DENVER -- Two days after playing without a professional quarterback resulted in a cringeworthy performance, which roiled fans toward the NFL and the team, Broncos president CEO Joe Ellis sent a message.
Ellis, who recently overcame his bout with COVID-19, praised his players for showing unity, but admitted "all of us must take responsibility." Last Sunday, the Broncos finished as the first team with one pass completion since 2005, and their 12 net passing yards represented the fewest since 1983.
It was the direct result of practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton playing quarterback for 24 snaps because Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles were ruled ineligible after being identified as high-risk close contacts to Jeff Driskel.
The NFL pulled them from practice Saturday moments before it started, leaving the Broncos little time to prepare after it was deemed Lock, Rypien and Bortles broke mask protocol when in a meeting room Tuesday and Wednesday with Driskel, who tested positive Thursday.
"We share the disappointment of our fans for the challenging and unique situation our team faced at the last minute this weekend. While it's easy to point fingers, all of us must take responsibility and work together to prevent it from happening again," Ellis wrote in a statement. "Throughout this season. I'm proud of the hard work and dedication of our staff to create a safe environment for everyone, led by our medical, facilities and compliance efforts. It's especially important to recognize the discipline and sacrifices of the players -- and their families -- this year. The players have stuck together and done a tremendous job facing adversity with a positive mindset. That was never more clear than on Sunday against the Saints."
"As we enter the final month of this unprecedented season, we must do even more with the COVID-19 spike around the league and community. I met with John Elway and Vic Fangio virtually on Monday afternoon, and together we outlined what needs to be done to step it up. It's a team effort -- players, coaches and staff. We will learn from this and be ready for the challenge of facing the Chiefs in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football."
The league became a frequent target for the fans, who cited examples of where games were pushed back to accommodate compromised teams. The league made it clear in the Broncos situation that they will not move games for competitive balance reasons. The Broncos pleaded to play the Saints on Tuesday when their quarterbacks would have been available with continued negative tests. That turned out to be the case. Lock, Rypien and Bortles tested negative Tuesday, were removed from the COVID-19 restricted list, leaving them in line to return to practice Wednesday, though coach Vic Fangio did not rule out fining them.
Fangio represented the lone, consistent voice Sunday and Monday from leadership expressing disappointment in the quarterbacks, while admitting he stilled "loved them."
Several players said the quarterbacks would be welcomed back with open arms. Lock admitted he made an "honest mistake," issuing an apology Monday on Twitter. Monday, his mother Laura Lock breathed life into the controversy with a Facebook post, reading, in part, "shame on the many for thinking they can speak of others in damning ways. ... the NFL used one of their own as an example -- this is where the shame is."
As for the NFL, it moves games for outbreaks and for teams struggling to contain the virus. The Broncos, who could be fined by the league and treated as a repeat offender because Fangio was docked for not consistently wearing a face covering against Pittsburgh, had a position group wiped out for not following protocol that made them high-risk.
The league believes its protocols work. It isolates close contacts to mitigate spread. Tuesday, I reached out to Brian McCarthy, NFL Vice President of Communications, for an explanation on why the Broncos quarterbacks were placed in isolation.
"We follow the facts and science. The decision to isolate those players was based on the medical opinion of professionals based on protocols developed jointly by the NFL and NFLPA in consultation with outside medical experts, including the CDC. There have been more than 20 players who were determined to be high-risk who later turned positive. The medical professionals are concerned for the health and safety of players and personnel. We did not want the virus to further spread among the club," McCarthy said.
There have been numerous incidents were clubs lost players for practices -- Raiders, 49ers, Packers, Lions -- who were identified as close contacts. They were quarantined and did not practice. It allowed the games to continue.
The Broncos have been hit hard by the virus with several players and coaches testing positive over the last several months, including Von Miller, Kareem Jackson, Andrew Beck, Graham Glasgow, Shelby Harris and Driskel, running backs coach Curtis Modkins, offensive line boss Mike Munchak and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who has been sidelined for a month. Ellis, Elway and several staffers also tested positive. Elway returned to work before the Dolphins game.
The disappointment and anger that swirled Sunday remained understandable. Having the Broncos play felt like it exposed the league to a double-standard. The league insisted it was not, but Denver, remember, lost its bye week and was forced to juggle its schedule after its game with the Patriots was moved over an outbreak. As such, some players wondered if the Broncos were being singled out unfairly.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones disagreed on his weekly radio spot Tuesday. He said the Broncos using Hinton was comparable to the Cowboys playing seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci when Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton were hurt. DiNucci, however, was a quarterback in college last season. Hinton hadn't played the position regularly since 2015, and was working as a fundraising salesman a few weeks ago.
Ellis lending his voice was necessary, and, it can be argued, should have been heard on Monday. The Broncos need to move forward. Playing the victim is not going to help them. It is time to work together and find solutions.