SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- He plays football with the subtlety of a 747 charging down a runway in a driving snowstorm, a physical corner who runs his mouth, gets in opponents' faces and backs down to nobody. And long before Aqib Talib developed into the cocksure Pro Bowl performer who'll attempt to help the Denver Broncos' "No Fly Zone" ground Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, he stood out for his earnest commitment to the art of sass.
"I got in trouble one time ... fourth grade [or] fifth grade," Talib recalled Tuesday. "We had to write a little one-page thing on what we were gonna be when we grow up, so I put, 'I'm gonna be an NFL player.'
"My teacher told me, 'Seriously, now. We're writing about really serious jobs.' So I said, 'Just 'cause you're not that talented and you're not going to the NFL, that don't mean I ain't going.' Got me a little in-school suspension for that. I kind of talked back to her, I guess. She pulled me into the office; I'll never forget it. And then I said it again: 'Just 'cause you're not going to the NFL don't mean I'm not going.' "
Yet for all the swagger Talib and his fellow Broncos defensive backs exude -- and they've certainly earned the right to exude it throughout a stellar 2015 campaign -- he stopped short of proclaiming that the No Fly Zone has surpassed the Seattle Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" as the sport's preeminent secondary. While walking through a parking lot outside the team's Santa Clara hotel in the shadow of Levi's Stadium, where Sunday's showdown will be staged, Talib smiled at the latest utterance of the question I've been posing since late October.
"Nah, you have to win [on Sunday]," Talib said, shaking his head. "You don't get to say that and you don't get no nickname -- you don't get nothing -- unless you win that 'ship."
In other words, the championship earned two years ago by the Seahawks (after a 43-8 thrashing of the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII), followed a year later by the heartbreaking defeat that saw Seattle come within a yard of a second consecutive crowning achievement, has earned the Legion of Boom at least a temporary exemption from Talib's lip -- a development that, in turn, earns the approval of the 'Hawks' own impudent Pro Bowl cornerback, Richard Sherman.
"That's a man that knows the game," Sherman said in response to Talib's quote, before expressing his admiration for his Broncos counterparts. "Those guys are fun to watch. They are some dogs." Last month, the Seahawks got sliced up from the outset of their Divisional Round playoff defeat to the Panthers, allowing the game's first 31 points before a second-half rally closed the final margin to 31-24. The Broncos know they'd be hard-pressed to survive a similar scenario: While Peyton Manning is only two years removed from a record-setting regular season in which he threw 55 touchdown passes, he's a far less potent quarterback at age 39, as he prepares for what could be the final game of his tremendous career. Consequently, this is a much different Denver team than the one that played for a title two seasons ago. These Broncos are carried by the league's top-ranked defense, evoking memories of the "Orange Crush" glory days of the late '70s.
And while it was Denver's potent pass rush that stood out in the 20-18 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the No Fly Zone -- led by Talib and fellow Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr., and safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart -- has been responsible for most of the season's most memorable plays.
It began in Denver's season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, with Talib returning an interception 51 yards for a touchdown and Stewart making a game-saving end-zone pick with 28 seconds remaining. The following week in Kansas City, nickel cornerback Bradley Roby scooped up a Jamaal Charles fumble and returned it 21 yards for a game-winning touchdown with 27 seconds remaining against the Chiefs. Two weeks later, Ward forced a Teddy Bridgewater fumble on a safety blitz with 29 seconds remaining to secure a 23-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. The next week, Harris' 74-yard pick-six gave the Broncos a 16-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
And so on, and so on, and so on ...
When I showed up at the Broncos' training facility in late October to interview the No Fly Zone on a raised balcony outside the team's field house, Talib and his secondary mates were understandably sky high. As I explored the origins of the group's nickname (inspired by Harris' dramatic "incomplete" signals following pass breakups) and drew out the air-traffic controller analogies, each of the four starters played along.
"When you see us, you'd better land," Harris said, laughing. "It's bad weather."
Interjected Talib: "Land now."
"Emergency landing," Harris said, with Ward and Stewart nodding their approval. "Buckle up."
Even Stewart, the quartet's newest and most soft-spoken member, got into the act, in response to my question as to whether Denver's was the league's best secondary.
"Without a doubt," he said.
Added Talib, who was feeling a bit bolder back then: "Yeah, we're the league's best secondary. The numbers say it, and we feel like we're playing the best right now."
The Broncos would finish the regular season with the league's stingiest pass defense -- by far -- allowing a mere 199.6 yards a game through the air. The heroics continued in the postseason, with Talib's breakup of a Tom Brady two-point conversion pass (leading to Roby's interception) clinching the victory.
Then again, the No Fly Zone was dominant back in training camp, too.
"It wasn't easy -- not one day," recalled Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos' star receiver. "I feel like they're the best in the game. They go man-for-man every game, and they back down from no one." The unit was assembled in the wake of back-to-back postseason fiascos, beginning with the 2012 Divisional Round upset defeat to the Ravens in which Joe Flacco forced overtime on a stunning 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds remaining in regulation -- a desperation heave that inexplicably went over the head of out-of-position safety Rahim Moore. The following season ended in the aforementioned Super Bowl XLVIII disaster against the Seahawks, a game that convinced executive vice president John Elway he had to toughen up his defense.
That led to the free-agent signings of Talib, who'd spent the previous season-and-a-half with the Patriots, and Ward, a Cleveland Browns standout, both of whom would earn Pro Bowl selections in Year 1 as Broncos. And Harris, who'd torn his ACL in the Broncos' 2013 Divisional Round playoff victory over the San Diego Chargers, came back even better in 2014.
"Stew's gonna knock some sense into you, for real," Talib said of the free safety. "But he's the guy who's gonna know everything about how we're supposed to line up, and he stays calm, cool and collected."
That's in sharp contrast to the equally aggressive Ward, a strong safety Talib likened to the Tasmanian Devil.
"He's the spark," Harris said of Ward. "If we're not awake, he's gonna wake us up, man. He's gonna give a speech before we come out; he gets us going."
Added Stewart: "There's no telling what he's gonna say, really. He's gonna make you high; you're going to be turned up. And definitely, he's our enforcer: People know that when they run the ball, or somebody catches it down the middle, they're gonna get banged.
When Ward gets overly hyped, he relies on Talib to calm him down. "Sometimes, I'll be flipping out, and 'Lib will be the guy who brings me back. He's like the uncle of the group."
That's a far cry from Talib's persona as a self-proclaimed wild child during his first four-plus seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who selected him in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. After a long string of off-the-field trouble, Talib was traded to the Patriots midway through the 2012 season, his career at a crossroads.
"I've come a long, long way," he said. "I remember the days when I got to the league, after practice I'd head straight out of the house, get back in at maybe 1 in the morning and set three alarms making sure I'd wake up and get to work. [Patriots coach Bill Belichick] definitely took a chance on me, and I'm very thankful. It was just a long way from football player to professional football player."
Back when Talib was a junior at Kansas, he was struck by the maturity of a Jayhawks freshman who joined him in the secondary: Harris, with whom he would reunite seven seasons later after signing a free-agent deal with the Broncos.
"The first day we put on pads [at Kansas], our starting corner shattered his hand," Talib recalled. "So lo and behold, we've got this 18-year-old who's got to play now. He stepped in and did about as good a job as you could do.
"Chris, he's got an old soul. And he's the most competitive little person that I've ever seen. He knows what coach is gonna call before coach calls it, man."
Added Stewart: "He's a studyholic."
As Harris, who has fought through a painful shoulder injury during the Broncos' postseason run, attempts to crack the code while preparing for the league's top scoring offense on Super Sunday, he's also mindful of history: With a Lombardi Trophy, the No Fly Zone can join the Legion of Boom in any conversation breaking down the elite units of this era.
"Hey, right now, we're in the Bowl, man," Harris said. "But the Legion of Boom, they've got a ring, and almost got a second one, so that's what we need before we can even talk about those things. Hopefully, we can get back to this topic after the game."
And if Sunday's Ultimate Game ends with orange and blue confetti falling from the Santa Clara sky, don't be surprised if Talib is the Broncos defender uttering the loudest -- and sassiest -- words of all.