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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — “What does it mean to you to be named team captain?”
That question was an obvious point from which to start Justin Simmons’ question-and-answer session with Denver-area media Monday.
Moments earlier, Broncos coach Vic Fangio had announced that the sixth-year safety was one of six season-long captains selected in a team-wide vote, along with fellow safety Kareem Jackson, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, edge rusher Von Miller, kicker Brandon McManus and wide receiver Courtland Sutton.
When the Broncos last named captains in advance of the 2018 season, Simmons was at a different point in his career; he was headed into his second full season as a starter and his third in the NFL, still looking to prove his long-term viability as a presence on the highest level of the sport.
The deep breath Simmons took as he paused before answering the question said as much as the words that followed. Without a word, he conveyed the significance of the honor.
“It’s honestly something that I’ve thought about for the past couple of years,” he said.
So much has happened in those two seasons that the Broncos did not have captains. Forty-three of the 53 spots on the primary roster changed. A pandemic ravaged the world. Simmons stepped forward as a community leader both in Denver and his home of Martin County, Fla., helping organize social-justice rallies in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Six different players got the start at quarterback — including Phillip Lindsay opening one game by receiving a Wildcat snap. In Week 1, Teddy Bridgewater will make it seven.
The world changed. The Broncos changed. Simmons became a second-team All-Pro, got a franchise tag, earned his first Pro Bowl selection and then became — for a few months — the highest-paid safety in the sport’s history.
In every way, Simmons earned the “C” patch that can now go on his jersey.
“It means everything,I think it means more because it comes from your peers — obviously, coaches and players,” he said. “You would like to receive that honor from your peers, but I think it just means a great deal. Guys step into leadership roles and you can kind of feel like, ‘OK, I’m a leader on this team. I know what I have to do. I know what’s expected.
“To have it kind of written in stone just makes it a little bit more real, and it’s an honor. It’s truly an honor, and I’m excited for this year.”
SO, WHY NOW?
Just as rosters don’t remain the same, neither do coaching philosophies. And while Fangio’s time in the NFL dates back to the Reagan Administration, it doesn’t mean he does the same things now as he did then.
Two years ago, Fangio offered this take on not naming season-long captains:
“I just think everybody’s got the license to become a leader on the team. You don’t need to be appointed. I think leadership is something that somebody takes; it’s not granted to them, whether it be by a coaching staff or a vote. You take it. You don’t get proclaimed that.”
By 2021, that had changed. He opted for a player vote, not a coaching-staff declaration.
“I just thought this would be something good to do for a multitude of reasons,” Fangio said, “so, we gave it a shot.”
One positive aspect of naming captains is giving players who have emerged as leaders the recognition they deserve. A “C” patch on the jersey, and for players like Miller and McManus, another gold star on the patch. Those two close friends were season-long captains in 2017 and 2018, and they will resume that role again this year.
For Jackson, the honor comes in part because of his experience. Although he’s only been a Bronco for three seasons, his age (33) and his seasons of experience (12) make him the senior member of the roster. His fiery, vocal nature makes him an ideal complement to the presence provided on defense by Simmons and Miller.
And then there are the two offensive captains: Sutton and Bridgewater. That Bridgewater should earn the honor comes as no surprise; in 2017 and 2018, Trevor Siemian and Case Keenum were named captains, too. It’s usually part and parcel of being a starting quarterback, and for the previous two seasons that Bridgewater entered a season as the starter, he was a team captain — in Minnesota in 2015 and Carolina last year.
“He’s always trying to coach up everybody,” Sutton said. “Whether it’s the offensive line, tight ends, running backs, receivers—whoever it may be. He’s always trying to pass the knowledge down and that’s always appreciated and just the way he carries himself.
“A lot of people think that you gain the confidence all straight from on-the-field stuff, but it’s a lot off-the-field stuff that goes into it as well. Teddy is just that guy that he carries himself as a leader, as somebody who guys want to look up and guys want to imitate and that’s what you look for in good leaders.”
Sutton’s leadership style is different — and as a wide receiver, he has a different role than the quarterback. But it was no less worthy of recognition, as the fourth-year receiver becomes a Broncos captain for the first time.
As Sutton notes, his style is less vocal, and more by example. Never has that been more evident than in the last year that he spent rehabilitating from a torn ACL.
“I show up every day, and I go to work,” Sutton said. “I’m a firm believer in, ‘I can show you better than I can tell you,’ and if the coaches want something done a certain way, I try to lead by example and try to give the young guys and even just the rest of the team somebody to look up to in terms of how to do stuff the right way.
“I feel like I’ve always been told that from high school all the way through college to now be that guy that the coach can say, ‘This is the guy that does everything right. This is what we’re looking for.’”
Sometimes there is a pejorative that goes along with such a description. But Sutton sees the positive.
“Some people might tease and say it’s a teacher’s pet,” Sutton said, “but at the end of the day you’ve got to do what you’re supposed to do, and the respect will come.”
With the vote from his teammates, the respect is clearly there. And Fangio did the right thing in making it possible for these six Broncos to proudly wear the captain’s patch.