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How Emmanuel Sanders and Zach Azzanni went from "we butt heads" to "that's my guy"

Henry Chisholm Avatar
August 18, 2018

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A 5-11 rookie season was good enough to keep Vance Joseph in Denver, but it wasn’t good enough to avoid a hardy shakeup to his staff.

In 2018, eight of Joseph’s 20 assistant coaches are in their first season with the Broncos. Longtime running backs coach Eric Studesville was fired. Brock Olivo was fired after a dismal season as special teams coordinator. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy didn’t even make it through the season.

One of the most surprising names the Broncos sent to the job boards was Tyke Tolbert. In six seasons, beginning in Demaryius Thomas’ rookie year, Tolbert coached ten 1,000-yard receivers and four of the Broncos’ six best receiving seasons ever.

But after Thomas missed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time since his rookie year and Denver’s young receivers failed to develop, the Broncos’ brass decided it was time for a “culture change” at the position, as well as others.

The change at wide receiver came in the form of coach Zach Azzanni. The Broncos job is Azzani’s second in the NFL, after spending last season in Chicago. In Vance Joseph’s words, he is a “no-nonsense, detail guy,” but that didn’t mesh well with one Broncos star.

“OTAs, he and I were going at it,” Emmanuel Sanders said after Thursday’s practice.

This wasn’t breaking news. During OTAs, the two-time Pro Bowler admitted to the media his relationship with Azzanni wasn’t off to a hot start.

“Oh yeah, we butted heads at the beginning,” Sanders said. “Obviously, the new coach coming in, he has his ways, and I have my ways of doing it—it took me to go to two Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls. We butt heads, but at the end of the day we have a common goal, and we want to win. We’ve been working it out, and I’ve been listening to him, he’s been listening to me. It’s starting to pay off because he always tells me, ‘You can get better, you know that, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, okay’ and I’m listening. It’s starting to work.”

Relationships between players and their position coaches are important. Sanders and Azzanni spend hours together every day. They watch film together, gameplan together and—of course—work together on the field during practice. During camp, when players spend 12 hours per day at team headquarters, that time adds up fast.

“I think at first he came in, he didn’t know me, and I had to figure him out, and then we both just started listening to each other,” Sanders said of Azzanni on Thursday. “To have a relationship, it has to be give and take. Communication has to be on at all times. I feel like that’s what we have. He texts me, ‘Hey, it’s a pleasure coaching with you,’ and I text him back and forth. It’s just trying to get on the same page. Trying at camp to get on the same page, we started to figure out that we’re both alike. When you find out you’re both alike, you understand how to deal with yourself. I feel like that’s the direction we’re going, so that’s the reason that I say that that’s my guy. He definitely takes care of me and allows me to be the player I am, but still coming in and helping me out. I tell you he gave me a pointer yesterday that’s going to help my game enormously.”

There’s no denying that Azzanni’s receivers were underwhelming last year in Chicago, but he didn’t have much talent to work with. Kendall Wright was the leading receiver with 614 yards, and nobody else hit 500. Now, he’ll be tasked with developing Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton, while pushing Sanders and Thomas back over the 1,000-yard mark.

“Zach’s juice is rare,” Joseph said last week. ”He’s got great coaching juice [from what] he demands from these guys in terms of their catches. He coaches their eyes. You don’t catch a ball with your hands; you catch with your eyes.”

Azzanni can’t prove he’s a better option than Tolbert until the season starts, but winning over Sanders is the first step down that path. An endorsement from one of the team’s veterans will carry weight in the locker room, especially after the star publically questioned his coach.

“Now it’s like, ‘That’s my guy,’” Sanders said. “You don’t understand. It’s crazy. He’s been getting me so much better. Yesterday he gave me a pointer on how I’m catching the football, and I used it today, and I just felt so much more explosive. Then just being able to open my ears to him and listen. In the receivers room [he] gives me and D.T. room to break down routes and what we’re going to do. Things just look smooth. Like I said, that’s my guy, and we always talk about trying to win a championship. I hope we get to win a championship together.”


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