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  • Jeff LegwoldESPN Senior Writer Close
    • Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
    • Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
    • Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
      of Selectors since 1999

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Denver Broncos sifted through the playoff miss that was their 2016 season, hindsight provided a clear-eyed review.

As he leaned back in a chair, days before Super Bowl LI and a few weeks after he announced he was stepping away from coaching, Gary Kubiak said there were plenty of reasons for the Broncos' first stay-at-home postseason since 2010. There were injuries, inconsistencies on the offensive line and with the run defense. But as he reviewed those reasons, he added one to punctuate the sentence.

"And when Peyton retired, that's a big presence around your team," Kubiak said. "I thought we have a strong locker room, good leaders, good character, but Peyton is a big void."

How could it not be a void? The Broncos didn't sign Peyton Manning because he was just another guy in a helmet.

No, Manning was a no-doubt Hall of Famer before he ever threw a pass for the Broncos, before he helped the team win four division titles, go to two Super Bowls and set the league's single-season scoring record along the way. After he retired, things were different and the team's offense never really worked through it.

Now it will be the Broncos defense's turn. DeMarcus Ware took to social media Monday to announce his retirement.

Ware, too, had that Hall of Fame air about him before he ever put on a Broncos' helmet. But he was part of three of those division titles in Denver and resurrected some of his best football in the team's postseason run in 2015, finishing with a win in Super Bowl 50.

Oh, and he just might have saved Von Miller's career. Miller looked like an immensely gifted player who had lost his way off the field in 2013 when he was suspended for six games as his name kept popping up in off-the-field stories.

"I have so many reasons to thank him," Miller has said. "… I can't even count the ways DeMarcus has helped me. Just being around him, seeing how he does it, on the field, off the field, you can't ever say thank you enough for that."

Ware, who will not be in the Broncos' locker room this season, would have been looking at a reduced role if he re-signed with the Broncos as an unrestricted free agent.

The Broncos believe it's Shane Ray's time. The former first-round pick has waited his turn and enters his third season carrying the expectations of an impact player as a starter.

But the Broncos wanted Ware, a team captain in each of his three seasons, back if they could agree on the money and the role. Broncos football boss John Elway had asked Ware to take a pay cut last season. Ware said at the Super Bowl that Broncos coach Vance Joseph had told him he was "part of the equation," but Ware added at the time he wanted to see what that meant specifically.

It's always difficult for an injured player to be a leader, because as Broncos' Ring of Famer Rod Smith has always said "you can't lead in the training room. I had the same brain when I was hurt, but I wasn't on the field. You have to be on the field, guys have to see with their eyes before they hear you with their ears. That's just how it is."

Ware missed 11 games combined in the past two seasons, including six in 2016. But in '15 he returned after five missed games because of back troubles to do some of his best work in the team's playoff run, including two sacks in the Super Bowl.

Ware certainly wasn't the loudest voice in a defense full of Alpha players with Pro Bowl résumés and personalities to match. But Ware had what the most respected players have — the reset button.

Ware was the defense's Manning in many ways. Kubiak has openly said he essentially handed the enforcement of the team's off-the-field behavior to Ware and Manning in that 2015 postseason. And those two players kept one of the most dialed-in teams in the franchise's history focused until it won the trophy.

Many of those players remain, like Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. But it will be different for them in the season to come. Especially for Miller, who's best work as a pro has come because of daily interactions with Ware. Ware's absence will leave a void.

And now the defense will have to fill it better than the team's offense did.

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