- NICKI JHABVALA
C.J. Anderson changed it up this offseason. Now he says he’s back to “playing undrafted.”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and C.J. Anderson is still donning his cutoff workout hoodie and grass-stained training pants, pulled up to expose his bright pink feet.
He went with Powerpuff Girls (Buttercup is his favorite) this day, so he wore his “Girls Rock” socks under his No. 22 sandals. Last Sunday, after tearing up the Cowboys’ defense, Anderson walked around Sports Authority Field at Mile High with his Sonic The Hedgehog backpack, an appropriate accessory with his sparkling blue Christian Louboutin sneakers valued at $3,000.
Every practice includes a different pair of cartoon socks, and game days typically include a bit of color and a bit of bling. Because Anderson likes to keep it fresh and interesting and, if you haven’t noticed, he’s changed up quite a few things this season, on the field and off.
“Everything I know now is week to week, day to day,” he said. “I got to take care of Monday before I can take care of Tuesday. That’s how I look at it now.”
Last weekend against the Cowboys, Anderson rushed for a game-high 118 yards on 25 carries and forced six missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. And entering Week 3, he has amassed 199 yards rushing (second-most in the NFL) and is on pace for 1,592 on the season.
He’s been a catalyst for the Broncos and a vital piece of their offensive revival. But his journey back from a meniscus injury and his journey ahead as the leader of a deep running back group prompted a new training regimen and, he says, a new outlook.
At the recommendation of running backs coach Eric Studesville, Anderson took up cycling, for both recovery and conditioning, to help him stay on the field longer. Some weekends he’d ride up to 72 miles. Others, he’d go for 65. Tuesday, he went for a casual 12.
“He was trying to find something that he could do that he felt like was really pushing himself, training-wise,” Studesville said. “As we were talking about it, some of the things he was doing with his knee recovery and everything, the boxing and twisting on it, we weren’t sure that was really good for him. So I threw out to him, ‘Hey, why don’t you try cycling? I don’t know, but try it out because it’s just continuous motion, it’s gotta be good for the knee to be moving, it strengthens your legs, plus you can get a good workout from it. He didn’t quite believe it until we went riding the first time.”
The work has paid dividends as Anderson, who says he’s in the best shape of his life, leads all NFL backs with 45 carries through two weeks. At this rate, he will have 360 by season’s end. He’s never logged more than 179 (2014).
Anderson is quick to point out that he got off to quick start last year, too, when he logged 40 carries for 166 yards in the first two games. But his played slowed with 164 yards over the next four games and then his season was cut short with the knee injury.
“I think his body is different. I certainly think his conditioning is different,” Studesville said. “But I don’t think it’s just the cycling. I think it’s all the things he’s done. He’s a prideful person. He’s put a lot of time and energy into doing things to get ready to perform this season. I think cycling is just one of them, but his training he did in Houston and things he’s done here and the other things he’s done to take care of his body.”
The biggest question that followed Anderson then continues to hover over him now, even as his play turns heads: Can he turn in a complete 16-game season? The injury that ended his 2016 season was among many that have stalled Anderson’s seasons over the years, but the latest prompted him to focus more on recovery.
“I am doing some things, recovery-wise, to keep my body fresh and to keep my mind fresh. I want to continue to keep doing that,” Anderson said. “I think my teammates are helping me with that too, learning from Demaryius (Thomas), Emmanuel (Sanders), Von (Miller) and (Aqib) Talib, who have been in the league long enough. You start getting around and my life has changed a little bit, financially, so now I can afford some of those other toys that have helped those veterans stay healthy for 16 weeks.”
The injury and his goal to produce more than 1,000 yards over a full 16 weeks also led to a bit of self-reflection.
“I took a lot of this for granted,” he said. “I came in undrafted and then at one point I felt like I made it and I wasn’t playing undrafted. Now I’m back to playing undrafted. … I’m at my best when I play that way.”
Anderson signed a four-year, $18 million contract shortly after Super Bowl 50 that has put him among the NFL’s top 10 among running backs in total value. But the deal gives the Broncos an out after this season. Anderson carries no dead money for the final two years of the contract, meaning the Broncos could move on from him in 2018 at no cost.
“The contract was just all the hard work I put in to get here. I feel like I was the same dude, same guy,” he said. “I’ve always been a cerebral type of guy and one of the sayings is, ‘When you’re not trying to coordinate between the play, you’re at your best.’ So this year I just play. Don’t coordinate at all. Didn’t really give any suggestions. Not too much. Not that I would usually do it. Just went out there with whatever was called and tried to execute it, whether I thought (the call) was good or I thought it was bad. That’s the difference.
“What I’ve done in the past, I’m not doing right now.”