DENVER -- The novelty wore off quickly. Not having a quarterback is no fun.
The Broncos found themselves in a lonesome place Sunday, their pleas to the NFL to move the game falling on deaf ears. Sunday was simultaneously fascinating, and yet constantly blanketed by anger, frustration and disappointment. The New Orleans Saints throttled the Broncos 31-3, as expected Sunday afternoon before an empty Empower Field at Mile High.
Nothing about this was surprising, but it remained sobering long after the Broncos suffered their seventh defeat, leaving them creeping toward their fourth consecutive losing season for the first time since the 1963-1972 drought.
"I was disappointed on several levels, that our QBs put us in that position, that our QBs put the league in that position. We count on them to be the leaders of our team, the leaders of our offense, and those guys made a mistake," coach Vic Fangio said, before adding, "I haven’t done a good enough job of selling the protocols to them when they’re on their own. That’s on me."
Kendall Hinton began the morning as revelation. He was working in sales a few weeks ago, and the receiver was promoted from the practice squad to log quarterback snaps. He hadn't played the position regularly since 2015 at Wake Forest. Perhaps that is why he did not start, an honor falling to Phillip Lindsay in the wildcat formation. Hinton also took zero snaps during the week in preparation for a job he wasn't qualified for and didn't apply for on LinkedIn.
"Yeah, I can easily say that was the most eventful 24 hours of my life, but when I got the call there was pure excitement," Hinton said. "Of course, there was nerves and disbelief, but the encouragement the team gave me and guys just keeping me up the whole time. They made it a lot easier for me.”
The Broncos posted zero completions in the first half since Tim Tebow in 2011. Hinton, wearing No. 2 went 0-for-7 with an interception in the first 30 minutes. He was hardly to blame. He should receive a gameball for volunteering for this thankless task, and was in fact singled out for praise by Fangio in the postgame locker room. The effort should be applauded. The results were not kind: 1-for-9 with two interceptions.
His performance heightened the fans' rage at the NFL. The Broncos finished with 112 total yards and six first downs.
So why wasn't this game moved?
CEO Joe Ellis, general manager John Elway and coach Vic Fangio pleaded their case to no avail. The league has made it clear they will move games because of COVID-19 outbreaks or if a team is struggling to contain the virus. The league will not make the switch over competitive balance. So the game remained and it was a mismatch of plaid on stripes proportions.
The Broncos had no chance once Saints quarterback Taysom Hill scored on a 1-yard run with 10:19 left in the second quarter. Hill kept the game close with a passing performance (9-for-16, 78 yards, one interception) that belonged on black and white film with leather helmets.
But the Broncos were more predictable than a Hallmark movie. Hinton netted his first completion in the third quarter, a 13-yard delayed screen to Noah Fant. It was his only completion with time ticking out in the fourth. With three minutes remaining, the Broncos boasted 88 yards and five first downs.
There was no threat of gains happening with any frequency as the Saints' ferocious rush defense dropped its teeth into Lindsay, Melvin Gordon and Royce Freeman.
"Definitely we were thrown a curveball," said Freeman, who indicated that the quarterbacks would be welcomed back with open arms. "The Saints have 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."
Of course, it's fair to wonder if this game should have been played. The Broncos found themselves in this position because quarterbacks Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles violated mask protocol while in a meeting with Jeff Driskel, who was placed on the COVID-19 restricted list. The three were deemed high risk through contact tracing from video the Broncos provided -- the team cooperated with the investigation -- and were benched by the league.
The Broncos quarterbacks met Tuesday to study film and let their guard down, according to Fangio, regarding wearing masks the entire time.
Lock admitted his mistake in a statement an hour before the game.
"In a controlled and socially distanced area, we let our masking slip for an amount of time. An honest mistake, but one I will own," Lock wrote in part. "I sincerely apologize and I fully understand why these safety precautions are so important. Doing the right thing for a majority of time is not good enough."
Some fans and critics clobbered the quarterbacks, namely Lock. But long-standing habits -- such as not wearing a mask 100 percent of the time -- are difficult to break, and the NFL has been moving the goal posts with increased rules. Clearly, the NFL showed in its discipline of the Broncos -- and more fines could be coming as the league continues its investigation -- that it believes its protocols work, so it points the fingers at the violators not the legislation. And many wondered if the league was sending the Broncos a message over the the ownership situation that has gone unresolved and spawned litigation over the past two seasons.
Whether the Broncos were singled out remains a matter of debate, and certainly was a popular topic on social media. What isn't arguable? This is the last thing the Broncos needed. They are struggling team that appears rudderless too often when weighed against the franchise's glorious history under late owner Pat Bowlen. When Peyton Manning started, games were judged successful not just on wins, but style points.
Sunday, the Broncos were happy to avoid the indignity of a shutout. Brandon McManus drilled a 58-yard field goal with 6:56 remaining in the third quarter. He set a record in the process, his seventh kick of at least 50 yards, a single-season Broncos' high-water mark.
All the other numbers of this game were historical footnotes. The Broncos offense opened with three direct snaps to Lindsay, including a 15-yard run. Freeman then ran the ball in the wildcat and Hinton made his debut on the game's fifth play. Effort was not an issue. But he was overmatched. Watching the Saints offense without Drew Brees, it made Broncos fans believe an upset might have been possible with Lock or Rypien.
Sunday began with warm feelings as Hinton was the last player introduced, his teammates, some of whom he had never met, greeting him with waved arms and boisterous yells. For all intents and purposes, that was the highlight.
The Broncos' drive to relevancy ended when the league pulled the three quarterbacks from practice on Saturday (why the league didn't tell the Broncos sooner remains an issue. A source said the league had the Broncos in-house video on Thursday, and a ruling Friday would have allowed Hinton to practice).
No one can fault the Broncos' ambition. Even through clinched teeth, they welcomed this test. But it proved impossible to pass without a quarterback.
"For me, I'm not really disappointed in our guys, the quarterbacks. I know the protocols have picked up a little bit. Wearing that mask and being in the room on a day-to-day basis definitely becomes kind of irritating, but honestly, we have to do what we have to do," veteran safety Kareem Jackson said.
"But at the same time, I just feel like going into the game, we weren't given a chance. Like I said, earlier in the year, we had a game get pushed back, a bye-week taken, and to have to continue to play this game and not being given the chance to at least figure things out as far as our quarterback situation. That was definitely disappointing, but at the same time, we've still got to follow the protocols and do what we have to do to keep guys safe."
Running back Phillip Lindsay, who started at quarterback, sat out the second half with a knee injury. Lindsay tested out it for several minutes on the sideline, but was ruled out. ...
Cornerback Bryce Callahan left the game in the second half with a foot injury. It bears watching since he missed all of last season with a foot issue that required a new screw to be surgically inserted. Michael Ojemudia played in his absence. ...
Safety Kareem Jackson served as the Broncos gameday captain. He wore a mask at midfield. Jackson caught and recovered from COVID-19 over the summer. ...
With Denver trailing by 17 at half, the Broncos played Elijah Wilkinson at right tackle. He had not played since fracturing his shin the first month of the season. ...
Broncos defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker led the Broncos with two sacks. ...
Bradley Chubb netted a sack ad has 7.5 for the season. He is on pace for 11 sacks. ...
Jerry Jeudy is no longer on track to break the franchise record for rookie receiving yards in a season after posting no catches -- really no one's fault -- on Sunday. ...
The Broncos inactives were cornerback Kevin Toliver, safety Trey Marshall, guard Netani Muti and linebacker Mark Barron.