T.J. Ward, conscientious headhunter
The former Broncos enforcer opens up on everything: his 2015 defense, lighting up receivers, his 10+ concussions, why he believes the NFL could soon look like rugby & being blackballed by the league.
He was an enforcer on one of the last violent secondaries of our time.
From Cleveland to Denver, T.J. Ward was one of the most feared safeties in pro football. He made two Pro Bowls (2013, 2014), was a second team All-Pro and then had the game of his life in a 2015 Super Bowl win over Carolina.
This “No Fly Zone” DB group — which included Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Darian Stewart — perfectly complemented Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware up front to shut down Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and league MVP Cam Newton that postseason.
In this hour-long conversation with Go Long, the bruising safety opens up on his Broncos defense, all of the concussions he suffered over the years, why he believes the NFL has gone too far with player safety (and may look like rugby one day) and Ward also says the league blackballed him. He had a bad experience with the Buccaneers in 2017, couldn’t sign with anyone for two years and retired after a cup ‘o joe with the Cardinals last season.
He does not hold back — on anything.
The full conversation is below and, remember, you can always catch up on all past Q&As at Go Long.
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First off, how’s life? We were just talking about your 1 ½-year-old so I’d imagine that, even though you’re retired, you’re insanely busy.
Ward: Now, that I’m retired, I’m almost more busy. There’s so much running around to do and only so much time to do it. You become busier. My son is 16 months right now. He’s getting big fast. I’m trying to keep up with him. And the agency I just started — Player Above Sports Group. I have a full plate. I’m happy to have one.
A decade in the NFL. Super Bowl champion. Two-time Pro Bowler. “No Fly Zone” extraordinaire in Denver. In an age where everyone’s scoring 30, 40 points a game, that Super Bowl team is this outlier that’ll be an outlier probably for the rest of time.
Ward: That’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Not only to be one of the best but one of the last. Or the last. I’ve told people before: Our era of defense is gone. It’ll never return. Just because of the way the game is set up with the rules, the protection for the quarterback. Everything is slighted toward the offense. To have a great defense — even the top defenses this year — the numbers they’re giving up compared to the 2010 era and before is not even a competition.
How did you pull it off (in 2015)? Like everybody else, I didn’t give you a snowball’s chance in hell at beating Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. This is the MVP. This is an offense just running through everybody. And you made it there with rickety old Peyton Manning, winning the way you’re winning. How did you pull that off?
Ward: I think all of the hoopla before the game played right into our hands. Everything said about the Carolina offense and what they had done that season, it was incredible. Hands down, it was incredible. But it was overshadowing what we had done on defense. It’s unbalanced because if there’s a great defense and a great offense, you should come into the game about even. But the odds were so stacked against us. “Wait, hold up, they have the No. 1 offense. We have the No. 1 defense. Why are we such an underdog? We’re playing from the west coast. They have to come from Carolina. So, they think that team is that much better than us? OK.” That’s how we took it and ran with it. As you can see from the performance on the field, we felt disrespected. All season really.
How do you use that, really? I was just talking to Mike Shanahan and in their Super Bowl against Green Bay (in 1997), they were double-digit underdogs and found a way to use it. You hear “bulletin board material.” How does all of this doubt actually manifest itself onto the field?
Ward: It doesn’t just start on the field. It builds up. It snowballs as you get closer to the game. You hear more and more things. It starts with that little quote or sentence in the beginning of your preparation. You prepare harder. You can always give a little bit more. You can go through a season preparing for the game coming up, but there’s something that’s going to give you that little bit of extra on top of it being the biggest game you ever played in — the Super Bowl. There are a lot of extra motivating factors going into that game. It’s like, “How can you get extra motivated for the Super Bowl?” You find something.
A pick. A fumble recovery. Seven tackles. You’re all over the place. What kind of night was it for you?
Ward: The game was amazing itself. San Francisco is my hometown. San Francisco, Calif., born and raised. To come back and play in the Super Bowl in front of my friends and family, I’m geeked. I’m geeked at the beginning of the season — “Oh, the Super Bowl’s in Frisco? We’ve got to get there.” When we left Denver and we were preparing for that week in San Francisco, we had our hair down. We didn’t come into the game uptight. We didn’t come into the week of practice uptight. We had fun the first couple of days we got to the city. Had some dinner. We kept it like a normal week, like we would do if we were getting ready for a normal Sunday game. I think that helped us, too, because we weren’t uptight, we weren’t nervous, we weren’t worried. We had prepared so well the week in Denver that, by the time, we got to San Francisco, it was like, “Oh, shoot. We’re going to put the finishing touches on it and we’re going to blow these boys out of the water.”
And you made Cam Newton not look like Cam Newton.
Ward: It helps when you’ve got Von and DeMarcus on the edge. Man, our D-Line was nasty. Malik (Jackson) on the inside. Wolfe. They both got big checks and played well after they left. “Sly” down low. Can’t forget him. We were just a mean team. We were mean on defense. And that’s how we carried ourselves. No disrespect, we’re not taking anything from anybody but we come onto the field, we’re going to slap you in the mouth and if you try to fight back, it’s “What are you doing fighting back?” That type of mentality. “Oh, you want to fight back? OK. We’re going to make it real hard on you.” You can’t teach that. You’ve got to gather guys like that. Mr. Elway, “Kub,” Foxy when he was there, Del Rio, all the guys that formed that team — the two coaching staffs — it was a mentality that we all had. You can’t make that happen once you get a group of guys. You have to put that group of guys together because they already have it. They call it “dogs” in the NFL. You’ve got to have “dogs.” We had a team full of them.
The first Q&A we did at Go Long was with Donte Whitner. He talked about his 49ers defense a few years back. Gnarly. Belligerent. They had dudes, he said, you didn’t know if they’d get arrested week-to-week. Guys with an edge. It’s a violent game, right? You don’t want choir boys out there. You need that kind of temperament. What kind of temperaments did you guys really have in that locker room?
Ward: If your defense doesn’t get a couple personal fouls a game, you’re not good. That’s just the nature of playing hard defense. It’s not that you’re dirty. It’s not that you’re trying to hurt anybody or playing beyond the whistle. But it’s an attitude thing. It’s a mentality. It’s a level of play. Like Malik. We knew he was going to get a flag every week. And we kind of just chalked it up because he ran after the ball so hard and, when you’re that big, you can’t just stop. So he would always be chasing the ball and get a late hit for hitting the running back or something. Just effort level. We didn’t tell him to stop. Forget that. “We’ll take that flag. But don’t you stop playing like this.” Another coach or another team might’ve been like, “Malik! If you get another personal foul…” and he doesn’t play as hard because he’s worried about another personal foul. We’ll take that 15. Just try not to do it in crunch time. Try not to do it in important situations. But we’re going to let that one go. You have to take some of the good with the bad.
Not just 15 yards. You’re getting fined, too.
Ward: Oh yeah. For sure. But, guess what? You know we were coming. So if you’re lingering, you better get down. Because Malik’s going to come and clean your ass up. It’s the clean-up crew. Within our defense, you’ve got the Vons and “Qibs” and Chrises that are just great players. D-Ware. But then we had a set of mean guys. We called it the “clean-up crew.” Anything standing is getting cleaned up. Me, "Danny Tre, Stew, Malik, guys like that. We played with a little bit more edge. We’re going to hit you helmet-to-helmet just because we want to feel it. It’s that type of mentality. It was a fun group.
Wade Phillips really encouraged it then? Because you need a coach to give you the green light to go out there and be a “dog” and cross that line from time to time.
Ward: Yeah, man. The best thing about Wade — and you can ask anybody on that team — he wasn’t just worried about how his scheme worked. He was like, “No, I’m going to use you to the best of your ability. What do you do best? Alright, let’s play this defense. It’s going to be my No. 1 defense because my guys play this defense the best.” Not, “I run this defense the best so I like it the best. No, what does TJ Ward do best? What does Aqib do best? What does Stew do best? What does Chris do best? What do my players do best? And then I’m going to try to make the best out of what they do.” That’s a player’s dream. The exact opposite is the next year when I went to Tampa and we had Mike Smith. It wasn’t about the players. It was about his scheme and what he wanted to do. It’s like “Bro, we can’t win like this.” But then when you say stuff like that in the NFL, you get marked as a cancer or as someone who’s not with the program. But all I want to do is win. I don’t care if you’re a coach, GM, president, if I’m in the building and I see that this is not an organization that’s trying to win? I’m going to say something. Because I’m a winner. I don’t do stuff to sit around and be losing or ordinary or see stuff done wrong 1,000 times and say, “OK, let’s do it 1,001 times.” No, I’m going to say something. That’s probably why toward the end of my career, I got not too many opportunities after Tampa when I was still in my prime.
Just from speaking up? Being honest?
Ward: Yeah. It’s a corporation at the end of the day.
That same year you won the Super Bowl, I was covering the Bills and Rex Ryan was the head coach. Guys were so frustrated with what you’re detailing here. Rex brings in a scheme that’s obviously had success but there’s dozens upon dozens of checks…
Ward: I played in that scheme my rookie year. I had Rob Ryan as my DC. Dude, that was the hardest defense I ever played in. When we got the next defense, I was like, “Thank God!” Because I thought all NFL defenses were going to be that hard. I’m like, “Bro, this is ridiculous. I don’t know what I’m doing! But I’m good and I’m going to get the ball.” Half of my rookie, I’m not going to lie, I was in the cloud with some of our defenses. My OGs would be mad at me: “T! What are you doing?” I’m like, “Bro.” You live and you learn. That defense is very, very hard.
You’re subbing in, subbing out with checks upon checks.
Ward: Different names. It’s crazy. Say we’re running a fire-zone coverage, a zone blitz, it might be “Liz” — for left zone — and it’ll be the name of the blitz. So, it’ll be “Liz” and it’s the dime so it might be “Liz Dino Cover 3.” Well, instead of left, dime, Cover 3,” he’ll have “Maxine.” Who’s Maxine!? “Oh, this girl I used to go to high school with. She always had something on the left side of her face.” Like, “What!?” I’m dead-ass. Or he’ll be like, “Oh, I was sitting back, thinking about Coach ‘what’s his name’s’ daughter and that’s the name of the defense we’re running this week.” OK. That’s not helping me remember anything. You’d have these formations, right? These calls. He’d call it Blitz-the-formation and Zone-the-formation. So for every formation, there might be a different blitz or a different zone coverage. So they come out near “I,” I have this blitz. If they come out in trips, I have this blitz. This is all in one game, week to week. He calls it “BTF,” blitz the formation. I’m waiting for the formation to come out, the formation comes out: “Alright what do we have for this formation. Alright, it’s trips I. Now, I have to see the formation, remember what defense we have, remember what I have to do and all of my communication.” I can’t get this done before the ball’s snapped! That’s why a lot of the time you see disorientation. What’s the miscommunication? What happened to this guy? It’s probably a long defense that they had to take some time to figure out.
And Rob Ryan’s still coaching in the NFL.
Ward: Away from that stuff, he’s a great coach. He teaches great fundamentals. He’s a great motivator. He’s a player’s coach. But that was the only thing, like, “Damn, if I could just get in one position and go off…”
We had Eric Wood on the podcast and he said Rex Ryan had guys ready to run through a wall. Guys love that.
Ward: That emotion and passion, guys love that shit.
That violence and that physicality you guys played with, I have to hear what you think about all of these roughing the passer penalties today. I feel like the NFL is trying to find this middle ground that doesn’t exist. If I’m a defensive player, and I’m going toward the quarterback, I don’t know what I’m allowed to even do at this point. When you’re watching football in 2021, what’s going through your mind?
Ward: It’s ridiculous. You have a bunch of guys who never played the game making the rules. You’ve never played the game, or you played it at a very low level, and you’re making the rules. You have no empathy. You have no relativity to what’s going on, on that field. You can’t relate. So why are you making the rules? Some of the rules, OK, we get. They make us safer. Yada, yada. But there’s a difference between making the game “safe” and making it unfair. He plays quarterback. He’s going to get hit. Me, I’m glad I’m not playing. Because as a safety, you’ve got the quarterback putting the ball in positions where you have no choice but to knock that receiver out. But I started chopping receivers. I started ACLs out. I don’t care.
I’m not hitting you in your chest. I’m not hitting you in your stomach. No, I’m hitting you in your legs. I’m flipping your shit. If you don’t want that to happen, tell your quarterback not to throw that seam ball anymore and don’t throw that slant. Because I’m not doing anything to help you out. If I can’t just hit on reaction, then I’m going super low every time. So, just know that.
And these receivers would rather you hit high. They don’t want you going at their legs.
Ward: Exactly. But at the end of the day, it comes down to that mighty dollar. They’re not getting sued for ACL tears. They’re getting sued for brain trouble. It’s a huge issue. I talk to guys I played with all the time. We’re going through it. We are going through it. The younger players. I’m not talking about the guys who played in the 80s. I’m talking about guys who just got off the field. We have issues. People like to make fun of it. It’s not funny.
So, part of you gets it then?
Ward: Oh yeah. I absolutely get it. The head part. I get that. But let’s make it fair. If a receiver cracks back on a DB, then you’ve got to call that penalty. If a lineman is doing certain things, if a running back is putting his head down to engage in contact — which they don’t call as much but that’s the No. 1 thing a running back does every single time he’s about to come into contact, is lower the crown of his helmet.
What are you dealing with then? You said you and people you know just out of the game are dealing with brain stuff?
Ward: A lot of lapses in memory. Short-term memory lapses. Shoot, mood swings. Short temper. Short patience. Anxiety.
So, you’ve already experienced this all in your day-to-day life? Already forgetting things, getting a short fuse and you don’t really know why?
Ward: Mhmm. Especially with the mental health thing being a huge focal point in society, I recommend seeing somebody if you do have any issues as an ex-player. I know I am. I’m talking to somebody right now. At first, I thought I didn’t need it but it’s actually helped me a lot.
You’re 34 years old. You should have decades upon decades left to live and you’re already dealing with this stuff. It’s good to be proactive. What are you already doing and how is it helping?
Ward: I see a therapist. I’ve got my CBDs. Products that help a lot. My son keeps me patient so just being around him, man, it’s like, how can I get mad? Mainly staying busy helps the most.
How does he keep you patient?
Ward: First off, he keeps me the busiest out of everything. Between waking up early and having to get his food ready and get him dressed and me getting dressed and having my meetings in-between my Zoom calls or different phone calls. Put him down for a nap so I can do the calls. Wake him. Feed him again. Have some appointments around the house. There’s always something wrong with a house.
So, back in high school, you’re on De La Salle, the high school team that won 151 games in a row.
Ward: 151. The first loss was after my senior year.
And you had a really significant injury that affected your future. You had to walk on in college.
Ward: Yeah, I fractured my patella bone. My teenage years, typical of a lot of teenagers growing up, I had Osgood-Schlatter. You get it in your knees. It’s tenderness and swelling. It hurts really bad. So, I couldn’t even play sports for one summer because I had it in both knees. I couldn’t even run. It hurt that bad. My senior year, it was lingering and my knee was really sore the week before coming into the game. During the game, I played free safety so I was backpedaling and I went to chase a ball that was thrown to the sideline and the receiver didn’t see it and he kept running straight and he ran right into my knee. I believe it was knee-to-knee. I still haven’t seen the video of the injury. I don’t think I could watch it. I ended up fracturing my knee and I missed the whole season. That was the second or third game of the season that year — my senior year — and I had no scholarships. I didn’t play much my junior year and I hit a spurt into my senior year where I was like 170. Before that, I was like 150. I grew like 20 pounds and three inches my senior year. So I’m like, “It’s my time.” I’m back to being the player I had been my entire life, and then I get hurt.
I had five of my best friends who were highly touted, highly recruited players on that same team who were seniors and they all got offers to Oregon. They all decided to commit to Oregon so I decided to walk on with them. I went to a JC for a semester and then I walked on and, a year later, I had a scholarship.
It’s all hanging in the balance at that point. You could’ve just been a guy. What’s going through your head as a walk-on. There’s probably no way you thought you’d be in a Super Bowl one day picking off passes.
Ward: But you know what? I didn’t think I wasn’t. Coming in, I knew I had the ability. I knew the guys who got a scholarship — who were my best friends — that I was as good as those guys. So coming in, it was just a matter of getting healthy and then I’m taking somebody’s spot. Point blank, period. That’s what my mentality was. So, the first time I stepped on the field, I was playing corner. You have pre-practice meetings in there with all the new scholarship guys and all of the older scholarship guys and you’re the walk-on. Guys are like, “Who’s this guy? He wasn’t on the recruiting list. He wasn’t a commit.” I show up to practice and I’m working. I’m making plays. My feet are good. I’ve got good size. Good speed. And then it’s like, “Oh shit. He can play for real.” So, I’m like, “I’m taking one of these scholarship guy’s starting spot. I need to be better than all of these guys on scholarship.” So every day, I’m like, “I need to be better than every single one on scholarship.” After that, it was, “Be better than everybody at my position.” Junior, senior, whatever. Then it was, “Be the best on the defense.” You take baby steps and see how successful you can be at each one. The next thing I knew, I was being drafted.
The mentality we’ve been hitting on this whole conversation, where does that come from? The edge you play with, what do you trace it back to?
Ward: I think it comes from my Dad. I think it’s in my blood honestly. I don’t remember being “taught.” I guess it’s something you pick up from your parents and seeing how they interact with people and situations they’ve been in. There are lessons they teach but it was never, “We have this mentality” or “this is a war mentality.” My Dad was in a situation in his sporting years where he was an underdog type. He’s been the youngest of 12 kids so he’s always been looking up to his siblings.
It’s something you can’t teach. It’s either in you or not.
As a safety, you have to horizontally throw your body into situations. You’re not arm-tackling. You’re not waiting for a guy to come and bringing him down. Everybody who’s played football at any level, you either are OK throwing yourself in there or there’s that blip of hesitation. On to Cleveland, you’re throwing yourself anywhere.
Ward: I learned that getting hit in your arms that hurts. Bringing the pain is a lot easier than taking it. I learned that a long time ago. Always be the aggressor. Because if you’re not? Somebody’s bringing the pain to you. I don’t care how big you are. I’m coming my hardest because, if I don’t, you’re going to hurt me more than I hurt myself.
Although, there’s going to be concussions along the way. You’re going to feel those effects.
Ward: For sure. It’s the nature of the game, the nature of the position. That protocol, that safety wasn’t taught to me growing up. It was something we did and we lived with. We were ignorant to a lot of the brain trauma going on with these players now. But the whole sport, the whole system in America, if you played Pop Warner in the 90s, it was all about going head-to-head. That’s what we called it. If it was a big hit? “Oh, they went head-to-head.” Like we were real rams out there. You’re in practice doing hitting drills. You may do two or three hitting drills before you get to the scheme. We’re just hitting to condition. Now, it’s taught much better from Pop Warner on up. When they get to the age where the velocity and the speed is faster, their second nature is to play with their head out of the game whereas you’re trying to teach me in Year 5 of the NFL. It’s over for me. There’s no turning back. I’ve been playing football one way for 25 years. You’re telling me now I can’t play like this? Good luck. Let me get up out of there.
It’s remarkable you lasted as long as you did, right?
Ward: Right. Because I’m going to get a lot of money taken from me.
You can’t change the way you play. How many concussions have you suffered?
Ward: Man. More than I have hands. For sure. Easy. Because even when you don’t think you’re concussed, you’re concussed. So you might, “Pow!” make a hit, and then go right back. That’s a mild concussion and you don’t even know. It’s not just the concussions of “Oh, I don’t smell anything. I can’t see.” Nah, it’s the quick (snaps fingers) “ugh,” now I’m back. I’ve had them plenty of times.
What was the worst one from what you remember?
Ward: It was definitely my high school one. The first one I got. My junior year, I hit a guy on the sideline and I woke up standing on the sideline after the game with the trainers and my parents and friends in front of me asking me where I was.
My first one was my worst one. Shit, it is scary. It’s like I got knocked out something.
I remember everything up to the contact. Then, I just remember waking up. There was a guy running a sweep to the sideline. I was the cornerback. Just a regular hit on the sideline. A running back coming up the sideline. You’re getting off a block. A shoulder, “Pow!” and I lifted him. It was a good hit on my part. But I knocked myself out. I don’t know if he got me right on the side or whatever happened.
How long were you blacked out?
Ward: I didn’t play much my junior year, so I got in the game in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t the whole game. It was probably 10 minutes. But, shit, it wasn’t like I woke up on the ground. I’m kept going not knowing I was up and doing things. I don’t think I was knocked out on the ground. I think I finished the game but I didn’t realize it until that point. Because if you’re knocked out, they’ll keep you on the ground like, “Hello! Are you up?” No, I was standing up.
There’s not exactly an independent neurosurgeon on the sideline to take you in and help you from you, either. And weren’t you in that collision with Jermichael Finley, the one that ended his career?
Ward: Yeah, I was. I was actually on the tackling side. I didn’t hit him. I was dragging him down and Tashaun Gipson hit him. Shit, that was unfortunate.
What’s it like as a player when a guy’s out cold, not moving, an ambulance comes out and he’s put on a stretcher — what in the hell is going through your mind in that moment? How do you just go out there and play the next snap when you see somebody taken off on a stretcher playing this game?
Ward: I’ve never worried about it at the moment. I just go back into the next play. We don’t think about that. If you’re a player — and you think about that — you can’t play with your hair on fire. That gets put in a closet or a cubby somewhere. You’re praying for him. You hope he’s OK. A lot of players probably say, “it can’t happen to me” or “it won’t happen to me.” That’s not the case. You just have to pray and be blessed.
You guys are wired differently than normal human beings. I don’t know how you play after something like that. I love the old-school element of the game and get pissed off as much as anybody when all of these flags are thrown. I imagine you’re the same way but how do you wrestle with this as someone who had all these concussions and delivered concussions, yet now the league is over-correcting and going to this other extreme. Personally, I wish the NFL would own the violence. Make guys sign a form if they have to. Otherwise, it’ll be flag football at this rate. Put quarterbacks in a red jersey.
Ward: You know what? I don’t mind it. Make it flag football. If that’s what you’re going to do, do it and pay players handsomely. We don’t need to be out there knocking helmets. Let us play flag football, please, and let us get paid like hoopers. I bet if you asked players right now, “Hey, would you rather play flag and get paid how you play? Or would you rather put these pads on?” Give me flags and I’ll play 30 years.
But the NFL knows that as much as they want to legislate the violence out, it’s the violence that fans still want.
Ward: That sells the tickets. It’s the speed and the violence. It’s these 200-to-300-pound players moving faster than anybody you know and stronger than anybody you know and they’re colliding and there’s scheme to it. It’s a beautiful game. But it is what it is. So if it’s not, then let’s just have it not.
Could we get to that point in our lifetime?
Ward: I think maybe a form of rugby football with the football rules. Because with the helmet, you feel secure, like “I can run into somebody with my head and be OK.” You don’t see rugby players doing that! “I don’t have no helmet. I’m about to use this shoulder! I’m not trying to bust my face all up! Against this big New Zealand team with their forearms and bust my mouth open! Nah. I’m going to use this shoulder and use technique tackling.” I think it’s the rugby rules we just can’t get with in America. If you had football with rugby rules and some type of smaller padding, I could see it working in like 30 years, 40 years.
But the owners know that what people want are those big hits still. It’s still blocking, still tackling.
Ward: The “Oooooo!” You don’t get that anymore. You only get those on touchdowns or catches. That’s boring. Where are the consequences for the receivers? There’s no consequences! Back in the day, you knew there was a consequence for running that slant. You knew there was a consequence for running that post. Now, it’s “How bad can he really hurt me? He can’t really do much. He’s not going to hit me in the head.”
And we’re talking five years ago. We’re not talking 15-20 years ago.
Ward: But going low can be as effective. I know when we were playing the Patriots and they were trying to run those quick passes, we knew they weren’t going deep. “Let’s sit on all of these slants and light their ass up.” And Stew was sitting on every slant from the post. You can watch the film. He takes one step back and “Mmm!” Beeline. He must’ve hit Chandler so hard and hit Gronk another time, and Stew’s a big boy. They threw that route a couple times early and you didn’t see it the rest of the game. You know why? They went inside that huddle and said, “Don’t throw that route to me no more. Twenty-six is coming downhill! Do not throw me that ball.” The quarterback’s not really worried about their receivers. The receivers are like, “Why did you hit the guy like that?” “Well, why did the quarterback throw you that ball when he saw me standing there? You need to take that up with him. Don’t come to me. I’m only doing my job. He’s doing you a disservice. He doesn’t love you.”
Say Mahomes and the juggernaut Chiefs are themselves. How’s the “No Fly Zone” faring against these guys?
Ward: We’re strapping anybody. Anybody. Mahomes and them, if Mahomes had been a year earlier, we’re strapping him, too.
I love the old school football, getting back to running the ball and getting back to hardnosed defense and hardnosed offense. I love that side of football. It let’s you see the flaws in the defenses now because, at one point, teams were getting away from that at the end of the 2000s. Because if you remember, all the safeties and linebackers in the league were big. Your linebackers weren’t smaller than 230 inside. Your safeties might be 220, 230. No smaller than 200. If you look at even 2015, now you’re 230-pound ‘backers, 220-pound ‘backers, 200 and 205-pound safeties now. That’s average. Now, it’s like safeties are 195. You don’t even know who plays corner and safety anymore out there!
That’s why you get the Chubbs and Henrys and backs toting — because they can’t tackle them at the second level. They’re too little. So, watch the game go back the next five years. Everybody’s going to have a big back until the defenses change and get some big safeties and linebackers. You’re going to have the guy from the Colts, Jonathan, toting and running through tackles. What does he need moves for when he can run through 190-pound safeties? He’s just running through arm tackles. Nobody’s trying to put a shoulder on him. But if you had 220-, 215-pound safeties, they’d be coming down filling that C gap. You don’t have that anymore.
I love that the game went back to its roots and that’s what’s great about the NFL. We think it’s going this backyard direction, this improvisational direction and what does Belichick do? He spends all this money on ass-kickers, and they’re the No. 1 seed right now in the AFC.
Ward: The NFL always catches up to you. When Mahomes was doing it, it was cool but I’m like, “This shit’s going to run out. They better get their ‘ships now.” Because when teams figure out what you’re doing? They are going to stop it. What happened two years later? They’re saying they’re back. I don’t think they’re back. They’re playing decent but they’re not what they were.
The Broncos, it’s mental with them. They can’t get past the Chiefs because the last five years the Chiefs have been kicking their ass. So that’s something mental with them. The Broncos haven’t been the same since we left in ’16. That’s what happens when you lose all your dogs.
Belichick went and got those dogs real quick. He said, “Let me bring Van Noy back. Let me get Judon. Let me get my safeties right. Give me some dogs.”
Are you good with retirement? Does any part of you want to get back into it?
Ward: The only thing that makes me want to come back is watching bad football. It’s like that Brady quote. Brady said it would suck to be at home knowing you’re better than all of these, or half these dudes playing. And that’s what I do every day when I watch football. They let some guys play forever. Some guys, they don’t want you to play forever. It’s not that guys can’t play. They’re better than the guys they’ll bring in. But the older you get, the bigger your ticket goes, the more informed you are, the smarter player you are, the more business-savvy you are with what’s going on within the organization, then they want to get you up out of there. They want to bring younger guys in who are cheaper. Crash dummies.
But I’m happy. I can actually watch and enjoy football now. The first couple of years, I was very, very upset by the situation.
With Tampa? With Arizona?
Ward: I was already out of football for two years when Arizona called. I was sitting on the couch for two years. Just before that, I had signed for $5 million with Tampa. I couldn’t get a workout. I couldn’t get a visit to a building. It was abrupt — (Smacks hands) — “Don’t talk to TJ Ward. Nobody answer his calls. Nobody bring him in. Nobody give him a workout.”
You were blackballed?
Ward: You think? Out of nowhere, I can’t even get a workout?
Ward: That’s a good question. Something in Tampa happened within that coaching staff. I think it was mainly the coaching staff.
Did they just put out the word that you don’t want T.J. Ward on your team?
Ward: I guess. I got word from one of my teammates that one of the coaches came up to him talking about how I was a cancer. I said, “OK. This is coming from the guy who has done what in the NFL? OK. Thank you. What have you won? OK. Nothing. You haven’t even won your division, talking to me. “You were an assistant coordinator Crozier!” Have you ever seen Any Given Sunday? Get out of my face.
People don’t get where you’re coming from and they try to spread these things about you. We are not the same. We are not here. So just keep your mouth shut. That’s the best thing to do.
What were those two years like?
Ward: I was training for two whole years. Trying to get a call. Trying to get in a building. Dudes were hurt and I couldn’t get a call. Cats were dropping like flies during that season — the first year. I’m like, “Bro, I just came off a Pro Bowl. No one wants me to come work out? Not one of these 32 teams?” Talk about frustrating. The second year, early in the year, I got a workout with Jacksonville. Their safeties were terrible at the time and a couple of them got hurt. I worked out. They let me go. I’m like, “Really? For real?”
Just for speaking up about what you didn’t like about the scheme?
Ward: Pretty much. There was a lot going. For me, that year in Tampa was cool and then it wasn’t. There were a lot of ups and downs. And I’m not even talking about just the winning and losing. I’m talking about me emotionally trying to handle abruptly leaving Denver after I just bought a house. I just built a home, from the ground up, and got released right before the season in my contract year thinking I’m going to have my best year ever. I pulled my hamstring right before preseason starts so I didn’t play in any preseason games. Then, they released me right before the regular season game. This is how they came at me — “Are you healthy? Are you ready to play?” I’m like, “Yeah, I think I’ll be ready for Week 1. I don’t think I should play in this last preseason game. Being a vet and an All-Pro player, this is usually a game for the rookies and guys trying to make the team. I don’t want to go out there and get hurt to where I’m not ready for Week 1.” OK. Cool. I go in to get treatment the next day and get cut.
How do they cut you after everything you’ve done?
Ward: Shit, it doesn’t matter. There’s only a one-way street of loyalty and that’s the players to the organization. That’s what they want you to have. But it’s only one way. Loyalty goes one direction and it’s a dead-end.
It helped me be prepared for anything. You never know. So don’t ever get into a situation and think you’re good. It actually helped me in the long run. It taught me a lot. Someone said it takes something drastic to learn a lesson. A good lesson.
Are you past the depression and anxiety?
Ward: More anxiety. I’m content. I’m comfortable where I’m at. After I went to Arizona, I was there three or four weeks because they had some injuries, and it was a great building. It’s no surprise they’re winning. The coaching staff is amazing. It’s a good young group of players. The only thing I would say is that they’re younger. They need to learn how to prepare a little bit better in practice. I think that’s maybe what they changed this year. I think there was something to their preparation during the week on the field that I noticed while practicing with them — “Ah, we could practice a little harder.” Other than that, it’s player-friendly. They’re not out there trying to have you killing yourself like some coaches. I think that’s the new wave of preparation and getting ready for the week. Give the guys a break. This isn’t Bear Bryant football.
And you were in the same room as Budda Baker. He’s breaking out as a star this year. What kind of game does he have?
Ward: I was mad I didn’t get on the field with Budda. Let us get out there and run just one time. One week! It never happened. He’s my type of player. He plays with his hair on fire. He’s nonstop. He can play multiple positions. He’s aggressive. He’s an old school dude. You can tell he learned football playing with older guys.
You can follow T.J. Ward on Twitter @BossWard43.
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