A good player, out of place.
This used to define DJ Williams to Bronco fans. If he wasn't being shuffled from one position to another, year in and year out, he was 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage making his tackles, playing more like a safety than a LB. The result has been a "shrugging off" of DJ's efforts in both last year's campaign and this one. What little analysis was thrown his way revolved around the few bad plays he experienced, while hinting at tragic and terminal deficiencies in his game. Fans looking for his replacement, in free agency and the draft, enamored themselves of draft picks ranging from the first round to the last and beyond, counting DJ's tackles against him. In many ways, the fan's view of DJ has been as static as the Broncos win/loss record, and his ceiling has been declared low and immutable. The statement has been clear.
He is a good player, but we need better.
As a fan of DJ, from his days as a 'Cane until now, the only room to stand on the debate has been on the sideline. I can argue until I'm blue in the face that he is better than Denver's defensive ranking or Win/Loss indicates, or that his consistently high tackle numbers from year to year are not an indictment of his abilities. But in the end, I know all to well that those tackles, those ephemeral rankings are truly a barrier blocking the path for us fans to understand DJ's impact on the field.
But Thursday, Coach McDaniels reignited my enthusiasm for DJ. When asked about the value of a "quiet" leader like DJ, compared to, say, a vocal leader like Dawkins, McDaniels began to speak and then stopped. He paused for a moment before continuing, weighing the gravity of each word carefully, and speaking slowly, so that no part of what he said could glance off the attention of those in attendance.
"He's one of my favorite players that I have ever been around...I think he is one of the best LBs in pro football, that's how I feel about him, because he makes such an impact in every phase of the game."
This coming from the man who helped coach a team with one of the best LB units of the last decade in New England. And outside of the LB unit, McDaniels is saying that DJ is one of his favorite players ever, putting him in the company of guys like Tom Brady.
When I first started working as a firefighter, I never spoke. Outside of the occasional idle chit chat, which I tired of quickly, I was so focused on my work that I rarely took the time to comment on anyone else's work. I became known as "the quiet guy." One time, I took the job on the fireline bringing up the rear. This was the "shovel spot" since you traded in your standard-issue pulaski (a type of grub hoe with an axe head on one side) for a long handled shovel. It was a quality control type of job, the final chance to see to it that the fireline would do its job, which was to act as a firebreak. The crew that day wasn't focused on the job at hand, a minor fire that didn't really threaten the line, they rushed the fireline, and as a result, I had to work furiously to bring up the rear, digging the fireline almost completely by myself, with a shovel, the worst tool for the job. The crew boss more than once yelled at me for "straggling" behind, and by the end of the day I was exhausted and embarassed but confident that the fireline would hold up if the unthinkable happened and the fire sparked up over night.
That night, out of frustration, I called out my crew. The "quiet guy" spoke up, and to my amazement, everyone listened, and took it personally, despite my relative newness. Later, at base camp, the owner of our company, another quiet gentleman named Scott who did all of the training for his firefighters, took me aside and told me something that cleared up my confusion about how the crew had reacted to my toungue lashing. He said, "When you let your work do your talking for you, when you do speak, your words will hold a lot more weight." Before long Scott would give me my own crew, and an opportunity to prove that I could lead out of more than just frustration.
On Thursday, McDaniels reiterated that lesson in regard to DJ, all the while animated and eager to speak.
"He's at times very quiet, but I don't know that anyone has anymore respect than DJ does, because of the way he practices -- he practices the way he plays in a game, and it is every play. He is out there every play, he doesn't take any plays off, he runs hard, he hits people, he is a good tackler, he has improved his pass defense. He was voted as a captain by his teammates, which tells you a lot about what they feel about him....It has been a great feeling for us to have his consistency out there on the defense, no matter who else has been in and out of the game.... He doesn't have to say anything to earn the respect of everybody around him, and I am really impressed by that because sometimes players as leaders have to say a lot. He doesn't have to say anything. And then, as soon as he does say something, everybody jumps on whatever he's talking about, and believes in him... I know they trust him, and everyone on this team counts on him."
McDaniels couldn't contain himself. He talked about DJ as a "tonesetter", about how DJ always brought his "A game". Josh has always been proudest of players who put in the hard work on the little details, and McDaniels was clearly impressed that DJ would come in on his days off to workout, as Josh said, "just making sure he could continue to maintain the high level of play that he had started the season with."
But where DJ's impact really began to settle in for me, was when McDaniels attempted to describe DJ's play. He started to speak, than stopped. Than started again, and haltingly attempted to put words to something that escapes the grasp as fluidly as smoke.
"To me...he is a guy who plays with a certain... a certain level of energy. Of toughness... He's kind of a nasty player, you know, in some regards... He tackles like... you know... He looks like he is trying to tear parts of the their shoulder pads off..."
McDaniels was struggling to do justice to what he see's in DJ's attitude and play, and it was clear that Josh didn't feel he had fully encapsulated what he knew to be there. His body language was frustrated and palpable. He wants to tells us, badly, about something we should be seeing in DJ. But the words don't seem up to the task of filling the vessel that appears so hopelessly empty for the Broncos. Energy. Toughness. These are there McDaniels seems to be saying, but there is something more.
Allow me to fill in the blank, Coach.
In our most difficult endeavours, it is not the strength that we lack, but the will. --Victor Hugo
More than ever, this is what we are seeing from DJ this year, and it is a fire that needs to be carried into the belly of every last player on the roster. The exhaustion of our options, our physical strength, of all our resources, should do nothing to exhaust our wills. What ground the Broncos have lost to the vigor of the Jets and the Ravens needs to be regained through tenacity against their own division. The Broncos opponents have sought to diminish them in the rankings and in a 2-4 record. But they have unwittingly provided the resources from which to build resolve, if the Broncos choose to take them.
They need to follow DJ's lead and embrace a tenacity of spirit, a noble force that does not yield to tiredness, or weakness. There has been much effort, for meager, or slow to be realized results. From this poignancy they must find success.
DJ holds one of the keys, and the time may have come for "the quiet one" to speak up. He has suffered like a Job of the gridiron for many years, under flawed coordinators, schemes and expectations, but he is a Job who has chosen these things for himself. He must become a Job who fights and faces up to his trials, a Job who struggles, but also conquers.
And --if such a thought is not too grandiose for a quiet linebacker who chose an inconspicuous acronym over his given name-- a Job who is also a Prometheus.