In the Broncos’ locker room, there have been few players who ever possessed the innate ability to lead and rally teammates that Keith Burns has brought over the years.
Statistics haven’t measured the impact of the 34-year-old who has just three starts to his name but has also played in 197 career games — 182 of those in orange and blue since making the team as a seventh-round pick in 1994 — the same year that the team selected Tom Nalen and signed Rod Smith as an undrafted free agent.
This season was a frustrating one for Burns. Not so much individually, but as a team, as the Broncos gave up more yards per kickoff return than all but the Oakland Raiders. Meanwhile, the team ranked 23rd in the league in kickoff-return average, giving the team a damaging combination that hindered it in field position throughout the year.
No one took the Broncos’ struggles on kickoffs more personally than the 13-year veteran.
“(Special teams) is all about want-to, and that’s all special teams is about,” Burns said in November. “If you want to get the job done, you’ll get it done. You’ve got some guys out there that forever reason, felt they were doing their job, but if you go back and look at film, you need to be at where you’re supposed to be at — bottom line.
“Everybody has to be accountable on special teams, because we don’t get second down, third down, fourth down. We get one down, and that’s that down on that given play, so you’ve got to go out there and do what is expected of you to make a play and get the guy down.”
The worst stretch came in back-to-back games against San Diego and Kansas City, when the Broncos allowed 33.8 and 43.0 yards per kickoff return, respectively. San Diego’s average — which came on five returns for a total of 169 yards — particularly rankled Burns.
“The most disappointing thing to me is that we’ve faced better returners,” Burns said at the time. “There’s no disrespect to (Chargers returner) Michael Turner, it’s just the mere fact that he’s a typical running back that has returned the ball. For us to give up that type of yardage against a returner like that, it baffles me, but like I say, it all comes back to me and the guys in this locker room.”
And if the Broncos are to fix what ailed them on special teams, that locker room might need a leader like Burns more than it ever has.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Finished the year with nine special-teams tackles in 15 games; that total was his lowest for a single season in his 13-year career … A hand injury kept Burns out for the season finale against San Francisco … On defense, he had spot duty at New England in Week 3, at Pittsburgh in Week 9 and against Seattle in Week 13. He notched his only two defensive tackles of 2006 (one solo, one assist) in the 23-20 loss to the Seahawks when he took over for Al Wilson, who was carted off the field with what turned out to be a neck sprain that would heal in time for him to return seven days later.
NEXT: Defensive tackle Antwon Burton.