Two days before the Broncos broke their eight-game losing streak, cornerback Chris Harris trudged to the podium near the team’s practice field to finally reap one reward of a season he’d otherwise like to forget.
Harris, a seven-year veteran who made the leap from undrafted player to multiyear Pro Bowl selection, added another accolade to his name as the Broncos’ 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
“At least something positive comes of this season,” he said with a sly smile as he faced a crowd of cameras.
It’s been that kind of season.
Harris has never been one to mask his anger or elation, never been one to temper his opinion of opponents or even his own teammates, never been one to give the politically correct line when he’s thinking the opposite. Harris keeps it straight and keeps looking forward because doing so has carried him to near the top of the NFL ladder.
Although the Broncos (5-9) have bounced back to win two straight, they soon will spend another postseason on the couch, and for a veteran whose career was built on beating the odds, the past four months have been the most difficult to stomach.
“It’s definitely been hard,” he said. “You expect to go to the playoffs every year, so that’s been really disappointing, not being able to be in those big games this year. We’ve just been killing ourselves the whole year. If we didn’t do that, then we could have beaten anybody, really.”
To know how difficult it’s been for him, just watch. And listen.
A day before the Broncos jetted off to Indianapolis to snag their second win in five days, Harris sat at his locker thumbing through the same numbers that have left him shaking his head in disbelief for weeks now.
Since establishing himself as one of the NFL’s most recognizable and feared corners, Harris has become accustomed to serving as the do-it-all game-changer. Ask him to play slot and he will turn into the league’s best slot cornerback. Ask him to play outside, and he will shut it down. Ask him to essentially be everywhere at once in the defensive backfield — no problem.
But this year, as Denver’s offense morphed into a turnover machine and the defense was forced to often play from behind, opponents found new ways to attack the Broncos’ No-Fly Zone secondary. Why throw to your wide receivers covered by Harris and fellow Pro Bowler Aqib Talib when your tight ends and running backs can cause plenty of damage?
Just look at the numbers.
“Oh, yeah,” Harris said as he whipped out his phone that day. “I’ll show you.”
According to Stats Inc., Harris has been targeted only 55 times through 14 games, for an average of 3.9 per game. Last year he finished the season with 87 targets, an average of about 5.4 per game.
“I didn’t get enough targets to be able to change the game like I have in the past,” he said. “I still had nice numbers and still gave up less touchdowns than a lot of people.”
New scheme backfires
But fewer targets means fewer chances for game-changing plays, and fewer memorable moments means a drop in popularity for those key accolades. Harris was snubbed in Pro Bowl voting this year and named an alternate.
“I’m undrafted. It’s always going to be like that. I have to go above and beyond on everything that I do even though I have the stats. … I just see it as I don’t need to play the slot no more. That’s what it is. Playing in the slot, I think that really hurts me,” he said.
Even though he is the best slot corner in the league because of his versatility.
“But I think it hurts me when it comes to things like this,” he said. “I know I can go outside and have better numbers than I put up in the slot.”
This was not what Harris expected in August, when the Broncos began to install changes to their defense under first-year head coach Vance Joseph and first-year defensive coordinator Joe Woods. The idea was to have the defensive backs play more zone than man coverage and create more opportunities for interceptions.
Harris believed his numbers would skyrocket, along with the Broncos’ victories. Instead, he watched his targets tank and the Broncos squander a 3-1 start with repeated mistakes and an eight-game losing streak.
So he kept it real.
When general manager John Elway called the team soft, Harris responded: “Everybody in this organization is accountable for how we are playing right now.”
When scuffles broke out during a Thanksgiving practice, including one between Harris and rookie wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, Harris said: “It’s a respect thing. … You always respect the vets.”
And when the Broncos were blown out at Miami, Harris said: “We’re losing to teams that are not very good, in my opinion. That’s what makes it very hard. Ain’t no way the Dolphins were supposed to beat us like that.”
No sugar-coating necessary.
“You practice how you play. I still believe that,” Harris said. “These young guys, they’re not as hungry as I was. I hope to see that. I mean, that’s what we need. We need some guys that are hungry like I was. I think I was just very determined, on a whole other level, just to play in this league.”
Climbing the ladder
After the Broncos’ Week 15 win in Indianapolis, Harris spent back-to-back evenings in the community, raising money for his foundation that helps underserved youth, and taking kids from Denver Children’s Home and Salvation Army on a Christmas shopping trip at a local Walmart.
This is how he’s returned from most games, win or loss.
This also is how he’s matching his all-pro and Pro Bowl designations with off-field honors, with titles such as Ed Block Courage Award winner and Darrent Williams Good Guy Award winner and Community Ambassador (twice) and now Walter Payton Man of the Year.
“Chris is a team guy. His role on our team is as a leader and as a playmaker,” Joseph said. “It’s unbelievable the things he’s done in the community. He takes pride in that. And he doesn’t do it for the awards or the attention. He does it because he cares about the community and the kids in the community. He’s always pushing his teammates to do more and more in the community, and that’s a special guy to have in your locker room.”
In a losing season, those hours off the field often go unnoticed — something Harris is accustomed to at this point. But as the season draws to a close, Harris still has his eyes forward. He’s thought about the changes ahead, and how different the locker room may look in a couple of months.
“Definitely now. Now that we all know that everybody is under evaluation to try to be here,” he said. “Guys want to stay here, some guys might need a new start somewhere else. So everybody is getting evaluated and that’s one thing you look at especially when you have a bad season.”
He’s thought about what might happen to the remaining players of the No-Fly Zone after it lost a founding member in safety T.J. Ward before the season.
“I mean, shoot, it was pretty much over once T.J. left,” Harris said. “Really me and Aqib kept it here a little bit with Robe (Bradley Roby) and Stew (Darian Stewart). But it’s not the same as it was with the Super Bowl and past couple of years. Never know. I think it might come to an end soon.”
He’s also thought about the highest rungs he’s yet to cross in the NFL.
“Just keep climbing the ladder, just keep trying to be great — try to see my name in the Hall of Fame, the Ring of Fame,” he said. “I just want to maximize my time here on the football field and after that, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can coach, I can do a lot of things. But I’m just trying to maximize everything I can do right here and now.”