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A Mile-High Gridiron Nightmare

detail of an NFL logo on a clothing item.
photo by Flickr user thelittleone417, licensed under CC BY-SA

I’ve had a recurring nightmare since I was a drama major in college.

I step on the stage in front of a huge audience, all waiting for me to start the opening number. I open my mouth and nothing comes out; I’ve forgotten all my lines. I often wake up in a panic before I realize it was just a nightmare, and I have not, in fact, embarrassed myself in front of thousands of people.

Denver Broncos “quarterback” Kendall Hinton saw his dream of starting in an NFL game turn into a nightmare this past Saturday. In an event that can only be described as “so 2020,” all four of the Broncos quarterbacks on the roster were deemed ineligible to play in Sunday’s game versus the New Orleans Saints just 24 hours before the game was due to start.

Third-stringer Jeff Driskel had tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday and is on the reserve/COVID-19 list for the foreseeable future. Sports writer Adam Schefter reported on Saturday that all remaining Broncos quarterbacks (starter Drew Lock, backup Brett Rypien and practice squad member Blake Bortles) had been deemed “high risk” because they came into contact with Driskel in a Wednesday meeting and were not wearing masks. Reporter Benjamin Allbright later clarified that masks were only lowered to communicate during the meeting. Even so, the NFL caught these protocol violations on video and ruled out all three players on Saturday. The Broncos unsuccessfully petitioned the NFL to start their offensive quality control coach, Rob Calabrese, who hadn’t taken an offensive snap since his tenure with the Central Florida Knights ended in 2012. The team also considered starting Broncos backup running back Royce Freeman, who serves as emergency quarterback. Hinton, an undrafted rookie wide receiver on the practice squad, eventually got the call.

Yes, you read that correctly – a wide receiver started as a quarterback in the National Football League.

Hinton is not without experience under center. He played quarterback both in high school and in college at Wake Forest, before switching to slot receiver in his redshirt senior season. Even so, learning the Broncos’ playbook and preparing to lead an NFL team in less than one day was a monumental task. I don’t doubt even the most seasoned quarterback would have struggled with it.

In essence, the Broncos asked Hinton to go on stage without knowing his lines. Only instead of mere embarrassment in front of a televised audience, Hinton faced the potential that a 300-pound defensive lineman would seriously injure him.

The game unfolded as most would expect. Hinton threw more passes to the other team (two) than he did to his own team (one), which hadn’t happened since first-round draft bust Ryan Leaf did so in 1998. Hinton finished with a 0.0 quarterback rating, out of a possible 158.3. The Broncos defense did the best they could to get after Saints backup quarterback Taysom Hill, but they were on the field for over half the game. (Hill was playing because future Hall of Famer Drew Brees is out with broken ribs and a collapsed lung. I would hope the Little League “mercy rule” would have been instituted if he had played.) The Broncos fell 31-3 in the first game played with no quarterbacks on the roster since 1965.

If the Broncos found themselves without any of their quarterbacks in a normal year, they could have gone out and signed anyone off the street. Peyton Manning would have been my first choice, but any other out-of-work quarterback would have sufficed. Due to league COVID protocols, though, any free agents or players signed or acquired from other teams must wait six days before being eligible to play. The Broncos truly had no options available to them with less than a day to find someone. They went with the best of all the terrible choices, and it turned out as poorly as anyone could have expected.

Many Broncos players and fans have expressed displeasure that the league allowed this travesty. Denver tight end Noah Fant tweeted his complaint at the NFL and asked what would happen if Hinton were injured – the Broncos had no backup quarterback. Safety Kareem Jackson suggested the NFL tried to make an example out of the Broncos by refusing to postpone the game because the quarterbacks broke protocol.

Many fans like me see a double standard in how the league is handling postponements. The NFL discussed reasons for postponing games at their fall meeting and stated that games would not be postponed due to COVID-19 breakouts by position group. This has sometimes held. The Oct. 25 game in which the Las Vegas Raiders lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was not postponed, despite the entire Raiders offensive line being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier in the week. The Raiders players were cleared to play the day before the game. But Raiders coach Jon Gruden was still livid with the league, because he felt his players couldn’t prepare.

Other times, however, the rules seem more flexible. There has been an ever-growing list of game postponements throughout the season, including one for the Broncos’ matchup with the Patriots in Week 6. This game was initially moved from Sunday, Oct. 11 to Monday, Oct. 12 after Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore tested positive for COVID-19. The game was then moved to Sunday, Oct. 18 after quarterback Cam Newton tested positive. The Broncos were supposed to have their bye week (a week without a game) in Week 8, but due to the other schedule changes caused by the Patriots game postponement, the Broncos’ bye week became the earlier – and thus less favorable – Week 5.

The NFL has stated that they will only consider postponing games if there is a widespread, uncontrollable COVID-19 outbreak on a team. This certainly was not the case for the Patriots in October.

The Baltimore Ravens are genuinely experiencing such an outbreak at this writing, and their Thanksgiving Day game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed three times. They were expected to play Sunday, Nov. 29, then Tuesday, Dec. 1, and finally on Wednesday, Dec. 2. At this writing, the Ravens have more than 20 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The outbreak has been traced back to a strength and conditioning coach who failed to report symptoms of the virus and did not consistently wear a mask while around players and other coaches. The Ravens organization has punished the coach, but the NFL will most likely still punish the Ravens with hefty fines and the possibility of a draft pick loss.

The league is also investigating the Broncos, and punishment will be forthcoming. It has already fined all four of the quarterbacks individually. Most players and fans are asking: Wasn’t being forced to play the game on Sunday punishment enough? The NFL basically gave the Saints a win, which will likely cause outrage in their division, the NFC South. How fair is it to gift one team with a win when the other three teams in the division have to play rivals with functioning quarterbacks? The Atlanta Falcons played the Raiders with Derek Carr, their star quarterback, starting. The Falcons still trounced them, 43-6. Shouldn’t that count more than the “gimme” game the Saints received? The Buccaneers played a close game against last year’s Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, and lost by only three points. They will now fall further behind the Saints in the rankings. The Saints are a better team than the Broncos and most likely would have defeated them even with Drew Lock starting. Still, it would have been nice to see a competitive game instead of the absolute dreck to which fans were subjected.

The Broncos have fallen a long way since their Super Bowl win in the 2015 season, and while the NFL’s sometimes arbitrary decisions are frustrating, the failures of team leadership are the Broncos’ larger problem. I’ve written about the ownership struggles the Broncos have had for our firm’s Sentinel newsletter. Almost two years after my original article, the Broncos seem to be no closer to determining which member of the Bowlen family, if any, will assume ownership. Lack of proper leadership seems to have filtered down to all levels. The league has already fined the team for head coach Vic Fangio’s failure to wear his mask during the first two games of the season. It appears the noncompliance with mask rules has traveled down to the players as well. Drew Lock’s apology for breaking protocol seems sincere, but how can he say it was an “honest mistake” when it has become the norm for everyone to wear masks at all times when we are in public? And how can he, and the other quarterbacks, not mask up when they know the NFL is recording practices to ensure compliance?

Had Bowlen still been alive and owned the Broncos in 2020, or had the Bowlen Trust chosen a new owner by now, it isn’t certain that the NFL would have postponed the Saints game at all. If Broncos bigwigs had fought for the same treatment other teams have received, the outcome might have been different. After all, the team could very possibly face an “uncontrolled outbreak.” The quarterbacks had their meeting on Wednesday, Driskel tested positive on Thursday, and all the remaining quarterbacks had contact with the rest of the team until they were sent home before Saturday’s practice. Someone should have presented this (likely convincing) argument to the league. It seems the Broncos were too busy trying to convince the NFL to allow them to sign coach Calabrese to fight for postponement.

I am in no way faulting Kendall Hinton for this loss. He did what he could with the very limited time he had to prepare, and the fact that he walked off the field in one piece is admirable. I am not even blaming the NFL, despite my frustration at their inconsistent decisions about postponement. I am instead faulting the entire Broncos organization. The ongoing fight over ownership has created far too much drama and mediocrity. I am repulsed and angered by a team I once loved, and I know I am not alone. The miscues and false promises of the past five years culminated in the utter ridiculousness of playing a game without a quarterback.

I hope this is the low point for the Broncos, but they can sink further. I would like to wake up from this particular nightmare.

Client Service Associate Aline Pitney was the author of Chapter 12, “What Estate Planning Documents Do I Need?”, in the first edition of our firm’s book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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