5 Scathing Takeaways From Broncos' 31-3 Loss to Saints Sans a QB

The Broncos were placed in an impossible situation that unfolded as expected. What are the takeaways coming out of this abomination that was Week 12?

Watching the love of your life leave you standing alone at the altar as they get cold feet on what was supposed to be the happiest day of your life. 

Your credit card being declined at the cashier’s stand when you have a mountain of groceries. 

All of those hypothetical situations are less embarrassing than what was witnessed at Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday.

The Denver Broncos lost to the New Orleans Saints by a score that doesn’t matter (31-3). What does matter is the fact that the game was played in the first place. 

It is a complete and utter travesty. It was an embarrassment to a league that holds parity and competitive balance as its paragon. It was an embarrassment to the Broncos and Saints organizations. It was an embarrassment to those teams' respective fan bases, and to fans across the world.

As everybody should know by now, the Broncos were forced to play a game in which they had no eligible quarterback to take the field due to imperfect obedience to the NFL's mask and social-distancing protocols. With Drew Lock, Brett Rypien, and Blake Bortles all being deemed as 'high-risk' individuals that were in close contact with COVID-19-infect Jeff Driskel, who received a positive test Thursday morning, Denver had to try to get undrafted rookie wide receiver Kendall Hinton ready to take snaps under center for the first time since his days as a sophomore at Wake Forest.

The results were incredibly ugly. Hinton threw more interceptions than he completed passes, a feat that hasn’t been achieved since the San Diego Chargers did so way back in 1998. The Broncos allowed more rushing yards to Saints' running back Latavius Murray than they could muster as an offense.

There can be no other way to break this game down than with full-blown hell-fire, scorched earth takes. Let’s get to them.

Shame on Lock, Rypien, and Bortles 

Fans across Broncos Country and the rest of the NFL landscape have every right to be completely angry at the NFL and Roger Goodell for playing the game as scheduled (more on that here soon), but the initial fault lies at the feet of everybody in the quarterback room, especially Lock.

It pains me to have to write this, but in a season where Lock had to pass nearly every test on his plate, Lock failed his teammates, his coaches, the Broncos organization, and the fanbase in the most critical way possible; by not being available due to a protocol violation, however minor as it might have been.

There are some conflicting reports as to what exactly happened over the past week at Dove Valley, but one thing is certain. None of the Broncos' quarterbacks were in perfect mask-wearing compliance while in close contact with one another. Lock even admitted it in a hollow public apology, where he called it an “honest mistake, but one that I will own.”

Apology or not, the simple fact of the matter is this; Lock cost his team an opportunity at winning a football game because he couldn’t follow a strict and necessary protocol to ensure not only his safety but that of the other players around him.

As a team leader, the potential face of the franchise and quarterback to lead this team out of its seemingly everlasting purgatory, Lock showed incredible immaturity by not following those protocols to the letter, making an example for each and every member of the team to follow.

With his struggles on the field heretofore, Lock had to make an incredibly massive statement to the team that he is the right guy to lead this team over the last six games of the season. That statement doesn’t just lie in the press room or on the field. It’s a full encapsulation of his standing within the team facility.

And Lock failed in that aspect; let's face it. Because if he and the rest of the quarterbacks in the room do end up testing positive between now and Tuesday, the Broncos will have to move forward without them for at least the next two weeks as the signal-callers will be mandated to quarantine and won't be allowed to return with until they produce negative test results. 

Look to the Shelby Harris situation as an example of how much time a positive COVID-19 diagnosis can cost a player.

This virus is about much more than the results of a football game, and I pray that Lock, Rypien, and Bortles are all test negative in the future. I also pray for the safe recovery and return to good health for Driskel.

But knowingly breaking the protocols, whether minor or major, and reportedly trying to hide the fact that they did so, is a black mark on Lock’s resume. The questions about his ability to lead this team now become louder after this week.

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NFL's Double-Standard is Unconscionable 

The way that the NFL has handled the coronavirus has been even more inconsistent than the Ray Rice domestic violence situation a few years ago. First, the league does one thing, then it does the next. Then it flips it on its head, only to do something completely different.

The one thing that has been as head-scratching as anything has been how the NFL has rescheduled games. Or, in the case of Broncos-Saints, how the league hasn’t rescheduled games when there is a just cause for doing so.

According to the NFL, a strategic or competitive advantage is not a reason for rescheduling a game. Only an outbreak that has yet to be contained, like what is currently ongoing with the outbreak in Baltimore, can alter when a game is to be played.

But, by this logic, the Broncos shouldn’t have had their game against the Patriots rescheduled a few weeks ago. Looking back at that situation, the Patriots had QB Cam Newton and CB Stephon Gilmore test positive for the virus, but all other players had negative tests with contact tracing suggesting that no other player was likely to test positive.

That game was not only moved from Sunday afternoon to the early window of a Monday Night Football doubleheader, but it was finally completely postponed to the following Sunday (going from Week 5 to Week 6), altering the schedule of four other teams in order to make everything work out for New England.

So why was the NFL unable to reschedule the Broncos game on Sunday to Tuesday night, where Lock, Rypien, and Bortles would have been able to play should they have all tested negative for the virus in the interim? Why not move the game in order for the Broncos to complete their investigation, contact tracing, and ensure that the rest of the team wasn’t at risk of testing positive? 

Why weren’t the Patriots forced to play a game without their star cornerback and starting quarterback? How is a group of players not properly following the protocol while in close contact with the person that tested positive not considered a possible outbreak that isn’t contained?

On its face, this looks like a massive double-standard from the league front office. It not only cost the Broncos an opportunity to be competitive against the Saints, but it shows that getting the games played at all costs is the NFL's only true interest. 

When nothing makes sense, follow the money. I have a feeling there will be more to come within this saga.

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The Broncos' Lack of Ownership Clarity Played a Role

I’m not typically one to offer speculation in my breakdowns of the Broncos, but this one has too much smoke to not declare fire.

There has been a lack of accountability, competitive fire, and determination from the Broncos over the past few years, dating back to the passing of late owner Pat Bowlen. The scope of the Bowlen Trust, headed by team President and CEO Joe Ellis, has been to continue running the organization while following the ideals of the late Bowlen for an ownership succession process. 

The Bowlen Trust has failed in that capacity, so much so that the club has now been determined as 'repeat offenders' of the NFL’s coronavirus policy. First, it was Vic Fangio being fined for not wearing a mask on the sidelines in a game earlier this year. Now, the quarterback everybody hopes is the answer placed his team between a rock and a forfeiture through his inability to be accountable to his responsibilities.

Bowlen would have never allowed things to come to this. He was far too proud (and competent) to let these sorts of things spiral. The lack of his guidance, accountability, and stability from the top-down has placed the Broncos in a rudderless ship, searching for land in a tumultuous sea of failure.

Currently, the head coach seems more focused on making sure he has the right defensive play-call than managing the game in critical situations. The players in the facility believe that they don’t have to follow NFL rules, and there is a lack of leadership from the top of the chain of command.

The fact that the Broncos asked the league if they could activate an offensive quality control coach to play quarterback on Sunday, rather than putting their foot down for equitable treatment within the league’s handling of the COVID-19 protocols, speaks volumes to that notion. 

The Broncos have no teeth to take a bite at the league without a true face and voice to stand up and do so.

The sooner the Bowlen family can come to a resolution, the better for the franchise, the players, and the fan base. If the Bowlen family and the Bowlen Trust can’t come to an accord, selling the team to an owner that possesses some wherewithal is most definitely the best direction for the franchise's future.

Massive Credit is Due to Hinton

For all the warranted hate and vitriol to Lock and the quarterback room, the Broncos organization, and the NFL as a whole, one thing cannot be lost in what happened on Sunday.

Kendall Hinton is a player that deserves a massive amount of praise for his desire, dedication, and willingness to help the team in any way possible. A former quarterback-turned-receiver back in his time at Wake Forest, Hinton was forced into an impossible situation, and he gave it everything he had.

It’s hard enough to play the quarterback position when you are practicing it on a daily basis, let alone when you are forced to do so on short notice (four hours of prep). Look at the struggles Lock has had as a second-year NFL QB that has played the position for the majority of his playing career going back to high school. It hasn’t been pretty at times, and Lock is the player the Broncos want to be their franchise quarterback.

Hinton became aware that he was going to be the starting quarterback late Saturday night, stayed at the team facility late trying to prepare for his responsibilities, and was the first player on the field prior to the game.

While it didn’t translate to success for the offense, the fact that Hinton was willing to put in the extra work with a limited time frame points to his mental fortitude.

Hinton tried his hardest to make plays in the passing game with little success, throwing two interceptions while only completing one pass to the good guys, — a nifty screen pass to Noah Fant for 13 yards. Hinton wasn’t asked to do much, as there wasn’t much he could do in the first place.

His performance was terrible, but his heart was tremendous. A massive kudos goes out to No. 2. He deserves a game ball in my opinion but teams don't traditionally hand them out in a loss. 

Defense Showed Up Despite Stat Sheet

If the Broncos were able to field a competent quarterback, there was a legitimate chance for them to win this game. The reason for that was their defense, a formidable unit going against a Saints team that was playing their own gimmick quarterback in Taysom Hill.

You can cite the final score or the fact that Latavius Murray and Hill scored a pair of rushing touchdowns each, but the bottom line is this: 

The Broncos defense came to play on Sunday.

Denver’s defense had to overcome an offense that barely eclipsed 100 total yards, turned the ball over three times, and only mustered six total first-downs on the game.

Knowing that they only had to control the football and the clock, the Saints opted to run the ball on a relentless basis. And it was the only way they moved the ball.

Hill was atrocious as a passer, going 9-of-16 for 78 yards and an interception. The Broncos' coverage schemes confounded a quarterback that was making his second career start. 

While Hill did make a few nice throws in rhythm, he was unable to release the ball consistently. His ability to run the ball within the Saints' offense kept some drives alive and put points on the board in the red zone.

Denver racked up three sacks, all of the coverage variety, and pounded Hill as he tried to escape the pocket as a runner. The tipped pass that was intercepted by Essang Bassey led to the lone Broncos score, a 58-yard Brandon McManus field goal.

All in all, Denver’s defense held the Saints offense in check. The Broncos "accepted the challenge", to quote Fangio post-game, and played their hearts out despite being placed in situations that destined to fail. If they had some complimentary play from the offense led by a competent QB, the Broncos could have won this game, which only adds to the frustration of the last 24 hours. 

Follow Lance on Twitter @SandersonMHH and @MileHighHuddle