Life Lessons from the 2011 Denver Broncos

As a lifelong Broncos fan, this 2011 NFL season has been something of a treat and something of a rarity. Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, winning in Denver wasn’t just something you rooted for or hoped for, it was the norm. It was average. It was what you came to expect. Anything less was an anomaly.

Flash forward to the post-Elway, post-Superbowl, post-Shanahan days and what you find is a wasteland of futile ambitions. I won’t lie. Watching the Broncos over the past several years was an exercise in frustration, sadness, and soul-crushing defeat. The Broncos descended from perpetually elite, to mediocrity, to bottom feeding over the span of 10 excruciatingly long years.

And then came this season. There was little hope and little excitement. Aside from the blissful homers who believe every year is a Superbowl waiting to happen (I do envy you, fellas), Broncos Country wasn’t filled with dreams of the post season. Instead, there was a buzzing curiosity to see what exactly we had in the left wing and legs of one Tim Tebow, and what we had in the defensive mind of one John Fox.

Courtesy of a millionaire v. billionaire battle, Tebow was denied any meaningful off season development, and the Broncos thudded to a reasonably expected 1-4 start. The calls for Fox’s head hadn’t started, but the perpetual whipping boy of the greater Denver area, Kyle Orton, had been escorted to the pine.

Cue the misty fog and harp music, because we’re going on a flash back. 25 Years ago I was trotting off of a soccer field having just lost a game. I was six year’s old and, to be quite honest, the outcome of that match meant very little to me. I had seen a cartoon – Peanuts, if I remember correctly – which had extolled the virtues of losing gracefully.

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you played the game,” I told my dad when he asked how I felt, parroting the words of Charlie Brown, or Linus, or whoever. My dad stopped. He kneeled down in front of me. He placed a hand on my shoulder.

Calmly, and with an expression equal parts sad and stern, he said, “That’s what losers say. And you’re not a loser.” Not quite the reassuring, unconditional love type of response that parents are supposed to dish out, right? Wrong. This was precisely the kind of support I needed at that point in my life. My father was second generation West Point, and a retired Lt. Col in the US Army. This was his way of expressing support, and I promise you it came from his heart.

Defeat is never something to be proud of.

Throughout the rest of my life, my dad would have little nuggets of wisdom that mostly revolved around not losing. One of his favorites, as well as mine, came from UCLA Bruins coach, Henry Russell: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Flash forward to present day.

Where were we? Oh yeah, the Broncos were 1-4, and nobody outside of Denver really gave a damn.

With the season written off, John Fox, the great John Elway, and the rest of the Broncos front office decided to give the fans a little taste of what they wanted. Tim Tebow.

And then a funny thing happened.

The Broncos won. And then they lost. And then they won. And won. And won. And won. And won. And won.

The Broncos had bested seven of their last eight opponents with Tim Tebow at center. What’s important to know is that Tebow was never supposed to succeed in this league. He was never supposed to win. Analysts, pundits, and coaches had all written him off, saying that his college skill set could never transfer to the NFL. His winning ways could exist only inside of the limited world of the collegiate snow globe.

But against all odds, the Broncos were 7-1 with Tebow at QB. They were 8-5, and looking at the post season for the first time in a very, very long time. The media fallout from this impossible about-face was nuclear in nature. Analysts scrambled to figure out how Tebow could be winning.

To put it kindly, Tebow’s statistics were a bit of a throwback. He had a sub 50 percent completion ratio, and was averaging around the century mark in terms of passing. In the pass first, modern NFL, this simply wasn’t possible. You can’t win when you don’t do things by the book.

The problem is that the book is written by people who think, “You’ll win games if you can do X, Y and Z extremely well.” The book the Broncos read was a little closer to this, “You’ll win the game if you have more points than the other team when the game is over.”

Short and sweet, that’s what the Broncos did. They threw away conventional wisdom. They didn’t pay attention to the numbers that analysts and coaches used to try to make sense of a game played by humans. They simply adopted the mind-set that if you score more than the other team, you’re going to win. That if you believe in your leader and play with the conviction that the ends justify the means, and not the other way around, that you’re going to win. And win they did.

In an NFL season filled with the dizzying statistics of quarterbacks like Aaron Rogers and Drew Brees – both of whom are on their way to setting records – the headline above all headlines was Tim Tebow and the 2011 Denver Broncos.

The answer as to why is a very simple one. Because at the end of the day, when the lights in the stadium go down, and the fans go home, the only thing that matters to them is the W. Losers are forgotten, and the world loves winners.

So as 2011 makes its way to a close, let me and the Denver Broncos remind you of one of life’s simplest lessons. It’s not always about how you play the game, but whether you win or lose. Winning really isn’t everything. It just happens to be the only thing.

In 2012, I encourage you to throw away your playbook. Forget conventional wisdom. Don’t do things the “only” way they can be done. Think outside the box. Find what you do best, and do it.

And above all, win.

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