ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A screen pass brought about the Comeback Player of the Past Two Years moment for Marlon Mack.
The Broncos had the ball and momentum to start the second half last Sunday, although they were still trailing the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-14. On second and 14 from the Broncos’ own 34, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak relayed in the perfect call, a screen to counter a heavy Chiefs’ blitz.
It was a quick-hitting screen with quarterback Russell Wilson releasing a flare right to Mack only a second after receiving the shotgun snap.
Mack caught it unguarded and started moving up field where right guard Quinn Meinerz had pulled and blocked linebacker Nick Bolton, the Chiefs’ leading tackler, out of the play. That set Mack into open space where he did not forget, after all that time, how to negotiate.
Utilizing the vision that made him a 1,999-yard rusher combined in 2018-19 for the Indianapolis Colts, Mack cut left towards the middle of the field, raised his knees into sprint mode, then showed great strength in stiff-arming away the tackle attempt of Chiefs’ defensive back L’Jarius Sneed.
With nothing but green grass ahead of him, Mack’s mind started going faster than his feet. He began to stumble around the 22-yard line, and ran and tumbled some more but keeping his balance until he crossed the goal line with a glorious forward lunge into the end zone. A 66-yard catch-and-run touchdown that was Mack’s first big play since he suffered a torn Achilles in the Colts’ 2020 season-opener.
"It was a great feeling, man," Mack said this week in a sit-down interview with 9NEWS. "Get out there on the field again, get a long touchdown, felt pretty good."
He then started to laugh at the recollection.
"The balance at the end got me," he said smiling. "The grass almost got me. But I finished it so that was a good thing."
One play made the grueling, humbling journey to recovery worth it – so long as more Mack opportunities are to come. A fourth-round pick out by the Colts out of his hometown college South Florida in the 2017 draft, Mack had a solid, if unremarkable rookie year in a backup role to the great Frank Gore in 2017.
Mack then exploded into Fantasy League starting lineups in weeks 6-8 of his second season of 2018 with rushing efforts of 89 yards in a loss to the Jets, and 126 and 132 yards, with three combined touchdowns, in victory routes against the Bills and Raiders.
Despite the slow start to 2018, Mack finished with 908 rushing yards on 4.7 yards per carry with 9 touchdowns. He followed it up in 2019 with 1,091 rushing yards even though he missed two games with a broken hand that required surgery. He was set to go into his “contract year” with a chance to strike it rich.
But then came the Colts’ 2020 COVID season opener with quarterback Philip Rivers when Mack suffered a torn Achilles midway through the second quarter.
His season was finished before it barely began. His replacement was some second-round running back named Jonathan Taylor.
After sitting out essentially the entire 2020 season, Mack missed out on free-agent riches for 2021 although the Colts did him a solid by signing him back on a one-year, $2 million contract in 2021. Mack rushed for just 101 yards off 28 carries and five games.
This season, as so many rookie running backs moved in with their fresh pair of legs, Mack spent time with the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers before the Broncos signed him to replace the injured Mike Boone.
"It was difficult this past year bouncing from team to team," Mack said. "But staying patient and keep working. I didn’t think it wasn’t going to work out, I just kept working and waiting for my chance and then when I got my chance, I took advantage of it and I’m just grateful for it."
The Broncos’ running back room this year has undergone a transformation from the planned duo of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, who each rushed for better than 900 yards in 2021, to the veteran pair of Murray and Mack. Williams suffered a season-ending ACL tear in game 4 and Gordon was released a month ago. The Broncos’ running back room became centered around the rushers from yesteryear – Latavius Murray, who is only 63 yards shy of his eighth consecutive season of at least 500 rushing yards, and Mack, who is still only 26 years old.
"The running back market in the NFL is kind of crazy," Mack said. "Once you hit a certain age guys kind of look at you funny but me and Latavius are kind of changing that narrative that guys can still play at any age at running back. You just have to have faith in them and let them do what they do."
This Sunday, the 3-10 and postseason-eliminated Broncos take on the 4-9 and soon-to-be-eliminated Arizona Cardinals at Empower Field at Mile High. People say neither team has much to play for, but that is not true in the case of Mack, a former 1,000-yard rusher whose career has worked out so that every game is important.
"Even for the team I would say it’s important that we show the fans that something to believe in," Mack said. "No playoffs but you still have to go out there and do a job. Everybody wants to win. Get that W no matter what. Especially for me, I’m a one-year guy so I’ve got to go out there and ball and show teams I can still play. But the main thing here first is get the W."
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