ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's been five years since the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50, but the passage of time isn't the only way to measure what has happened to the organization since.
Three head coaches. Nine starting quarterbacks. Five playoff misses. Four 10-loss seasons. Or just the growing tonnage of angst among the team's faithful about how much went right on Feb. 7, 2016, and is different now for the Broncos.
"Sometimes it's like it just happened, most of the time it feels like it just happened," said Aqib Talib, a cornerback on that Broncos team. "But then you look at everything, how much has gone on all over the place, s---, I'm retired, and it seems longer. It's always talent to get it back, you know, but talented teams have to care about each other and a lot of talented teams don't care about each other. We were talented and we cared about each other. You get that, it's a Super Bowl. They get it again, that's a Super Bowl."
There are certainly longer playoff droughts in pro football, but the Broncos' five-year absence feels like forever to those who have packed Empower Field at Mile High for decades.
During Pat Bowlen's three-decade tenure as owner, the Broncos had more Super Bowl trips than losing seasons. As Wiggins, Colorado, native and current Broncos guard Dalton Risner put it: "There are some teams that losing seasons is what they do. Here at the Broncos, we're used to winning Super Bowls. We're used to having winning football seasons, and we realized that. ... we have to be better."
For some, it may feel like just yesterday that the Broncos won the title by beating the Carolina Panthers. But consider quarterback Peyton Manning, who played in his final game in Super Bowl 50, is now expected to be fitted with a gold jacket in the Hall of Fame's Class of 2021.
"When you think about the memories, it seems like just a year or two ago," said former Broncos tackle Ryan Harris, who still lives in suburban Denver. "But then when you look at everything else, how many guys retired from that team, where guys are now, no playoffs since, it does seems a like a football generation, so to speak. And I think a lot of people here see it like that, an entire football generation."
When it comes to the Broncos returning to the playoffs, talent is at the top of the to-do list. Talent, better play at quarterback, third down, red zone, fewer turnovers are all tangible, right-there things that need repair. But the Super Bowl 50 team had another piece, one the Broncos will have to find.
"[Head coach Gary Kubiak] did a great job, from Day 1, giving us the ability to understand it would take everybody and we should always act like, work like, it will take everybody, and we did," Harris said. "Most selfless team I've ever seen. No divides, no small groups who didn't hang out with people outside of their group, no superstars who didn't hang out with anybody. Everybody engaged with each other and it was the coaching staff as well. And it's easy for people to say they're accountable, and act like they're helping other people be accountable, but every single person in that building was accountable. No egos, no whining about why is someone criticizing me or pointing out something that needs to be better. Just getting it done. Coaches too, not just players. Everybody listened to each other, respected each other. I was never around another team like that."
Talib added: "Kubes, it started with Kubes. He put his foot down when it needed to be put down, but he let us be the guys we were; it started with that. And we had offense hanging out with the defense, the group of people you put together. We all worked, we all accepted each other for who we were and we all cared what everybody was about. But it starts with everybody worked, you didn't have to beg nobody to do the work. We left our egos at the door -- and we had some egos, baby -- but we left our egos out of the football part and everybody knew it."
Yes, the Broncos had impeccable leadership in Manning and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. But the players and coaches who were there said it wasn't just that kind of leadership, but it was how the rest of the team, and the coaches, accepted each other and didn't shy from criticism. Criticism was both delivered and taken the right way.
Talib said he traces it to that team's somewhat unique ability and willingness to deal with each other as people first, players second -- without some of the more traditional offense vs. defense, veterans vs. youth divides that can crop up. Again talent, leadership, accountability and what Talib simple called "the mesh."
"What it is, is if you know a guy, really know a guy, you're all going to speak up when you need to if somebody isn't doing what needs to be done, it's an accountability issue," Talib said. "It's one of the major things, if guys don't know each other, they don't speak up most of the time, or if somebody speaks up the other guy doesn't listen because he doesn't know the other guy. I've been with teams where the coach don't even speak up because you don't have that vibe and that vibe gets you the trophy."
Former Broncos and current Chargers cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said: "That team worked, we hung out, we knew each other all the way through the locker room, Kubes was the exact right person to coach us and every day nobody let the standard go, we all lifted each other and held each other to that standard, man. Nobody said you shouldn't criticize me and all that and nobody criticized anybody without honesty and respect and if somebody said something we listened. Maybe we talked it out loud sometimes, but that respect -- you knew everybody cared about you."
Harris points to things like "Bus 3" or allowing players to bring their children and other family members to Saturday practices -- "they made chocolate chip pancakes for the kids -- c'mon, that's awesome, and it doesn't cost a coach discipline or authority, it's just human." Bus 3, Harris said, was the third bus in the line when the team went from the hotel to the stadium or the airport to the hotel and it was for everyone to mingle -- "only rule was no rookies, but that was that safe place where offense, defense, everybody just hung out, and it sounds like a little dumb thing, but I'm telling you I've been on teams where guys didn't sit next to anybody different on the bus all season."
The Super Bowl 50 box score shows that a team with 194 yards worth of offense -- only 104 net yards passing -- won a Super Bowl decisively with a historical performance from linebacker Von Miller. The league's No. 1 defense held the MVP that year -- Cam Newton -- without a touchdown.
Kubiak, who would step away from coaching a year later because of health issues, was the high priest of accountability -- a right-place, right-time coach whom his team thrived on.
"A lot of times you get on teams, and people think you don't mesh and that means you're beefin' or arguing all the time, but really it's you just stick with your cliques and you don't talk to, or know, anybody," Talib said. "You see that and that's it, you're on a bad team. ... If you're a team that goes to work, everybody head down, and just goes home, you're not winning the Super Bowl.
"I've said to my wife that the madder she gets about me talking to the guys, doing some dinners, the two seasons she's been the maddest, we were in the Super Bowl -- Broncos and Rams," Talib added with a laugh. "Talent? Always. Quarterback? Always. But it ain't everything, you need that mesh and that's damn hard, might be harder than the rest, but when you got it, it's special, man. That's how I'll always remember that [Broncos] team -- best mesh ever."