DENVER — On Thursday, reflecting back on his brief time in Denver, Melvin Gordon described it as one of his most "difficult years" in the NFL.
This was primarily a reference to the role he sought, the player he was attempting to replace, an off-field issue and the inability to connect with fans in sparsely populated or empty stadiums.
Gordon signed with the Broncos 13 months ago, and Broncos Country didn't quite know what to make of him. He made the Pro Bowl with the Chargers and averaged 50 receptions over the previous three seasons.
However, the team already had a Pro Bowler in Phillip Lindsay, a homegrown kid from Denver South and the University of Colorado. Gordon seemed like an odd fit, even as offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur promised the two would share the field at times and complement each other.
"It was probably one of my most difficult seasons. I am not going to lie. Just 'cause a lot of fans and a lot of people weren’t too happy with me coming in and Phil wanting to get paid and everything like that. I was like, 'Look man, I had no parts in that.' I wanted to be here, and they wanted me to be here. It was a mutual thing and it kind of just happened. It was tough, man, because I felt like a lot of people didn’t accept me," said Gordon, talking for the first time this offseason in an exclusive interview with Denver7.
"It was kind of like, I am from Wisconsin, and if I had gotten drafted to The Pack. I understand how people feel because it would be the same way for me if I was in Green Bay. There was never any hard feelings, but shoot, at least give me a shot. And it sucked because the [fans] weren't there [in the stands], so they were not there in person to appreciate what I do. And with the COVID stuff and not really being able to see Denver as a whole and spend that extra time with the teammates outside of the facility, it just made things a lot tougher. So it was that on top of that on top of that on top of that on top of that. So mentally, it was like, I definitely was challenged."
After an uneven start, which included a critical fumble in the season opener and a missed game against New England because of a sore throat, Gordon gained traction. He averaged 4.98 yards per carry over the final eight games and led the Broncos with 10 touchdowns. He began to feel more tethered to the locker room as the season advanced.
"I made it premium to get close with the guys on the team. I knew I had to play every game with my heart and really earn the guys’ trust. Nothing is given, everything is earned, and I understand that. Regardless of what Pro Bowl I went to, you are on a new team and you have to show what you've got. That was my really main focus. I would have liked if the fans liked me, but I understood the situation," Gordon said. "I stopped really focusing on that and focused on what I can do to help the team win and what I can do to build my relationship with teammates. The play just started going up when I put my focus on the right things."
Gordon also faced an off-field issue as he was charged with a DUI and speeding on Oct. 14. He pleaded guilty to reckless driving and the DUI charges were dismissed by the Denver District Attorney due to evidentiary concerns on March 10.
Gordon faced a three-game suspension by the NFL if convicted and the possibility the Broncos might move on from him.
"Man, I was super relieved. I am not going to lie to you. Countless nights of no sleep, and man, it was always on the back of my mind," Gordon said.
"I am putting in all this work, and you know I went on a limb. I was like, 'I am not going to just take a three-game suspension. I am going to try fight this thing.' I don’t want to miss any games. I don’t want to miss no games this year. I don’t miss no games next year. Those three games sitting out, I could probably help make a difference. I want to fight this thing to be out there with my teammates. And it happened and worked in my favor. I am just so happy about it because there were a lot of people disappointed. Now, when everything comes out and my name gets cleared, hopefully people can change their thoughts about me and that whole situation, you know?"
While Gordon became the Broncos' most productive offensive player, he did not reach his goals. He fell short of 1,000 yards and believes at age 28, his best football remains ahead of him.
"Yeah, I just want to come out and be the best back. I would love the rushing title, you know what I mean? I want to be the best back," Gordon said. "I feel like I am so overlooked. Whatever that case may be because we didn’t get a lot of TV time with the Chargers and last year with splitting the ball and the fans not being there because of COVID, I don't know. But I get overlooked a lot and I am kind of sick of it."
If Gordon achieves his ambitious goal, it will go a long way in satisfying a burning desire: A return to the playoffs. He has reached the postseason once in six years, in 2018.
The Broncos have not advanced to the playoffs since winning Super Bowl 50, tied for the NFL's third longest active drought.
"I want to get to the playoffs. I want that Super Bowl. I am going into my seventh year. I want to taste that, I want to feel that. I want to be a champion. I didn’t win state in high school. The last year I ever won a thing was my first year playing football years ago," Gordon said. "It’s like I had [former Wisconsin teammate and friend] James White, he won it a few times. Tom Brady has [seven] — God dog, can I get just half a ring or something? I just want to be a champion."
The Broncos' belief in a return to relevance starts with a reshaped defense. General manager George Paton, who had a good meeting with Gordon recently, added free agent cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller, secured safety Justin Simmons and defensive end Shelby Harris on long-term deals and brought back safety Kareem Jackson. He also exercised Von Miller's option, something that did not go unnoticed by Gordon.
"I am glad that Von is back. I am going to follow everything he does. He has tasted that taste everybody wants. He knows that it takes to get there. He leads, and we are going to follow," said Gordon of Miller, one of two players remaining from the Broncos Super Bowl 50 victory over Carolina. "I am hungry for a ring. I want it bad. At this point, it’s steps. I just want to get to the playoffs and see what happens."
A year later since he signed everything is different for Gordon. He is the clear No. 1 on the depth chart ahead of Mike Boone.
While the Broncos have opted out of voluntary workouts — "We are pros. I think we understand that we have to work out. If you love your job, and it means a lot to you you don’t need coaches or anyone else telling you what you need to do as a player be successful and get ready," Gordon said — the running back plans to train in Denver following mandatory mini camp to accelerate his acclimation to the altitude before training camp. His status as the top back offers a chance for him to improve his production and raise his volume.
"It’s not like being the '1' is something I am not used to. I was that pretty much my whole time with the Chargers. It's not like I am going into unfamiliar territory. Now, I know the guys. I have built a relationship with guys. I feel more comfortable speaking my mind on certain things," Gordon said. "There were certain moments where I spoke up and said some things to try to help motivate and get the team moving in the right direction. But there’s always the feeling as the new guy you have to earn your keep before you tell a whole bunch of guys how you feel, you know? We bled and sweat together. We definitely had a down year, and we fought together at our worst. I definitely want to be one of the leaders to step up this year at our best because that’s definitely what we are about to bring this year... I really feel like we can be special."
Watch the full conversation in the player below: