ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tender knee and all, Brian Dawkins has a bounce in his step again.
After sitting out for three consecutive games, the emotional leader of the Denver Broncos is raring to go. Dawkins was ducking and dancing to the music at practice, as antsy as a rookie even though he's in his 15th season.
And there's no sign of him slowing down, either.
Despite a season full of nagging knee injuries, Dawkins fully anticipates returning for another year.
Not that he's focusing on that just yet.
There's still games to be played, and being sidelined has only fueled the hard-hitting safety even more, especially in light of the team's worst slide in four decades.
"Sitting back and having to watch my guys out there, going through what they're going through, and not being in it with them, it's a tough pill to swallow," said Dawkins, who participated in practice Thursday on a limited basis but plans to play Sunday against the Houston Texans. "To be out there with them again, it's a relief for me, a tremendous relief."
The Broncos (3-11) have missed his fiery leadership. From his frenzied pregame dance to his chatter in the huddle, Dawkins knows what buttons to push to ignite his teammates.
Dawkins might have lost a step, but his leadership remains as respected as ever.
"He is a true leader," Broncos defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale said. "When he speaks, coaches, everybody listens. That's because of his play and his career, but also the person that he is.
"He's beat up just from the season, but I feel better walking in the stadium knowing that he's playing."
Dawkins performed at a Pro Bowl level last season, anchoring the defense and finishing with 116 tackles, second most on the team.
This season, his body has betrayed him. He sat out two games early in the season and three more after having his leg rolled over in a pile during a Nov. 28 game against the St. Louis Rams.
Does Dawkins see the situation the same way?
"I wish we could look at it like that," he said. "It's been a tough one, all around. A lot of different things that have happened. The bottom line is it's a profession that I've been blessed to play. I will never take that for granted."
Dawkins was asked every way possible if he planned to return for a 16th season. And each time he said that was his intention.
"You guys are thinking about this more than I am," Dawkins said, grinning. "I'm thinking about coming back and being a Denver Bronco. Whatever happens after that, happens after that."
Another defensive coordinator might be on tap, especially if the organization makes wholesale changes in the wake of coach Josh McDaniels' firing Dec. 6.
However, Bailey and Dawkins each stood up for Martindale, even though the Broncos have one of the worst defenses -- statistically -- in the league.
"Some of the things that has happened in the game, on the field, has been a result of mental mistakes by us," Dawkins said. "It has nothing to do with Wink and his play-calling. He's a guy you believe in, and when he tells us specific things going into a game, a lot of times those things show up.
"It's up to us to make sure we cut back on the mental mistakes."
Martindale appreciated the support.
"Means a lot," he said.
As he spoke, the theme from "Shaft" began blaring from the speakers.
"I'm not singing," said Martindale, the fifth different defensive coordinator for Denver in as many years. "There's a lot of good people, good pros on this team that we'd like another shot at it, but that's out of our control. We've got two games left, and that's in our control. Right now, we're focused on Houston."
And Dawkins couldn't be more jazzed to take the field again.
"I love to play this game. I love to do what I do," Dawkins said. "Regardless of the record, once we're between those lines, I'm going to be playing my behind off for these guys."
Notes:Broncos K Matt Prater (groin) was placed on season-ending injured reserve. ... RB Knowshon Moreno (ribs) took part in practice on a limited basis, along with QB Kyle Orton (ribs) and WR Demaryius Thomas (ankle). ... Asked if rookie QB Tim Tebow puts the team in the best position to be successful, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said: "The organization has made the decision, and that's what it is, and we're going to move forward with that. We've made the decision, and we're not looking back; we're doing whatever we can to win this weekend."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press