according to PFF. Bolles has surrendered 4.
Yet, no one has absorbed more critical arrows than No. 72.
“For sure you don’t want to give up a sack but at the same time with my reputation I have in the league I don’t want to give up a holding call either,’’ Bolles said. “I just have to continue to grind and do the things I need to do and listen to my coaching staff.”
The Broncos’ coaching staff knows. Bolles has stayed at left tackle all year and will continue to do so after right tackle Ja’Wuan James returns, which should be today against the Texans.
“I do appreciate the Broncos believing in me,’’ Bolles said. “I know they’ve shown a lot of interest and a lot of patience in me and I truly respect that. That means a lot to me as a player knowing that I have an organization behind me.’’
He credits the bye week for his improved play of late. During it, he received a mental break and made a physical adjustment.
“I watched all my film from [the] very first game to when we went into the bye week and tried to find adjustments of what I need to fix and it was my stance and my hands,’’ Bolles said. “And I feel like I needed to focus on those, so that’s what I did every day and it’s starting to pay off.’’
With Bolles keeping Bosa at bay, Lock threw two touchdown passes and wasn’t sacked in his first NFL game last week. Lock is the seventh quarterback Bolles has blocked for.
“I like Drew Lock,’’ Bolles said. “He’s young. He’s very talented. He’s going to have a nice career as long as he stays humble and hungry. … When you come to the league, you’ve got to earn every minute you get and I feel like he’s done a good job of waiting for his time to shine and he came out there and did what he needed to do. But he’s going to get better and better as the game goes on and as long as we keep his jersey dry I think he’s going to have a really good career.”
When the big man sat down for his interview this week, Bolles was asked if he would tell Broncos fans what kind of year he’s having.
“Well, I’ve had my ups and I’ve had my downs,’’ he said. “But I feel like I’m on a path where I need to be, where the Broncos want me to be. I feel confident. There’s been a lot of changes around here with different quarterbacks – Lock is my seventh quarterback – and having Dalton (Risner), the changes I’ve had at left guard."
“But it’s one of those things where you have to continue to work at it. Nothing’s pretty. The NFL can change within minutes. You have to continue to keep going. Some calls go your way, some calls don’t. But I feel like I’ve done a really good job of staying focused and continue to stay pretty consistent in what I do and as long as I do that I know I’ll get to where I need to be.”
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