The Denver Broncos faced the New Orleans Saints this past Sunday with an unusual and troubling problem: they had no available quarterbacks. All four of the Broncos QBs had been forced into isolation as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that is causing disruption in almost every area of American life.
Starting QB Drew Lock, his backup Brett Rypien and the practice squad veteran Blake Bortles had been deemed high-risk close contacts with third-choice quarterback Jeff Driskel on Wednesday. That was the day before Driskel tested positive for COVID-19.
Reports have suggested that none of the quartet were wearing masks for the entire time that they spent together, a major breach of NFL protocols. The Broncos’ initial response was to request that the NFL postpone the game, but that request was denied.
Fangio faced a dilemma
That presented something of a problem for Broncos head coach Vic Fangio ahead of the clash with Saints. An alternative solution was proposed when they asked the NFL if offensive quality control coach Ron Calabrese, a former college quarterback, could be picked. That request was also denied.
In the end, undrafted rookie wide receiver Kendall Hinton was called up from the practice squad. He had played some quarterback in college, and was handed the job of leading the Broncos’ offense into battle against the Saints at Mile High. Unsurprisingly, his performance was not what one would usually expect from an NFL quarterback.
The Saints won the game in convincing fashion, destroying the Broncos 31-3. Hinton completed one pass for 13 yards and threw two interceptions. Valiant though his efforts were, the youngster had been handed an impossible job.
After the defeat, Fangio could not hide his displeasure. He was not annoyed with Hinton, who had strived valiantly to do his best for his team, but with the players who breached protocols and put the franchise in such an unenviable position.
"I was disappointed on a couple of levels," he said, according to NFL.com. "That our quarterbacks put us in this position, that our quarterbacks put the league in this position, we count on them to be the leaders of this team, so that's disappointing."
The situation highlights just how much disruption the inability to control the pandemic at higher levels can cause for professional sports teams. Already without fans in many stadiums, teams are facing games with huge gaps in their rosters, often as a result of players being personally irresponsible.
Integrity of the league is at stake
That causes wider issues for the NFL, not least when it comes to the integrity of the competition. However much power and money the league possesses, it counts for little in the face of pandemic where between 150,000 and 200,000 cases per day are being recorded across the US. Every week, more players are compelled to sit on the sidelines after coming into contact with the virus.
The league has handed out some stiff penalties for COVID-related breaches. The Saints were fined $500,000 and had a draft pick removed after maskless locker room celebrations. The New England Patriots have also been fined $350,000 for occurrences in October that led to Cam Newton and some others at the franchise testing positive. The San Francisco 49ers will be playing 'home games' in Arizona for three weeks after contact sports were banned in Santa Clara County where the team is based.
Those fines have the feel of futility about them, however. The league is determined to complete the season whatever happens, but fans have a right to feel short-changed when rookie wide receivers are being picked at quarterback.
Fangio asserted that disciplinary measures are still on the table for the four quarterbacks. If it reinforces the message that players have to take responsibility during the crisis, then that can only be a good thing.