ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — All season long, right from the first day of an abbreviated training camp in the August sun, Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio has said 2020 would be a season “to improvise and adjust.’’
Now Fangio, the Broncos coaching staff and players have been handed the biggest adjustment anybody in the league has faced. Unless there is some late reprieve from the NFL’s offices, the Broncos will face the New Orleans Saints Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High with no available quarterbacks.
As in: No. Available. Quarterbacks.
As in the nightmare on-field scenario of season played in the middle of a pandemic. And as of Saturday evening, with all sorts of details about salaries, timing and available room on the schedule, there had been no indication the league would be willing to move the game to another date with the Saints already in Denver.
The Broncos have been in exponential scramble mode, almost from the moment they pulled Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles, who is on the practice squad, off the practice field early Saturday afternoon. The three were sent home and told to isolate.
They were deemed to be high-risk close contacts to Jeff Driskel, the Broncos quarterback who received a positive test result Thursday morning for COVID-19. Diskel was moved to reserve/COVID-19 later that day.
The Broncos determined Lock, Rypien and Bortles were in close contact with Driskel at one point and did not have masks on.
Just before practice Saturday morning, Fangio had been asked how he believed his team had handled the updates to the league’s COVID-19 protocols, the team’s positive test results and three canceled practices in recent weeks.
“It’s improvise and adjust,’’ Fangio sad. “We talked about that the first day of training camp. We knew it was going to be a season where that was going to be called upon several times probably, and that’s held true. I think our players have done a great job of improvising and adjusting when we’ve had to, and I believe they’ll continue to do that.’’
And when asked, at that point, how contact tracing concerns with Driskel as well as wide receiver/returner Diontae Spencer, who tested positive Friday morning, Fangio said: “No, no one — all those questions — no new ones (Saturday). Nothing from contact tracing with those two guys and everything was all positive this morning.’’
A little over four hours after Fangio said that the Broncos were pulling the quarterbacks off the field and were in a place no other team has been in during a unique, unprecedented season full of unique, unprecedented moments.
So, with no practices remaining for the week, all of the game plans they spent the week creating having been cratered. The Broncos could potentially face the NFC South-leading Saints (8-2), who have the league’s No. 9 scoring defense and No. 2 rushing defense with a practice squad wide receiver named Kendall Hinton and running back Royce Freeman taking snaps behind center.
Hinton spent three seasons at Wake Forest as a quarterback — he threw for 245 yards in his first career start, in 2015, as he finished with 1,319 total yards to go with 11 total touchdowns that season in nine games — so he at least could get under center or in the shotgun and not be totally out of place.
The Broncos once went into total-makeover mode, during the 2011 season, from a traditional NFL passing offense to an option-oriented attack for Tim Tebow between Weeks 8 and 9 that season. But this isn’t that.
This is hours to get something in place. Hours to put the communications devices in the helmets and play the team that currently has the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
In the days to come there will be plenty of discussion about if the game should have been moved or how, exactly, players did not wear masks as cases rage nationwide. This may be one, very public way, for the NFL to reinforce that masks are considered an important part of the equation and not a chinstrap.
But, right now, right in this moment, the Broncos may wake up Sunday morning and have to figure out how to play NFL football without an NFL quarterback in a uniform.