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Broncos’ loss to the Saints belongs to NFL brass

Don’t get me wrong - the Broncos players and coaches lost the game. And there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have won under normal circumstances. But the NFL made sure that couldn’t even happen.

New Orleans Saints v Denver Broncos (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

How do you write about a game that never should have happened?

There are the stats that by any normal measure would be embarrassing:

113 yards on offense - and that included 100 yards rushing.

The Broncos’ quarterback was 1-for-9 passing with 13 yards and two interceptions.

There were two first downs by the Broncos in the first half - one via a run by Phillip Lindsay, one via a penalty by the Saints.

Denver’s defense had three sacks, one interception and forced two fumbles (no recoveries) while holding the Saints’ quarterback to 78 yards rushing. But that was essentially negated by the defense playing 36 minutes of a 60-minute game - that felt more like 50 minutes -and helped the Saints earn more than 200 yards rushing.

Lindsay and Bryce Callahan suffered injuries, taking out the team’s best offensive and best defensive player.

There are quotes that are clearly the “right thing to say” about a huge loss:

“Our guys actually accepted the challenge, as big as it was. Our guys were ready to play. The only thing that I was thinking is that we have to get them ready to go out and play in all three phases, and we did that. That part of it I was pleased with. Obviously, the result is not pleasing and for our quarterbacks to put us in this situation is disappointing. I’m disappointed I didn’t do a good enough job of selling them on the importance of the protocols.” - Vic Fangio

“It was just kind of, play with the cards we were given, you know, make the most out of the situation. I know on defense you’re not worried about what the offense does. We were going to go out and play hard and that was kind of the same mindset. We just got to pick it up a little bit more, be a little extra focused just because we knew it was an uphill battle coming into today, but that was pretty much the mindset going into the game.” - CB Essang Bassey

“They’re a tough defense regardless, but our o-line definitely held their ground—they had to fight them all the way through. I told them after the game that I’m so appreciative for them and that didn’t give up. They went out there and fought to the end, and especially being put in a position like running Wildcat or handing the ball off and running it at quarterback, it definitely made me feel confident, especially running behind the o-line that we have.” - RB Royce Freeman

By all usual metrics, the game was a complete debacle. All the quotes tell a story of a team battling great odds and coming up short.

But those stats and comments don’t come close to telling what really happened yesterday in Denver.

Kendall Hinton, an undrafted rookie wide receiver who was signed to Denver in April and waived after training camp, suited up as the ultimate “replacement” player.

The team had only brought him back to the practice squad just three weeks ago AS A WIDE RECEIVER. And Sunday - because all four of Denver’s quarterbacks were exposed to covid-positive Jeff Driskell on Wednesday - the Broncos had to play without ANY quarterback on the roster.

No postponements, just figure out what to do without a single player to play the most important position on the team.

Hinton had all of a few weeks to even look at Denver’s playbook - but as a practice squad wide receiver.

Not the starting quarterback.

Not even as a backup quarterback.

And he was notified Saturday night that after not starting a game as a quarterback since his freshman year at Wake Forest, he would have a couple hours to learn the plays and start at QB against an 8-2 team vying for a Super Bowl run.

“He did everything he could. He was excited for the opportunity. We had about a two, three, four-hour window to get him ready, which isn’t a lot obviously,” head coach Vic Fangio said. “He was excited for it. We were excited for him; his teammates were excited for him. That’s a big, big ask and it just didn’t work out.”

It didn’t work out because it was never going to.

If there is one thing everyone playing in and/or watching the NFL should know by now, it’s that being quarterback is a damn difficult job. Even the star college quarterbacks who have months of training camp and preseason to learn a playbook and get some reps struggle mightily at first with the “speed of the game” and the complexity of the defenses that they could never have seen even at the highest levels of the college game.

What Hinton did yesterday was not only “deserving of respect,” it was freakin’ heroic.

My anger at the NFL for not giving the Broncos the same breaks they have given the Titans, the Patriots, the Ravens, the Steelers, [insert another winning team here] all season is well-documented on Twitter (and also Rated R+ so fair warning...).

I was furious Saturday night learning that the game would go on, was super annoyed at the Broncos’ QBs for putting the team in this position, angry that the NFL didn’t see not only the hypocrisy of this action but most importantly the danger of having a game go on with a woefully unprepared signal caller that could result in major injuries.

And it’s true that the NFL would not earn as much blame right now if the Broncos’ quarterbacks had taken covid protection seriously. I feel Fangio’s disappointment.

“I was disappointed on a couple levels. That our quarterbacks put us in this position and that our quarterbacks put the league in this position. We count on them to be the leaders of the team and leaders of the offense and those guys made a mistake and that is disappointing. Obviously, I haven’t done a good enough job of selling the protocols to them when they are on their own so part of that could fall on me. I thought I was. We have emphasized it a lot, and we’re really doing good with COVID up to this point as it relates relative to other teams. There was a failing there and that’s disappointing.”

And it is not lost on me that Hinton’s day in the spotlight - while probably not exactly what he would have wanted for his NFL debut - was possibly more attention than he’ll see for a while (though, I hope beyond hope that Broncos Country sees his jersey lining up as a wide receiver on the 53-man roster someday because yesterday’s game proves he has the heart to be on this team).

Hinton deserves all the respect Broncos Country can give - and then some. As much for how he handled the situation on the field as for how awesome he was in the post-game news conference.

“A month ago, I was selling fundraising and just trying to scrape up what I could—trying to stay in shape and figuring out what was next,” he said, adding that he always remained positive about getting to play more football. “But reality did hit and I kind of started having to be an adult.”

He also had to grow up real fast yesterday when he was thrust into a major sports spotlight with very little preparation.

Fangio and the Broncos didn’t even find out about the covid quarantines until after Saturday’s practice.

“It was hectic. ...We had a few hours to put something together, to install in a meeting last night with the players and review again today with the players,” Fangio said after the game. “It was a big ask by everyone. I commend our offensive coaches for their efforts. They tried hard and they were believing. They had the players believing it could work but in the final analysis, it was just too big of an ask.”

For such unfair circumstances, Hinton took it in stride and even admitted to wanting to play better.

“Yes, absolutely I expected to play to play better. The Saints have a great defense, but I honestly don’t feel like I played nearly to the best of my ability,” he said. “And of course, a day or two of practice would have definitely helped. I definitely think I could have did more things out there.”

Hinton’s teammates certainly weren’t disappointed.

“I’ve known Kendall for like five years now and I’ve always known he’s a competitor,” said Essang Bassey, who played alongside Hinton at Wake Forest. “He’s been like a brother to me. I know he’s focused going into games and the type of player and type of person he is. It was a lot of pressure on him, and it’s short notice and he handled it unlike anybody I’ve ever seen. He was calm and he was focused like he always has been, and you know I was really proud of him. Proud to know him and like I said, I was really, really proud of how he went about the situation.”

Hinton acknowledged that he expected the game to be faster than he could imagine, but it still required a mental adjustment.

“Yeah, coming in I knew that I had no idea what the speed of the game was like. I’m familiar with our concepts but it’s a lot different from quarterback,” he said. “So, coming in we knew it’d be a tough situation for sure. That was a challenge that I wanted to take on.”

The pass rush wasn’t a huge issue for the one-day quarterback, but finding an open receiver was exactly what every new NFL QB realizes immediately - the window of opportunity there is extremely short.

“The rush wasn’t too much of an issue—our o-line did great—just the overall speed of the game,” he said. “How the linebackers closed within seconds, it’s just something you got to experience to kind of prepare for that. You don’t know until you see it.”

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the day was realizing that with a fair fight, the Broncos could have made it a game. The offense might have been successful on a few drives and gotten more points, which would have let the defense have a break and capitalize on many of its good stops early on.

And maybe they wouldn’t have.

After all, Tom Brady and his Bucs only scored three points against the Saints, and if there’s a QB out there with experience...well, it’s Brady.

“I have a lot of love and respect for our players. They’re competitors, they’re fighters and they did that this afternoon, all the way to the end, under some extreme circumstances that have never been seen before,” Fangio said. “They went out there and competed. I know the score is what it is, but our guys competed. They played hard, they played physical and I love them and respect them even more.”

And for all of it - all the blame that can be shared between the NFL, the Broncos, the quarterbacks - none of that matters in the end.

What matters is that the Broncos are 4-7 and have a slate of opponents that are all winning right now, including two that could be playing for the AFC championship.

So they just have to keep dealing with the season as it comes. Fair or not.

(but I’ll still be putting an asterisk on this loss and giving it to the NFL).