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The Good, the Bad, and the Elway: Kendall Hinton, QB5

Don’t burn the tape just yet. There’s things to glean from the wreckage of the Broncos’ 31-3 loss.

New Orleans Saints v Denver Broncos
Kendall Hinton couldn’t bring home a storybook ending. There’s still lessons to learn.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The NFL made an example of Drew Lock and the Denver Broncos, so Kendall Hinton showed the world how you can’t just step into a game against and NFL defense and perform. Along the way everyone in Broncos Country got to witness one of the worst games in NFL history. For some unholy reason, I went and dug through the wreckage. What follows are musings and a few clips that really caught my eye.

The game that should have never been.

All respect to Kendall Hinton, but it’s insane that he had to play yesterday. It’s the kind of debacle where so many people failed that you lose track of them. First and foremost: the NFL should have never let the game happen without practice reps. That’s just begging disaster and this is supposed to be a league that values player safety. Beyond that, the fact John Elway, Vic Fangio, and the Broncos coaching staff did not have a quarantined quarterback with four on the roster and practice squad is simply malpractice.

Defensive musings

Get well soon Bryce Callahan.
Get well soon, Bryce Callahan.
  • Everyone gets mad on Sundays and I understand that, but we need to remember that the other team is paid too. The Saints are really, really good. Jones had a tough day in no small part because he played against Ryan Ramczyk.
  • Against teams with really powerful passing attacks such as the Saints, Chiefs, Bills, and Chargers, the Broncos will probably always concede yards on the ground in an effort to slow down the passing attacks.
  • While I do not expect the Broncos’ passing attack to look good against Kansas City because no one stops Patrick Mahomes and the aerial circus, this secondary impresses me weekly with all things considered. A ton of credit for that has to go to Fangio’s willingness to bend his defense to the personnel at hand. Justin Simmons and Alexander Johnson surely help.
The Broncos pass defense routinely punches above its weight.
  • One of the more apparent issues that shows up at this point with the Broncos’ defensive front is that they’re so small. DeMarcus Walker is listed at 273 lbs. DreMont Jones is 281. DeShawn Williams is 283. Even with issues along the left side of their line, New Orleans was able to overwhelm them at the point of attack.
  • Against a team like the Saints or Bills that can run a QB Power with a double team down to the 3 technique and a lead blocker for the edge? It’s going to present issues because Fangio will lean towards running two high safeties to protect against their receivers, which means fewer bodies in the box. I was surprised it didn’t crop up worse against the Patriots and Cam Newton, but their issues with injuries and Covid wrecked their offensive line. Having 11 on 11 with lead blockers is basically cheating.
Denver had issues when the Saints down-blocked with a double team and kicked out the edge.
Josh Allen is going to be a problem in week 15.
  • We’re at a point in McTelvin Agim’s development where we may see some mistakes. Keep the faith.
  • Josey Jewell has exceeded my expectations, but that doesn’t mean the Broncos couldn’t find a better running mate for Alexander Johnson in 2021. Jewell’s been a good run defender, not an elite one, and I doubt his issues with range are going to disappear with time.
  • I think we need to remember that the Broncos are playing without their DL1, 2, 4, and Von Miller right now. It’s on my mind every single time I focus on the defensive line.
  • By no means am I rooting for it, but it’s not outlandish to believe the Broncos may look to replace Jurrell Casey and Shelby Harris with another draft pick in 2021. Over the first two years of his tenure, Fangio has added Dre’Mont Jones and McTelvin Agim while signing Mike Purcell. The rookies are smaller gap penetrators while Purcell plays the nose. I continue to expect a player like Akiem Hicks and we haven’t seen him yet, but he may become a cap casualty in 2021 as Chicago’s facing a scary cap situation and could have a new GM.

Sifting through the wreckage.

It is safe to assume John Elway didn’t have Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum, and Kyle Orton in mind when he said, “win from now on,” but outside of Peyton Manning, they’re the best passers he’s employed. While hope remains Drew Lock can become a viable signal caller, the fact remains he’s currently on pace for roughly a 55.7% completion, 2,640 yards, 12 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, 19 sacks, and 8 fumbles. Brett Rypien showed a few hints that he’s capable of becoming long-term depth at the position, but also a weak arm and reliance on his primary read against the Jets. Blake Bortles’ career highlight is that he became a running gag in The Good Place. Jeff Driskel.

The fact Denver had to fall all the way to QB5 against a Super Bowl contender with every other issue they’ve had almost became a sort of comic relief. 2020 has been a sick joke from the moment Von Miller suffered a freak injury. Even before the news Saturday night, this game looked like a longshot because the Saints have such a strong run defense. Take away any chance at a competent passing attack and the contest became the sort of car wreck passersby’s rubberneck on their way home to warm up Thanksgiving leftovers.

While most of the tape is so bleak as to warrant burning, I wanted to take a look with an eye on how the coaching staff tried to adapt in such an impossible situation. Kendall Hinton said the team had as little as 20 plays. With all the criticism Shurmur has earned for Drew Lock’s performance this season, did he try to help his receiver starting at quarterback? Did anything specific work in the running game?

Hinton had an open receiver on his first play of the day.
Hinton had an open man on his first play of the day.

The first pass of the game went as designed, even if Hinton couldn’t execute it. Facing 3rd and 3 after three Wildcat plays, Hinton takes his first snap. The Broncos came out with a 2X2 set with Melvin Gordon aligned next to the quarterback. Tim Patrick ran a slant off the backside of the play while Hinton rolled right. The frontside is a simple go flat. New Orleans sends their nickel and the safety can’t get over to K.J. Hamler before he snaps open.

It’s typical for a young passer to rely on their first read, even after a normal preseason, so the fact Hinton locked on to a target didn’t surprise me at all. Neither did his lack of precise footwork, pocket management, or timing. I rarely mention this because it should be obvious, but playing quarterback in the NFL is ridiculously hard. There’s a reason so many teams routinely latch on to the first hint at marginal play they can find.

Hinton’s struggles should remind us how hard it is to play quarterback in the NFL.

Given no alternative, it seemed obvious to play Gordon and Lindsay in the backfield together. Before Lindsay’s injury, they did so on five carries. They combined for 26 rushing yards. As a team, the Broncos averaged 2.64 yards a carry on every other rushing attempt. Keep in mind it’s a really small sample size and two plays were responsible for the high total: Lindsay’s second carry where he broke free for 13, and a 1st and 10 late in the second quarter.

The way Melvin Gordon stops allows his blockers to set up.
The way Melvin Gordon stops allows his blockers to set up.

What may interest only me is the best two carries outside of the “Pony” backfield came with Hinton and Gordon in a Pistol set. The first happened on the opening snap of the third quarter. The other was a play in the middle of the fourth with the score 31-3 Saints. Shurmur dialed up just four pistol plays in total and they all happened in the second half.

With Lock’s comfort rolling out and a need to establish play action, I’ve wanted Shurmur to dabble in more Pistol for a long time now. The alignment of the quarterback between a true shotgun set and under center allows for more diversity in the rushing attack and still buys a little extra time to set up passes. Admittedly, I’ve been a nerd about it since it first hit the NFL, but I suspect it’d also make life easier for QB1.

Gordon's showed off very good patience and vision on this run.
Gordon shows off very good patience and vision on this run.

During the game the Denver Post’s Ryan O’Halloran made what I assume is a joke about the Broncos’ lack of screen calls, I was left wondering how many screen passes the Broncos have actually run this year. I reached out to Seth Galina of Pro Football Focus and he confirmed my suspicions. The Broncos have run the fewest screens in the league this year by a country mile with 15. That’s half as many as the next lowest team, the Atlanta Falcons. The Patriots have the most with 52.

My best guess as to why the Broncos run so few screens is because they’ve been really bad at them. As has been the case throughout this season, you can point the blame for that at the design, the execution, or the situations they’re called in. You need all three to run an efficient offense, and that’s something this unit has sorely lacked all year.

In the end, this game went exactly how most expected when the news broke Saturday. Kendall Hinton wasn’t able to pull off the Hollywood upset and the Saints rolled to an easy victory. Bryce Callahan and Phillip Lindsay were injured in the contest.

If there’s a lesson NFL teams should learn from this game, it’s the need for something akin to a “designated survivor.” The idea originated during the Cold War in fear that a nuclear attack would wipe out the American government. In order to protect against that, one person in line for president was secluded off during the kind of events where mass casualty events were possible. Pretty big apples to oranges, but it’s a similar strategy to try to prevent a situation where every player from a critical position group like quarterback is suddenly unable to play.

On Monday Vic Fangio received quite a bit of blowback when he said he had no plans to quarantine a quarterback. As I write this, the Broncos have brought in Pat Shurmur’s son. Let’s hope it’s for an emergency role. With all due respect, I don’t want to watch Kendall Hinton play quarterback again.