Denver doesn’t plan to forfeit — doing so would cost its players a game check — and the league doesn’t plan to postpone the game, as it did for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, who are reeling from a surge of positive tests and, for now, are scheduled to play Tuesday night in Pittsburgh after the game was pushed back twice.
But the Broncos were left with few options to fill the most important position on the field. One person with knowledge of the situation said they plan to turn to “a few guys” to fill the void. But they all have to be on the roster — active or practice squad. Quickly finding talent outside the team building isn’t feasible because of the NFL’s coronavirus protocols, which require new players to undergo a six-day testing period before entering a team’s facility.
Undrafted rookie wide receiver Kendall Hinton was elevated from the practice squad and is expected to start at quarterback Sunday. Royce Freeman, a running back who doubles as the team’s emergency quarterback, could see some time there, too. And it’s possible that the Broncos’ offense relies heavily on its running game, with a dose of the wildcat.
The Broncos have proved in the past that they don’t need a lot of success through the air to win. In 2011, they beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 17-10, despite quarterback Tim Tebow completing just two passes.
So why Hinton? He has played the position, at least at the high school and college level. As a three-star recruit at North Carolina’s Southern Durham High, Hinton led the Spartans to a Class 3A state title in his junior season and a 13-1 record in his senior year. He passed for 3,258 yards and 30 touchdowns that season while adding 835 yards on the ground.
Hinton committed to Wake Forest, where he played more than two seasons at quarterback (making four starts) before switching to wide receiver in 2018. He signed with the Broncos after the 2020 draft and was added to the practice squad when rosters were formed.
Freeman was a third-round draft pick in 2017 who began his rookie year as the Broncos’ starting running back before Phillip Lindsay overtook him. Freeman is now the No. 3 back, behind Lindsay and Melvin Gordon. His quarterback experience includes all of one pass during his four-year career at Oregon: a 26-yard touchdown to quarterback Marcus Mariota against Arizona in 2014.
Turning to an emergency quarterback is rare but not unprecedented in the NFL. Running back Tom Matte took over for the Baltimore Colts in 1965 when Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo were injured. Matte handled the final few plays of a game against the Green Bay Packers and the entirety of the Colts’ next game, a 20-17 win against the Los Angeles Rams. He started a pair of postseason games after that, including a 35-3 rout of the Dallas Cowboys in the Playoff Bowl consolation game. To help himself, Matte wore a wristband that included a small play card. That wristband is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1977, while a rookie safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tony Dungy closed out a game at quarterback against the Houston Oilers. He completed 3 of 8 passes for 43 yards — and two interceptions.
The Washington Football Team also turned to a rookie during a Monday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1990. Nine Washington players, including starting quarterback Jeff Rutledge and backup Stan Humphries, were injured in what became known as “The Body Bag Game.” By the end, Coach Joe Gibbs turned to running back/returner Brian Mitchell, who completed 3 of 6 passes for 40 yards and had two rushing attempts for 11 yards and a touchdown. Washington lost, 28-14.
But there is no preparing for a season like this, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing teams to adapt if they hope to play at all. The NFL’s protocols, with daily testing, mask mandates and strict travel procedures, have so far prevented the cancellation of games. But some teams have been hit harder than others. And some, like the Broncos, have already paid a price for failing to adhere to protocols.
In September, the team and Coach Vic Fangio were fined $250,000 and $100,000, respectively, for his failure to wear a mask consistently on the sideline during games. The Broncos’ president, Joe Ellis, and their general manager, John Elway, tested positive this month. Three coaches also have tested positive, including defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who was briefly hospitalized. Offensive lineman Graham Glasgow landed on the reserve covid-19 list in October, defensive end Shelby Harris followed, and the day after Driskel tested positive, wide receiver/returner Diontae Spencer did as well.
The Broncos practiced Thursday, after Driskel was placed on the covid list, and at the time Fangio insisted their other quarterbacks were not affected because of their limited interactions.
“No, the other quarterbacks were only in there minimal amounts, like two minutes and some seconds, four minutes,” he told reporters that day. “That’s over a three- or four-day period.”
But after Spencer’s positive test Friday, Fangio canceled the team’s workout as a precaution. The team returned to its facility Saturday, after getting the okay from the league. But the bad news kept coming: The quarterbacks were less than forthcoming when dealing with contact tracers while the NFL and NFL Players Association were investigating the case, according to a person familiar with the situation, and now none of them are eligible for Sunday’s game.
Peyton Manning’s retirement after the 2015 season left the Broncos with questions at quarterback. Almost five years and more than seven starters later, they’re as unanswered as ever.