“I think we got a little bit soft,” Elway said in an extraordinarily candid press conference at the 2017 Ring of Fame Pillar Unveiling. “To be dead honest with you, we got a little bit soft. We went 4-0 in preseason. We started out 3-1, we get a bye week—if you exhale in this league, you’re in trouble. To be dead honest with you, I think we exhaled. It’s hard to recover from that. It will be a lesson that hopefully we all learn and prevent from happening in the future.”
Less than 48 hours after those comments were made, and after the team’s 20-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon, the Broncos started to accept, and agree, with Elway’s unbelievably critical comments. At least, most everyone.
“I agree. Losing five in a row, that’s soft,” Domata Peko said after the team went on to drop their sixth-straight game. “How many turnovers we’ve been giving away, that’s soft. Dropping punt returns, that’s softness. Letting people run on us last week and the week before, that’s what coach was telling us too.”
After the team’s 2-0 start some two months ago, they’ve dropped seven of their past eight games. But what bothered Elway the most, and what led him to call the team soft, was the way they’ve been losing the games.
“When he said that, I was initially offended, but in some aspects, he’s right. When you’ve lost that many games in a row, you have to do things in a tougher manner,” head coach Vance Joseph said. “If you’re not winning, that’s an issue in football. Football is a tough sport. So when you’re not winning that word comes up. Again, I sat back and thought what he said and in some aspects, he’s right.”
Elway caught everyone off-guard by his comments, so, naturally, it took some time for Joseph and all of his players to digest the horse-sized-pill prescribed by the boss and face of the franchise.
“I was kind of taken back by it, which you should,” Von Miller said, as he carefully decided his next words. “If you have any type of emotion about you, your reaction should be, ‘What? I’m not soft?’ But, if you take a look back at it, the truth is that’s what we’ve been putting out there. That’s the type of team that we’ve developed into. That’s what we got. It’s the truth. He’s telling the truth.”
Instead of avoiding the comments leading up to the team’s critical tenth-game of the season, Joseph addressed it head-on at the team’s usual night-before-the-game meeting. While Joseph himself said the contents of the meeting were private, Peko shed a ray of light on what the head coach said.
“Coach said it best; he called us all that… He really showed us that last night,” Peko said. “That's just constructive criticism that, as a man, you’ve got to take it. It starts at the top and rolls its way down.”
Yet even after being publicly challenged by their general manager, and privately challenged by their head coach in a single weekend, the players and coaches, couldn’t prove either Joseph or Elway wrong against the Bengals. Despite out-gaining Cincinnati 340-190 in total yards, Denver didn’t make the necessary plays needed to get their first win since Oct. 3.
“(Elway) made the team, and if he feels like it’s soft, then that’s what it is,” Darian Stewart said. “Our play has shown it… As a man, you take pride, and anytime somebody calls you soft you want to come out and prove you’re not soft. We fell short today.”
While nearly everyone, from Joseph to the players, made the safe move of agreeing with their boss, Brandon Marshall—who has proven he isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in—stood in opposition.
“We definitely didn’t take kindly to those remarks. I understand this is his team. He put it together. So his name is on it, but we got skin in the game,” Marshall explained before disagreeing. “Nobody is soft on this team. We work our asses off, and we work hard. We play hard, and we go out there and give 100 [percent] every game and every practice.”
In the NFL, losses are inevitable. However, it’s not every day the general manager calls his own team soft, and the majority of the team agrees.