GREEN BAY – Montee Ball had been a member of the Denver Broncos for, oh, about five minutes when the rookie running back learned what the expectations would be for him as a second-round pick.
“I was hanging out with my family, back in Madison at a hotel and I was getting a bunch of texts,” Ball recalled during Super Bowl XLVIII Media Day at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Tuesday. “I’m scrolling through them, reading and reading them, and then I get to this last one, and I’m reading congratulations and all this stuff, then I get to the bottom of it and it says ‘P. Manning.’ And I went, ‘Wow.’
“I was like, ‘Mom, Dad, Peyton Manning just texted me.’ I knew it was real just because of what he said in the text. It really hit home for me because he was congratulating me and he said, ‘Really looking forward to having you here because we’re looking for you to help us.’”
And that’s exactly what Ball, the former University of Wisconsin star, has done for the Broncos, who’ll face the Seattle Seahawks Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., for the NFL title.
Although Manning’s out-of-this-world production in the passing game – 5,477 yards, 55 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, 115.1 rating – has carried the day for the NFL’s No. 1 offense, and fifth-year veteran Knowshon Moreno starts and led the team in rushing (241 carries, 1,038 yards, 10 TDs) this season, Ball’s contributions have been valuable, too.
After losing fumbles in back-to-back games early in the season, Ball has settled into his role in the Broncos’ complementary running game. He ended up carrying 120 times for 559 yards and four TDs in regular-season play – including a 117-yard effort in a 35-28 victory at Kansas City on Dec. 1 – and has added 22 carries for 95 yards in the Broncos’ two playoff games. In the AFC Championship Game against New England, he and Moreno shared the rushing load, as Moreno carried 14 times for 59 yards and Ball ran 12 times for 43 yards in Denver’s 26-16 victory.
“It’s difficult at times just because you want to be in the game. You want to run the ball every time as a running back,” Ball told reporters Tuesday. “That’s our mentality as running backs, but I think it’s great how it all worked out because I think me and Knowshon contribute to the offense in our own ways, in a great way, and it’s a nice little 1-2 punch that we have.”
Added Moreno: “We just try to stay balanced as much as possible. If the pass is working, pass the ball. If the run’s working, run the ball. We try to stay as balanced as possible, but at the end of the day, all you want to do is get wins. You want to get to this big game right here. We’re working hard right now to get the biggest win of our lives.”
Running the ball has never been an issue for Ball, of course. He left Wisconsin having scored an NCAA-record 83 touchdowns and rushed for 5,140 yards, the No. 2 mark in program history behind only Ron Dayne, the Heisman Trophy winner who left as the NCAA’s all-time Division I rushing leader at 6,397 yards.
But while it was Ball’s ability to make things happen with the ball in his hands that made him the third running back drafted last spring at No. 58 – after Cincinnati took Giovani Bernard at No. 37 and Pittsburgh took Le’Veon Bell at No. 48, and before Green Bay took Eddie Lacy at No. 61 – the other aspects of the game have become more important for Ball.
Especially because he’s playing with Manning.
“In Wisconsin, [the offense] was fairly basic, and that’s what I tell people. Just going from a college playbook to an NFL playbook is very difficult, but going from a college playbook to Peyton Manning’s playbook is a whole another story,” Ball said. “It was difficult at first to grasp the playbook, but it was a process that was definitely enjoyed because now it’s just second nature to me.”
The offense has become second nature to him because Ball took Manning’s congratulatory text to heart. With veteran back Wills McGahee staying away during the offseason and Moreno recovering from knee surgery, Ball made the most of his offseason snaps with Manning and the starters in organized team activity practices, and now he’s won the veteran QB’s confidence.
“It’s been great just because he’s most definitely a leader in every way and he does a great job of making everybody around him better,” Ball said of Manning. “A lot of times after practice he would talk to me and tell me what I need to get better on. He really helped me on the field before we’d even go into the meeting room, I’d run routes with him and take some handoffs from him and I think that really helped me grow.”
“In our OTAs and that stuff, every day at practice we would work on something. He would ask me, ‘What do you think you need help in?’ I would tell him, ‘I need help with this route or this play.’ Then we would work on it right after practice before we even go to our meetings.”
Asked specifically about pass protection, Ball replied: “It was definitely different. I had 927 carries in college, so pretty much every time I was in the game I was getting the handoff. Going from that to the NFL and pass blocking, it was a challenge for me. It was definitely a challenge, but we have great coaches. We worked on it in practice and I made some great strides in that.”
Now, those strides have him set to contribute in Super Bowl XLVIII, a year removed from his last game for the Badgers.
“It’s been great,” Ball said. “I’m in the Super Bowl as a rookie. That’s a very rare moment for me and for a lot of people that land in the Super Bowl, period. It’s something that is very special for me.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.