Inside the Denver Broncos' building, a small but lasting memory still lingers with many players and coaches who believe this year might be different. It is a recollection of something that occurred during one of Gary Kubiak's first days on the practice field as the team's head coach earlier this year.
Kubiak gathered his team and explained a new tradition called "Wise Words." In essence, it very simply provides a nice chance for players, coaches or others in the organization to speak a few prepared thoughts at the end of most practices.
When Kubiak first introduced this new tradition, he got it started with the example that very literally set the tone for the coming months.
"Life is fair -- keep working," Kubiak told the team.
He then briefly expounded on this glass-half-full mindset, noting that if you grind and you work hard and you respect the game, things usually work out. And given how the Broncos have fought their way to a 4-0 start, Kubiak's words have taken on new life within those walls.
"It was brilliant," said one person who heard the speech. "So simple but so impacting. I think it's something that you see in our team's play and attitude."
But this is not merely a story about Kubiak's ability to inspire a team, to bring everyone together as a family and to empower their thoughts. It is about a team's quest to overcome a label that says it is unable to grit its way to wins in tough situations.
The first four games of 2015 have drastically changed the narrative about the Broncos and their legendary quarterback. Some might be prone to tag Denver as the team with the least-impressive 4-0 start of the six remaining undefeated teams. Buried beneath that belief, however, is a squad that is doing something so critical.
It doesn't just build momentum. More importantly, it builds mental toughness.
Last year at this time, Denver was beginning a stretch of blowout wins marked by huge offensive numbers. It was same old, same old, with Peyton Manning cruising through the regular season. And while that's certainly not a bad thing, you could argue that the Broncos, and Manning specifically, might benefit more by winning in their 2015 fashion.
Whether they're part of a patchwork offensive line that is playing better each week or a defense that is looking like one of the most dominant of the decade, players also are taking on a critical level of accountability. So how much of the credit goes to someone like Kubiak? Well, players win games. But Kubiak is certainly getting major props internally.
Three members of the organization interviewed for this story say Kubiak most certainly has full ownership of this team in a way that hasn't been felt since Manning's arrival in 2012. While the outside narrative continues to hold that Manning calls the shots, that's far from the feeling inside the building.
That is not to suggest Kubiak is bossing Manning around -- nor does it mean there's any tension. More simply, it is Kubiak who is making decisions like the one to rest Manning during Wednesday practices (something Manning might resist, due to his perfectionist and possessive mentality) in order to preserve him for a late-season run.
Coaches are empowering players in Denver -- they just aren't letting them run the show.
Ward instead recognized a stacked formation by the Vikings, and since he'd been previously playing a lot of one-on-one defense, he showed that look before sweeping around the edge, freelancing on his own, to make the play. It is precisely the type of gamble defensive coordinator Wade Phillips respects and desires.
And it goes back to that idea that the Broncos know, when games are on the line, they have what it takes to muster up one last big play to close it out.
"We're making plays to win games, and that's what you've got to do," Ward said. "We talked as a defense on the sideline. DeMarcus [Ware] brought us all up and said, 'We have to make a play. We have to win this game, and if that ball gets on the ground again, we have to recover it this time.'
"And that's what happened."
Yes, the Broncos undoubtedly have their flaws. Yes, Manning looks very near the verge of retirement seemingly more often than not these days. Yes, questions about this squad will still linger, until it proves resilient enough to handle a postseason run.
It looks like a team that took Kubiak's early wisdom to heart, a team that continues to grind and work and believe that its efforts will pay off when the game is on the line. It looks more like a team with the heart to keep this train moving forward.
"Life is fair," Kubiak told them. "Keep working."
They're winning, too.