ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Early Sunday evening, the Broncos’ team plane touched down at Denver International Airport, and the players filed off the plane and onto buses to head back toward UCHealth Training Center.
The team was just hours removed from a 27-23 loss to the Vikings in which the team gave up a 20-0 halftime lead and then failed to score on three consecutive plays from the 4-yard line to end the game.
Under normal circumstances, the players would have disembarked at UCHealth Training Center, climbed into their cars and driven home for the night.
But this game felt different than most losses, and Von Miller wanted his teammates to remain together.
The longest-tenured Bronco gathered his teammates together for dinner, and a few hours later, 40-50 members of the team sat in Del Frisco’s enjoying a meal.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” safety Will Parks said Tuesday. “I’ve never been a part of anything where we’re 3-7, and we went to dinner because of the way things happened. I think it was one of the best things I’ve seen in all of my football life. It’s pretty cool.”
Parks said the team talked about a few individual plays, but largely they talked about each others’ families and how they were holding up in the wake of another devastating loss.
“This was everybody from Austin Schlottmann all the way down to [Kareem Jackson] [and] myself,” Parks said. “Shelby [Harris] was in there with his brother. [Adam] Gotsis came in with his brother. I almost brought my guys, so it was more of like a family affair. It was something that the Denver Broncos, since I’ve been here, haven’t done. I think that speaks dividends to No. 58. He was in there.
“He got up and he was like, ‘Hey guys, the energy we had at practice that week, the energy that we had in the game, let’s keep it going.’ That was the most fun game we’ve ever played there. It was loud there. It was a good atmosphere. Obviously, we didn’t get the ‘W,’ but I think the camaraderie and the charisma and the things that we have we just have to stick to it.”
Miller and Parks weren’t the only players to notice a different vibe on Sunday, both during the game and after it.
“We kind of just had a heart-to-heart,” safety Justin Simmons said. “We could feel something special was brewing. That first half that we played as a team — special teams, offense and defense — it wasn’t perfect. Obviously, we were doing really well. It wasn’t perfect, but the energy felt different. The vibe was just different … from the times that I’ve been here the past three years playing. That game just felt different. It felt like we were kind of jelling more and more each game as a team. It’s unfortunate the way it ended because it didn’t reflect how well we played in the first half and how hard we’ve been playing all season long, but that’s something that we talk about.”
Simmons said while he and his teammates understand they are “paid to win games” and that moral victories don’t mean much, he acknowledged that the team is starting to build a foundation that could lead to future success. And Simmons, whose contract expires at the end of the season, made it clear he hopes to be around as the team starts to see results.
"[Head Coach] Vic [Fangio] being a first-year head coach here, installing a new defense, installing a new offense, you can see guys are buying in," Simmons said. "The systems are working. Now, for us, it’s figuring out, ‘OK, now we all need to come together as one and figure out how to close games out defensively.’ … Once we’re comfortable, the turnovers and takeaways will start becoming more and more easy. I’m not going to speak on the offensive side of the ball, but I’m sure it’s the same for them. They get comfortable. Guys play together. You get more comfortable in the systems and you find ways to play for something more than yourselves. You’re playing for the brothers next to you. It’s hard when everyone in here is in their first year playing each other. You build off that. Like I said, I know that’s kind of a long-winded answer, but it’s something that obviously I’ve said multiple times [that] I want to be a part of moving forward, but it also just has to work out in terms of my future here and like I said, I want it to work out, but it just has to work out on both sides of the spectrum.”
Chris Harris Jr., who is also in the final year of his contract, said he’s more concerned with the “week-to-week” progression of the Broncos. He said he knows, though, that he can play a major role in helping the younger players feel comfortable.
“You’ve just got to build that experience,” Harris said. “We’ve got to learn how to finish as a team, especially defensively, finish a lot better, how to close out games better for our team. It’s just a learning process and we’re going through that this season. It’s definitively not what we planned on happening, but it’s something that I think guys are getting better and younger guys are getting better each week. That’s part of my job, to help bring those guys along and instill confidence in those guys that I believe in ... so they can go out and play good every week.”
For a half, the Broncos did that in Minnesota. Denver scored on four of its seven first-half drives, forced a pair of turnovers and held Kirk Cousins without a touchdown pass. The defense also bottled up Dalvin Cook, as the NFL’s leading rusher gained just 9 yards before halftime.
The dominance did not last, as Minnesota scored touchdowns on all four second-half possessions and Denver scored just three points. But perhaps the first half can show the Broncos what they can become.
And if the game doesn’t do that, then maybe their reaction will instead.
“It wasn’t designed to talk about the game,” said Parks of the Sunday night dinner. “It was more designed to keep guys in it, keep guys into this coaching staff, into the building and into the culture that’s trying to be built around here. That’s ultimately [going to help] win football games.
“I think that Sunday night told us a lot about our team.”