ENGLEWOOD — The call had to be made. He was a friend, and friends check up on each other.
After watching Denver Broncos receiver Rod Smith go down against Kansas City on Monday Night Football with a concussion, Jacksonville defensive end Reggie Hayward was rightfully concerned. So he left a message with Smith.
“I was just hoping he was all right,” Hayward said. “I care about his safety.”
You can take a player out of a city, but you can’t take the feelings out of a player. Hayward still keeps in touch with his Broncos teammates. He may be gone, but the friendships he made during his four-year stint with Denver will long last.
“My teammates were great guys,” Hayward said. “I stay in touch with a handful of them.”
The lure of money brought Hayward to Jacksonville. The Jaguars were willing to back up an armored car to his driveway and dump mounds of
cash at his feet. He received $25 million over five years, including $10 million in guaranteed money.
The Broncos couldn’t — or wouldn’t — match that figure. And so he was gone. Like Bertrand Berry the year before,
Denver lost its sack leader. The Arizona Cardinals tempted Berry to the desert with big bucks.
“(The Broncos) went to every length they could go through to keep me there,” said Hayward, who was Denver’s third-round pick in 2001. “I was a cap casualty, I guess. I don’t think they had enough money to spread around. Those sorts of things happen. That’s the nature of the business.”
Instead of spending mounds of cash to keep Hayward in town, Denver paid out less — $6.7 million, to be precise — and landed Cleveland defensive linemen Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers.
It was an astute business deal that netted four quality players for the price of one. The Broncos have already been rewarded for the move: The Cleveland foursome has combined for three sacks. Hayward has only one for Jacksonville.
“What can you say?” Hayward said of the Broncos’ decision not to keep him. “I don’t think I was disappointed.”
All he has to do is look at his bulging bank account, and any bitterness toward Denver will dissipate. Hayward was in the right place at the opportune time during the offseason. Teams in dire need of defensive line help were willing to open up their pocketbooks. The Jaguars were simply the highest bidder.
However, with big contracts come big expectations, and Hayward wasn’t holding up his end of the deal. During the Jaguars’ preseason, Hayward contributed about as much as the cheerleaders on the sideline did. He didn’t have a sack or a tackle. The Jacksonville media was fuming. Was this money down the drain?
Hayward didn’t take the negativity personally. The Jaguars are the only show in town, so intense scrutiny is part of the territory.
“The media is really high-tuned on football,” said Hayward, who had 101/2 sacks last season for the Broncos. “But pressure comes in all forms and facets. You just get used to it. You have to take it with a grain of salt and move on.”
Once the regular season began, Hayward was his normal self. He’s a big reason Jacksonville is ranked second in the league in total defense. Hayward has a sack — it came in the season opener against Seattle — and 10 tackles.
The media, and fans, are now off his back.
“Sometimes it can get frustrating, but you have to realize a lot of people don’t understand the complete ins and outs of football,” Hayward said. “The regular season is here, and my stats are looking nice and picking up, and we’re winning games. That helps. The media has calmed down, the fans have calmed down and everyone is excited about Jaguars football.”
Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio’s faith in Hayward has never wavered. Del Rio says Hayward is worth every dime of his contract.
“Reggie’s been great,” Del Rio said. “We knew we were getting a pass rusher, and we’ve had some nice production, but more than that, he’s brought an every-down defensive end to the fold. He’s bigger and stronger against the run than we even anticipated.”
With Hayward, Paul Spicer, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson on the defensive line, teams are finding yards hard to gain. The Jaguars are giving up just 252.7 yards a game.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Denver fullback Kyle Johnson said. “That’s a wonderful front four. They’re truly impressive.”
Johnson is looking forward to a reunion with Hayward.