By Jeff Darlington | Published Jan. 8, 2015
Von Miller sent the text on March 12, a burst of digital data that immediately convinced his teammates something special might be on deck. You could even make the case it marked the moment Miller began to escape the funk of a season before.
DeMarcus Ware, a seven-time Pro Bowl pass rusher who'd just incredibly hit the open market, was about to sign a free-agent contract with the Denver Broncos -- and Miller was too excited to make his neighbors along the defensive line wait for coaches to relay the news.
"D-Ware is coming to Denver!" Miller texted, a message since recalled by defensive end Malik Jackson. "We can be the best defensive line in the NFL. We've got the pieces to do it!"
By all means, Ware's 117 career sacks carried enough weight to get Miller fired up. But Miller wasn't merely inspired by the stat line. It went deeper.
This was personal. This was perfect.
"I knew there was a chance we were going to get either DeMarcus, Jared Allen or Julius Peppers (all free agents at the time)," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "I knew we were going to target someone. And all of those guys are great players, but when we got DeMarcus ...
"I immediately just thought about how DeMarcus is Von's idol."
Miller's road to NFL stardom was indeed inspired by Ware, stretching back to Miller's days as a high school football player in Texas, when he'd wrap thick, white athletic tape around his wrists to mimic Ware's habits as a Cowboys superstar.
And now, in need of a different type of motivation while headed down a different type of road, Miller would once again look to Ware for inspiration -- and he'd find it in the most up-close-and-personal manner fathomable.
"I don't know what I needed -- but I know that having DeMarcus has definitely helped me out 100 percent," Miller said. "God works in mysterious ways, you know. DeMarcus came to the Broncos at a great time in my life for me. The timing couldn't have been better."
After two seasons of pass-rushing brilliance on the field, complemented by a quirky and likeable demeanor away from it, Miller's career took its first major blow in the summer of 2013, when he was suspended for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
The result? He'd have to miss the first six games of the upcoming season. He was also placed in Stage 3 of the league's program and policy for substances of abuse, meaning if he violated the policy again, he'd be suspended for at least one year. Miller's public persona subsequently took a hit, causing him to quickly retreat into the shadows of a locker room once brightened by his presence.
This one stung. It stung a significantly hyped team, suddenly without a player responsible for 18.5 sacks a season earlier. It stung a fan base that temporarily lost one of its most popular characters. And it stung a player who'd already achieved major accolades, like earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2011.
Miller returned to action in mid-October and immediately made his presence felt as an all-around force, routinely pressuring opposing quarterbacks, while also stopping the run and proving highly effective in pass coverage. Then in Week 16, he was sidelined yet again, this time by a torn ACL, ending a trying season.
"Would I have liked to not go through that stuff? Most definitely," Miller said. "But all of that stuff has just made me a better person. Like, I am 10 times better than I was my rookie season in the NFL. Even my second year. There's so much stuff that I'm aware of. I know how to be a pro. I know the dos and don'ts.
"I wouldn't want to go through it again, but I am a totally different person. So I'm grateful for everything that happened."
Miller is grateful, he says, in large part due to the entrance of someone who took him under his wing and guided him gently toward a more proper path. Yes, he is grateful for Ware.
"I now have a guy who is going to show me every single day how to do it," Miller said. "It's just been a true blessing.
"It's just ... it's just what I needed."
During a practice three weeks ago, deep into the season, when players routinely reach a point of mental and physical fatigue, Ware did something that could've been perceived by the untrained eye as a mistake: He jumped offsides.
But this was no mistake. It was intentional. The extra split-second gave Ware just enough of a head start to beat Miller to the quarterback -- leaving Miller, who was unaware of Ware's advantage, to believe a guy seven years his senior had moved faster than him."
"The smallest things," said Ware, laughing as he revealed one of the little ways he attempts to get the most out of his young protégé.
Here's another one: When the defense is practicing third-down pass-rushing situations, coaches will track how many times defenders knock the football loose, referring to each instance as a "tomahawk." And if Ware, for example, logs six tomahawks on a day when Miller has seven, the veteran will secretly tell the coach to credit him with eight on the board where players can see it.
"He's going to come in the next day fired up," Ware said.
It might sound like a fun-loving approach from Ware, but it's actually far more serious. A way to motivate Miller on the football field? Yes, but this is also where the teachings of becoming a true professional away from the field begin. This, Ware says, is about driving Miller. It is about pounding into his mind an understanding that what Miller's done so far is merely a fraction of what he's capable of doing.
Before Ware even arrived in Denver, he'd seen footage of Miller that reminded him of his own idol, Hall of Fame pass rusher Derrick Thomas. Once he became Miller's teammate, Ware realized the comparison was legitimate.
"I'm like, 'Dang, he's faster than me, he's quicker than me,' " Ware said. "I mean, I'm being straight up. This guy can be one of the best pass rushers to ever play the game."
Those are powerful words coming from Ware, a four-time first-team All-Pro who just posted his eighth double-digit-sack season -- words he still stands behind after seeing Miller in the training room, rehabilitating his injured knee every day last offseason, starting at 6:30 a.m.
I don't know what I needed -- but I know that having DeMarcus has definitely helped me out 100 percent.
That dedication made Ware want to mentor Miller.
"I sit back and think about it all the time, and I stay on it," Ware said of his belief that Miller can go down as one of the best ever. "I'm like, 'Listen, this is what you need to do. Where is Miller Time at? Is he going to come out today?'
"If it's practice, I say the same thing. If it's in a game, I say the same thing. Even if we're watching tape, I'm like, 'Where is that move at? Where is that guy?' Because I know how special he is. I know how he can turn it on and be a guy that can't be stopped. And I mean, that's why I feel like I'm here: To push him because I see how great he is."
One member of the Broncos staff says, even this late in the season, he continues to see Ware and Miller together, away from the rest of the team, working on intricate pass-rushing techniques. That same staff member noted, "Von is playing at another level right now. He's on the brink of becoming a very special player."
A quick scan of the NFL's statistical leaders might raise a question about this duo: If they've been so effective, if Miller is really as talented as Ware says he is, why isn't either one higher on the sack list?
Five players had more sacks in the regular season than Miller's 14. And Ware finished tied for 15th in the NFL with 10 sacks. But Knighton says those numbers don't tell the whole story. He believes, unequivocally, that Miller and Ware comprise the best pass-rushing tandem in the NFL, one that will inspire postseason success starting Sunday against Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
"It kind of hurts us that we get so many three-and-outs," Knighton said. "If we didn't get three-and-outs, and (the defense was) playing 70 plays, 80 plays per game, they'd have 18 or 19 sacks each. They'd be competing for the top.
"But we get off the field, and our offense has been running the ball, controlling the clock. So statistics might not show they are the best duo in the league -- but they definitely are."
Knighton's argument -- that Miller and Ware are victims of their own success -- does actually hold some water. The Broncos' defense forced 60 three-and-outs this season, leading the NFL in that category. And more important than the stats, Knighton says, is the impact two elite pass rushers have on offensive game plans.
"It brings fear to the league," Knighton said. "It brings fear to offenses. They need to get the ball out faster, run the ball more."
Said Miller: "We feel like if we play the way we're supposed to play -- dominant, fanatical and relentless -- and we make the plays we're supposed to make ... me and (Ware) can single-handedly take us to where we want to go."
Where do they want to go?
Well, the answer to that question helps explain why Ware ended up in Denver in the first place.
Ware always thought his career would end where it began: In Dallas, with the Cowboys, who originally selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
But issues with three elements -- money, health and effectiveness -- collided last year. A plethora of injuries sapped Ware's production in 2013 (see: a career-low six sacks), and with the veteran carrying a $16 million salary cap hit on the verge of his 32nd birthday, the Cowboys cut bait. The split was amicable -- or at least as amicable as it could have been. However, for a player who had been the defensive face of the franchise for the better part of a decade, the release still left Ware in his own brief lull. It left him wondering, for a short moment after an unproductive year, what was next.
"Sometimes, you need a spark," Ware said. "And I feel like us teaming up and being on the same team, it was that spark that we needed."
Yes, perhaps in some way, even if not to the magnitude that Ware has helped Miller, the favor has been reciprocated.
"It sort of gave me a little rebirth in me," Ware said. "These young guys have that fire, that tenacity. I see that in Von every day."
Or in Miller's terms: "He doesn't always have to be like the old grandpa in our locker room."
Who knows how much longer Ware has left to play? Who knows if he'll stay in Denver for the rest of his career, if he'll see the end of a three-year, $30 million deal? Those are questions for another day, especially since he's playing at a high level right now.
His notable impact on the Broncos' defense aside, what Ware has done for Miller's career might have already made his signing a resounding success. But Ware, nonetheless, wants his legacy in Denver to be about more than that.
He wants it to include a Super Bowl ring.
If the Broncos can defeat the Colts on Sunday, they'll be one win shy of a return to the Super Bowl -- where, one year ago, Denver collectively learned that perhaps defense does still win championships.
Should they advance that far, they'll have two assets, among others, that weren't available for last year's embarrassing loss to the Seahawks: Ware and Miller.
"We want to win a Super Bowl," Miller said. "And we're going to do everything in our power to get it done."
Just imagine that for a moment. Imagine if the Broncos do win the Super Bowl. Imagine if, during the postgame celebration, somebody hands Miller the Lombardi Trophy. Imagine if Miller then gets to pass that piece of hardware to his idol, who ultimately helped him get to that stage, both as a childhood inspiration and a teammate.
"I mean, it would be ... It'd be surreal," Miller said.
But so many aspects of this situation are already surreal. It is surreal that, in a time of need for Miller, Ware even became available to sign with any team -- let alone this team. It is surreal that two players -- the only two players in at least 20 years to have a season with 15 sacks, 25 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles -- could ever wind up on the same roster with plenty still left in the tank.
So already, in many ways, the surreal has become very real.
It's now up to Ware and Miller, together as teammates, to chase a little bit more.
"Everything that we have now is championship-like style," Miller said. "It would be great to win the Super Bowl -- not only for DeMarcus -- but for the whole organization. It would be the ultimate gift to give back for all that they've given me."