With the arrival of new head coach Josh McDaniels this season, plenty of Broncos players had to expect adjusted roles this season. But for the few facing a drastic, unexpected change -- a change that may have been hard to buy into initially -- they faced a choice: Sulk and be left behind.
Or accept it. Like McDaniels likes to say -- well, actually demand -- "Do your job."
So, Royal has.
In his second NFL season, Royal, a big-play receiver as a rookie, has morphed into a move-the-chains possession guy. It has not been an easy transition. But against the New England Patriots here on Sunday, it was certainly productive.
Royal made 10 catches for 90 yards against the Patriots -- Nine of them were on Broncos scoring drives, seven were for first downs (including three on third-down), and none was for more than 15 yards.
Eddie Royal out-Welkered the Patriots Wes Welker in Denver's thrilling 20-17 overtime victory.
It was the culmination of a stunning, and somewhat stinging, role reversal for Royal.
A second-round pick out of Virginia Tech last year, Royal torched the league in his debut season -- he became the first player since the 1970 merger to provide his team's longest run (71 yards), longest reception (95), longest kickoff return (95) and longest punt return (36) in one season. He caught 91 balls and averaged 10.8 yards per catch as a rookie. Only Arizona's Anquan Boldin (101 in 2003) caught more passes as a rookie in NFL history.
But year two has been much different for Royal.
Enter McDaniels. Enter more short stuff. Do your job.
"It's been humbling," Royal said. "It's been hard. Last year, it was a lot of big plays, and this year it is underneath. I've had to become more physical, learn how to operate in tight spots, do my job and do what I can do to help us win. Take the good, the bad and the ugly. Learn to fight in the way I'm asked, like everyone else."
Former Broncos receiver Rod Smith has been in Royal's ear, much like he's done with Denver's controversial receiver Brandon Marshall. Smith has inspired Royal to think wider -- to accept that he can excel at the dink-and-dunk stuff, even if he feels he's a home-run threat.
"Eddie is a receiver with great speed and can run by anybody," Smith said. "You go from catching 90-plus balls and doing that to what his role is now? Man, that's tough for an NFL receiver. It's huge. But he is understanding now that this is a totally different scheme and a totally different building and franchise. It's like a worker who one day walked into Microsoft and the next day walked into Mac -- the whole building and attitude and philosophy and structure have changed with Josh.
"For a young player, you have one year one way, that is your NFL experience, and now you have a totally different role. I tell him, some games you might catch one or two balls and some days 10 or 12. It's about pride. Don't let it beat you. He is loved here by the fans and his teammates. He's a football player. He's a winning football player."
In Royal's first four games this season, he caught eight balls for 58 yards. His average yards per catch has dipped to 8.2 yards this season, and he's yet to catch a touchdown pass -- he caught five in 2008.
But Royal is not alone in needing to adjust, said Broncos sixth-year linebacker D.J. Williams.
"Everybody is starting to buy into the fact that it does not matter if your numbers are down or different if we are winning," Williams said. "We have fewer players worrying about making the Pro Bowl and getting individual honors and more guys putting the team first. I know on defense, that is a big part of what is transpiring. Everybody gets a turn to make a play. Just do your job and your time comes."
For Royal, that is a lesson that he still needs to master. At 23 years old, the 5-foot-10, 186-pound Royal has the potential to be explosive -- he's so quick, so elusive. He has all the makings of a big-play producer and a deep route runner, but has spent 2009 as a hook and curl guy.
But that is the beauty of the NFL, and the wonder of watching youth bloom.
As the Broncos move forward, Royal will likely get his chance to do some of what he loves. Some games will dictate that.
McDaniels said of Royal's effort against the Patriots: "It was just some of the scheme they were using. A lot of reads took us to Eddie on the weak side. That is kind of the way this offense goes. We don't force it to anybody, and they told us to throw it to Eddie Royal and he did a great job."
McDaniels specifically defines roles -- some of the Broncos are still swallowing that approach. Eddie Royal, for now, is a possession receiver.
And the Broncos are unbeaten heading to San Diego next week.
"We've got a lot of new, fresh ideas, new roles for a lot of people, and it's working," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "I think the key is for everyone to remain settled and calm and keep working their roles. We've been able to do that while winning, and that sure helps the process."
A humbled Royal is big for the Broncos.
"I've always been a big-play receiver," Royal said. "I'm something different right now. I didn't have a clue after last year that it was going to be like this.
"But we play a team game. And we play for each other."