ENGLEWOOD — Mess with the cub and papa bear will come to the rescue.
Denver Broncos receiver Rod Smith does not appreciate what’s been written and said about fellow wide receiver Darius Watts.
So Smith defended Watts.
“Darius is a hard worker and you guys have been bashing him,” Smith said. “I ought to swing on you, but you might try to sue me.”
It was just playful banter between Smith and reporters, but there was an underlying tone: Lay off Watts.
Watts has dropped some passes last season and bleeding over into this year’s preseason, but according to Smith, this is a quality receiver in the making. Smith’s contention was negative comments about the 23-year-old Watts might cause him to lose his confidence for good.
“I don’t think you realize how hard it is,” Smith said. “I know you’re trying to pick your stories and angles, but sometimes you can tear a guy up inside. That translates on the field whether you guys know it or not.
“It’s my job to make sure I get all that stuff out of him. I’ve got to keep working with him, keep pushing him. We’re cheerleaders for him.”
That’s why no one was more pleased with Watts’ breakthrough performance against Arizona than Smith. Watts made a pair of acrobatic catches in the preseason finale. It was like watching your kid ride his bike for the first time without training wheels. Smith beamed like a proud father.
“It’s good to see him make some huge plays,” said Smith, whose team opens up the season at Miami on Sunday.
Guess Watts listened to Smith’s words of encouragement before the game.
“I told him, ‘Go out there and enjoy yourself,’” Smith said. “I think he was pressing a little bit, and he started putting more pressure on himself than was really warranted.”
With one game, the pressure has been alleviated. He feels like himself again, the guy that caught 272 passes for 4,031 yards at Marshall. Watts is hoping the dropped passes are now a thing of the past.
“I’m a lot more confident going into the regular season,” said Watts, who grabbed 31 passes for 385 yards last year in his rookie season.
Even the greatest receivers struggle early in their careers. When receiver Jerry Rice broke into the league in 1985, he used to bobble and drop passes. He had hands of concrete, but they eventually softened up.
Rice even broached the subject with Watts before announcing his retirement Monday.
“I told him, ‘Just keep working hard and staying positive,’” Rice said. “I think he did that. I was happy to see him score those two touchdowns. Confidence-wise, that really helped him.”
No one expects Watts to be perfect. He’s going to drop passes. That’s a fact of life as a receiver. But Watts had two costly drops last season — one against Oakland on Nov. 28 and another against Atlanta on Oct. 31 — and went south from there. Both would’ve been touchdowns. Both could’ve been game-winning catches.
Watts hasn’t been the same since. He dropped more passes during training camp, and lost more confidence. Denver coach Mike Shanahan needed to do something to get Watts’ attention, so he demoted him in favor of Rice.
Watts hit bottom.
And then he began to climb his way back up with Smith leading the charge.
When talk radio turned critical of him, Smith propped him up through encouragement. The papa bear defended his cub.
“I said, ‘They don’t know you, they don’t know how hard you work. I’ve been out here with you and I know how good of a football player you are,’” Smith said.
The Arizona game couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Watts made two of the prettiest touchdown grabs you’ll see. The last one, an over-the-opposite-shoulder-drag-your-foot-in-bounds masterpiece, was a grab that only a handful of receivers in the league could’ve made.
So now Watts’ confidence is back. His smile is back. His easygoing demeanor is back.
“I told him, ‘You’re going to make a mistake, I promise you,’” Smith said. “If you don’t make a mistake, you don’t need to be playing football. If you’re perfect, go play Powerball in every state and you’ll win every time.
“He made some catches he hasn’t made around here in a year or so. It’s great for a guy like him.”
And then Smith added this as a final warning: “You’ve got to leave my guys alone.”