When the Broncos traded Von Miller in November after 10 years in Denver, he had about a half an hour to say goodbye.
“I was hurt, man. I really was hurt,” Miller said Thursday. “When it was my turn to be a part of that business, I cried real tears.”
The deal between the Broncos and the Rams, which sent Miller to Los Angeles in exchange for a second- and a third-round draft pick, was a reminder of the harsh bottom lines of NFL business. Miller had made his whole career in Denver and was the Super Bowl MVP when the Broncos won the championship in 2016. He’d settled there, loved the community, and had an infant son. He didn’t want to leave. But after the trade went through the day before the deadline, Miller found himself driving away from the Broncos facility giving tearful goodbyes through a rolled-down window. He headed to California the next day.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Miller said. “It wasn’t me that wanted to leave. I got traded. If it was up to me, I’d still be in Denver trying to figure it out.
The Broncos’ decision to trade Miller was proof that there are few, if any, sentimental exceptions made for older players on teams that aren’t ready to compete. The Rams’ acquisition of Miller is one of the best recent examples of their team-building strategy: to build around proven veteran players, aggressively collect stars to help the team win now, and borrow from the future to pay for the present when necessary. Los Angeles sweetened its offer for Miller because it could not have afforded the remaining $9.7 million of his salary had Denver not agreed to pay most of it, something the Broncos were happy to do in exchange for better draft picks, given their ample cap space. It was a quintessential Rams move: add another star to a defensive line that already included Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd and worry about the rest later. For both teams, it was a bottom-line move.
Miller was thankful to go to a contending team where he will make another Super Bowl appearance. But he still openly admits that he’d still be a Bronco today if he had the choice. During Miller’s media availabilities during Super Bowl week, he greeted every Denver media member happily by name, and often slipped into saying “we” when talking about his former team.
“I always wanted to be a Denver Bronco forever and I’ll always be a Denver Bronco forever,” Miller said. “I’m just here working in L.A. right now.”
Miller understands the cold calculation of NFL culture and its often zero-sum, ruthless tendencies. In many ways, he is an antidote to it—he is Los Angeles’s willing mercenary, both an avatar of his team’s all-in modus operandi and a joyful elder statesman, a believer in pregame motivational tactics and the value of having fun along the way to the big game. He is the team DJ—lately, he’s been playing Future’s album Evol, which came out a day before the Super Bowl in 2016. He’s also Donald’s hype man, recently encouraging the defensive tackle to embrace his voice and get more vocal. He’s a golf buddy to the entire defensive line and travel companion of close friend Odell Beckham Jr., another high-profile midseason acquisition whose star power added to the Rams’ embarrassment of riches. Miller recently told Beckham about a dream he had in which the Rams wide receiver won Super Bowl MVP and Miller celebrated like he’d won the award himself. Miller is an entertainer who jokes and uplifts and greets everyone with a big smile and his signature “Howdy!” At a time when the Rams may be feeling the pressure of needing a Super Bowl win to justify their aggressive team-building strategy and their superstar bona fides, Miller’s message during the past two weeks has been that they should try to win because it would be really, really fun.
“Football is such a unique sport, it’s a rah-rah sport,” Miller said Wednesday. “Just by guys getting hyped before the game, it rubs off on everybody else. A good pregame speech, a good breakdown can go a long way in football—it’s the craziest thing. Everybody always wants to go out there and play and win the game, but a few players with super crazy passion, that rubs off on everybody else.”
Miller’s passion has rubbed off on his teammates.
“He’s really comfortable in his own skin. He really knows who he is and people want to be around him,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said Wednesday. “He brings a great attitude to work, his attitude, everything about him is infectious.”
“He’s just a funny dude,” Rams defensive line coach Eric Henderson said Thursday. “You talk about just a funny guy, who has his own way from a leadership standpoint. I love that. He’s very vocal in his own way and he’s just an awesome guy to be around, really, really genuine heart. Von talks to everyone in the building.”
Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said Miller was obsessive about learning the Rams’ defensive terminology. Morris could have schemed up game plans in which Miller just had to line up and rush the passer while he got up to speed with the Rams’ defensive playbook, but Miller wanted to communicate with his new teammates and coaches on their own terms right away.
“He was very passionate to translate his language over to our language so he could speak the same language with our guys,” Morris said Thursday. “Having him with us has been so instrumental to what we are and what we’ve become. I just love him and can’t wait to see what he’s going to do when it comes to playing this game.”
At 32, Miller has proved he’s still an elite pass rusher, particularly when playing on a stacked defensive line with Donald drawing regular double-teams. Through three playoff games, Miller has two sacks, 12 tackles, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Given the mismatch between the Rams defensive line and the Bengals offensive line in the Super Bowl, Miller has a reasonable shot to re-create the 2.5-sack performance—two of which led to Broncos touchdowns—that got him on the MVP podium in 2016.
That Super Bowl forever bonded Miller with Denver, but it also made him hungry for another, a scenario that became increasingly unlikely in recent years—the Broncos haven’t made the playoffs since their Super Bowl run. “I’ll always have Super Bowl 50,” he told local media before driving away. Miller wanted to return to that feeling, and he begrudgingly accepted that he had a better chance of doing so in Los Angeles.
“Never in a million years did you expect winning the Super Bowl to really be like that,” Miller said Monday. “When you win something like that it creates this addiction. You want it all the time. And the last five years, we haven’t even been close.”
Last week, Miller told ESPN that he didn’t want Super Bowl 50 to be the highlight of his career, but “to be honest, it just might be,” he said. He acknowledged that there would be a difference between winning one after half a season with the Rams and winning one with the team that drafted and developed him. What Miller knows, though, is that Super Bowl LVI can be for his Rams teammates what Super Bowl 50 was to him, and he’s tried to communicate that in a way that lightens the mood rather than adds pressure. The fear of failure can be more powerful than the desire to win—even Miller said Wednesday he hates losing more than he loves winning—but the pressure to avoid failure can be crippling. Miller has tried to flip the way his teammates visualize the game’s outcome and encourage them to think about what there is to gain rather than what there is to lose. It sounds a little romantic on a team built in part on a collection of stars, but maybe that’s what the Rams need.
“We’re playing,” Miller said, “for a chance to go to football heaven.”