Those who watched Brian Dawkins exhorting the Denver Broncos on the sideline before the game got a brief glimpse into one of the best reasons that the Broncos defense on Sunday looked anything but similar to the group of lost travelers that inhabited Broncos uniforms during the last 5 games of 2008. Dawkins screamed, cajoled, entreated and demanded from them their own best efforts. He waved his arms, and slapped his hands against his own helmet in a berserker's rage. They would take the game into their own hands. Nothing else would do, no other outcome was acceptable and in his mind it was clear that he would never, ever, under any circumstances permit the team to give up. The irony of the day was rich. By never giving up, the rote formality of a second receiver following the play in case of a tipped ball was the difference between winning and losing. Sometimes, a refusal to surrender can create victory, regardless of circumstances.
Centuries ago, a general in China landed his forces by boat. Organizing his soldiers on the beachhead, he had them watch as he commanded their boats to be burnt. The message was clear - winning meant survival; defeat was tantamount to death. By the very refusal of any chance to give up, the troops entered into battle like men possessed. They fought and overwhelmed and defeated a much larger force, taking the battle and, eventually, the war. The general understood the meaning of his decision as he stood in front of his men. Freed from fear, unfettered by doubts, they knew themselves to be walking corpses. They became more than men, more than soldiers. They fought like demons, and accomplished what few among them had believed that they could achieve before the boats were burned. Their victory turned the tide of the war.
In much more mundane circumstances, the refusal to lose also kept the Broncos from opening their season on the road with a defeat at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals. Even the faithful among the Broncos players and fans felt the cold tog of doubt at their heartstrings, but they went out and played as it they knew they could win. The outcome was, in many ways, understandable. If not this way, then they would find another. The Broncos showed us that they were anything but the team that lost out in historical fashion last December. They are a new team, with new players, coaches and a very different attitude. For this week, if no other, the Broncos are winners. Sometimes, just refusing to lose can do that for you.
I was reading the other day from Tedy Bruschi's book. For those that don't follow the game as closely, Bruschi suffered a stroke 10 days after the Patriots' 24-21 victory in the 2005 Super Bowl. One of the top linebackers in the game, Bruschi had to learn to walk again; to move, balance, and eventually run. He endured months of not being able to lift his young children, moments of crushing self-doubt and nights of bleak despair. When he first decided to attempt to return to football, his wife refused to even consider it.
"You're the husband of my children," she kept telling him coldly. "I nearly lost you once. This isn't going to happen." But after meetings with many people including two excellent neurosurgeons, it was decided that Bruschi was no more at risk than any other player on the field if he could retrain himself to decide, move and hit like he did before the incident. He would return to the field in October of the following year, racking up 10 tackles in a spell-binding performance against Buffalo. The week after, the Patriots would lose to the Indianapolis Colts, 40-21. Undaunted, Bruschi said to his wife,
"You know what, honey? I'm not going to be down about this, because every time I can walk off the field, it's a victory."
Bruschi saw life more clearly then than he ever had before.
That's something that has always set the great ones apart from the rest of those around them. Somehow, uncomplaining, they don't ever see themselves as losers. Because of that, they rarely lose. They have the mindset, the attitude, that they are going to win, going to achieve, to triumph and to endure. It's a contagious attitude. Perhaps one bad apple can spoil a barrel of them, but one truly great leader can raise a team to heights it's never dared dream of before. Refusal to lose, a willingness to do more than the other guy to win and a deep self-belief can bear dividends that cannot be measured. On Sunday, the Broncos showed that those who do not cease striving can sometimes overcome the worst odds and the darkest hours to come away with a victory that no one else believed to be possible.
This is the defense who was constantly tarred with the brush of players who were long gone and a vaporware scheme that never materialized. They have listened to announcers, pundits and fans alike excoriating them. Ron Fields was a broken down second-teamer. The secondary was over the hill and the line was made up of never-was players. They were going to stink, flounder and to fail. Everyone knew that. Everyone but them. Somehow, they just never quite got the message.
During pregame stretches, Mario Haggan said to the camera,
"Let's go out and make a statement. Nobody believes in us. Hey, I know who's ever watching, you don't think the Broncos is back, right? Hey, check this out today and tell me what you think after this!"
Pregame, Dawkins told them that no one believed in them. No one respected them.
"Respect," he cried, "isn't given! It is earned, doggone it! And they don't respect us! NO-body respects us! Now, what should I do in that situation? TAKE IT! TAKE IT! TAKE THE RESPECT FROM SOMEBODY!"
And then they went out onto the field. If you don't think that Bengals respects the Broncos defense today, you're only kidding yourself.
A great play in the first half saw Dawkins leap int the air like a leopard taking down a gazelle, jumping onto the back of the running back and pile-driving him into the turf. Mario Haggan showed commandingly why he's a captain, while Andra Davis taught folks the difference between practice and playing games that count. Alphonso Smith showed why the Broncos rated him as a high first-rounder. the line was stout, the defense aggressive and the outcome bore a strange sense of inevitability. These were men who simply and without artifice refused to let the game slip away.
They gave up a single touchdown near the end of the 4th quarter, and the offense promptly did something so bizarre, so incredible that it set an NFL record for a TD pass in the final minute of the 4th quarter. Those who scoff that it was 'just luck' either didn't watch it carefully or missed the point altogether. The hours of tipped ball drills this training camp had a purpose. The instructions to the wily veteran, Brandon Stokley, knew that he had to run next to the play "just in case the ball was tipped." It was, he was right there and the Broncos marched into the Josh McDaniels era as winners. Fans all over the country - over the world, really - stood up as one and cheered.
It brought back to me something that John Bena has said several times. Winners win. Losers don't. It doesn't matter how. They are no partial victories, no moral victories, no undeserved victories. You win by placing yourself in a position that permits you to win, not by giving up, losing your poise and laying down. Luck played its own role, to be sure, but without preparation, effort and belief, luck has no place to roost.
The Broncos are being taught by a man in Josh McDaniels who's been a winner his whole life. He doesn't settle for anything else. His standards are high and his tolerance for excuses low. Their captains are men who don't give up, give in or accept defeat graciously. They are good sportsman, but they have a passionate distaste for losing that belies the honorable words and unbowed heads.
"And we're going to bring it and take it on three, ready, one, two, three, TAKE IT!"
They did. This really was the old cliche, the victory truly snatched from the jaws of defeat. It was a measure of the team that they played out of sync on offense, fought like hellions on defense and managed to refuse to accept an outcome that most around the nation saw as clear and inevitable.
Robert Browning once penned,
"Then welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough;
Each sting that bids not sit or stand, by go!
Be our joys three parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain,
Learn, nor account the pang: dare, never grudge the throe!
Somehow, I think that he would have liked this game.
There is one more thing. This summer, a poster told me that no one in football plays for less money than he has to. Tedy Bruschi wrote,
"...sometimes I get flak for not being a mercenary. The last contract I signed, I got a 3.5 million dollar bonus on a deal worth 8 million overall. And I got criticized for that. Think about that. I knew it could be more, but it's all right. Someone else makes more money than I do? Congratulations."
Bruschi is one of over a half dozen Patriots players who have deliberately left money on the table in order to build a winning club that can bring home multiple Super Bowls. They understand something about winning. You achieve it as a team, not as individuals. If Orton doesn't make the tough throw, if Stokley doesn't follow the play (and then have the heads-up play to run down the clock, amazingly), if the O line doesn't put their mistakes behind them to hold up the rush, the play can't work. All of them did, it did, and the Broncos will always have started out the season as winners. It's one down, and a lot more to go
They didn't just get the win: They took it. From the owner to the head coach and on down to the lowliest assistant and practice squad player, a lot of hard work, sacrifice and effort went into that victory. This is one time that I'm not going to talk about X's and O's, what they did or didn't do, plays or formations, performance and errors. It was a great win. It required them to fail, over and over, to continue to strive and to never give up on the play, the game or themselves.
Last year, we would have found a way to live with a lesser outcome. This year, we're taking the respect that we haven't been given. And I wouldn't trade that feeling for gold.
"Attitude is the whole thing in football. Every team has the talent and the coaching. Motivation makes the difference. The teams that win stay healthy and interested." -- Sid Gillman, Hall of Fame coach. The Broncos left Cincinnati with no new major injuries.