Only two types of people ever refer to NFL players as "soft":
- People who have never been around a team, which means they've never seen a guy hobbling across a pregame locker room in a protective boot before playing every snap, never watched a 95-degree August practice or felt the December Meadowlands wind and never heard the echo of shoulder-pad collisions, let alone played the game beyond the pep-rally-in-the-gym level. And—
- People have done those things, but long in the past, when the men were manlier and the two-a-days were life-threatening, granting them carte blanche for get-off-my-lawn rants about today's players. Writing the checks that pay today's players also gives some of these individuals literal carte blanche.
John Elway falls into that second category, of course. The Broncos president accused his team of being "a little bit soft" on Friday, per Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post, lamenting the team's six-game post-bye losing streak after a 3-1 start and—he seriously mentioned this—an undefeated preseason. Elway played football as well as anyone ever has and controls the purse strings, so he gets to be taken seriously when he says things that internet trolls usually say.
Elway knows "soft" is a four-letter word in the NFL. It's bulletin-board fodder and a whispered-down-the-lane, anonymous-source insult. As a motivational tactic, calling your own players soft is somewhere between a Hail Mary and a fake punt on 4th-and-20. It's brilliant if it works, but it probably won't.
The "soft" slur has been tossed around the NFL rather casually in recent weeks. Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, an up-and-coming superstar in both pass coverage and trash talk, called Bengals receiver A.J. Green "weak" and "soft" after holding the Pro Bowler to one catch for six yards in a Week 9 Jaguars win.
Green burned Ramsey for a bomb Andy Dalton threw out of bounds in that game, pancaked him on a run block in the end zone and eventually got ejected for trying to RKO Ramsey after a post-whistle cheap shot, but never mind. The "soft" remarks made headlines, and they achieved the desired effect of getting Green off his game and into WWE mode.
Maybe that's what Elway wanted. His Broncos are at their best when the defense acts like bouncers during a bar-room brawl. Perhaps he feared that Sunday's battle against Green's Bengals would be a puppy snugglefest if he didn't rub his team the wrong way.
Instead of fire-breathing barbarians, however, Elway got a bunch of employees sputtering in reaction to being trolled by their own boss.
"His comments ... he's the boss," Von Miller told NFL.com's Nick Shook. "That's what he said. He said it. I was kind of taken aback by it."
Edge rushers should be many things before a game. "Taken aback" is not one of them. Brandon Marshall took the same approach.
"I understand this is his team," he told Jhabvala after the Bengals loss. "He put it together. So his name is on it, but we got skin in the game. Nobody is soft on this team. We work our asses off. ... We go out there and give 100 every game, every practice."
"I was initially offended, but in some aspects, he's right," head coach Vance Joseph told reporters, sounding like every middle manager who ever had to suck up an indignity at the hands of higher-ups.
The he's the boss, so I guess he's right response was predictable. Think of your own experience. What happens when the head honcho calls out your whole department? Conscientious employees who give it their all take it personally. The lollygaggers and malcontents deflect or tune out. If Elway managed to send any message by insulting his own team, he sent it to precisely the wrong people.
The Broncos fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy on Monday. So maybe the problem wasn't toughness or gumption but game-planning. Or maybe Elway is flailing for something else that he cannot quite put his finger on.
"Soft" is the most explosive football insult left that you can print on a family website and speak aloud in polite company. It combines the most derogatory elements of two of football's other dreaded four-letter words: weak and lazy.
Despite Ramsey's smack-talk success with "weak," it has lost a little power now that it is synonymous with uncool instead of unable to lift heavy objects. Lazy…well, anyone who calls their players/employees/students lazy had better batten down the hatches for either a mutiny or what baseball's Derek Bell once called "Operation Shutdown."
But "soft" criticizes both mettle and effort, with a not-so-subtle (but still unfortunately socially acceptable) dig at masculinity thrown in, making it a verbal punch that's almost guaranteed to land.
It's also total codswallop, the kind of thing angry fans snarl at sports talk hosts after losses, a term that should be beneath the dignity of a team president.
There are teams that quit (another four-letter word), and the Broncos may have been guilty of going through the motions late in several of their recent blowout losses. But teams don't quit because they are soft. Instead, they play without intensity late in games or seasons because they were not put in position to succeed early in games or seasons.
The Broncos are bad right now because they have two quarterbacks on their roster who cannot play and two iffy prospects on semi-permanent medical redshirt. Their defense spends too much time defending the 1-yard line after interception returns. The quarterback situation is on Elway.
The Broncos are bad right now because their offense has few reliable playmakers, so it's rare for a back or receiver to make a dazzling play and help the poor quarterbacks. Opponents can allow short drives and wait for mistakes. Miller and company can count on rarely having a lead to protect. That's on Elway.
The Broncos started 3-1 with two close games and a romp over the overrated Cowboys before opponents figured out the limitations of their offense. They went undefeated in the preseason because they were evaluating potential starting quarterbacks while opponents were auditioning the fourth string.
They didn't become complacent during the bye. Reality about the weakness of their roster set in. And that's at least partially on Elway, one of the few people in the organization unlikely to be summarily fired or publicly criticized.
In short: When a team president (owner, coach, etc.) calls his team soft, he's saying an awful lot about himself.
The word should be retired forever from public football discourse. Yes, the old-timey Hall of Famers can sling it over cigars during mutual back-patting sessions while carping about players these days. Sure, the center can grunt it at the nose tackle to get him to jump offsides. If that's what Ramsey needs to get the best of Green, have at it.
But all someone like Elway does when dropping a soft bomb is sow dissent. The word undermines his coach. It makes players question each other and the organization more than they question themselves. And it validates the softness storyline, arming the angriest elements of the fanbase with a rallying cry and reflecting badly on the whole franchise.
As those of us in the media should avoid "soft" like it brings an automatic NC-17 rating, because players deserve better.
No one who makes it as an NFL player is ever soft. But the guys in the suits can get a little complacent. Even the toughest execs make weak decisions. That's fine, as long as they don't project that weakness onto their players.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.