DENVER — Broncos safety Kareem Jackson conceded that the team’s quarterbacks made a mistake by not following the league’s COVID-19 protocols, but he also said that he believes the NFL sent the Broncos out to play Sunday’s game with a practice squad wide receiver lined up at quarterback much of the time as an example to the league’s other 31 teams.
The Broncos, with Kendall Hinton at quarterback for just more than half of the team’s snaps, lost 31-3 to the New Orleans Saints at Empower Field at Mile High.
“I feel like maybe [the game] could have been moved, but at the same time, maybe the league was making an example of us as far as maybe not doing the things we needed to do in that particular room, that quarterback room,” Jackson said. “Obviously, the guys didn’t follow their protocols, and for [the NFL] to see that, I guess they felt like they had to make an example, so at the end of [the] day, it is what it is.
“… Obviously, it’s our guys’ fault for not wearing their masks, but at least maybe move the game to the next day or whenever so we’re given a fighting chance,” Jackson added. “[It’s] obviously disappointing. I’m not sure why it wasn’t moved. I have no clue … as a competitor, [it is] definitely frustrating.”
Hinton finished 1-of-9 passing for 13 yards with two interceptions as the Broncos gained just 112 yards overall, their lowest output since the team gained 128 yards in a 1992 loss at Washington. Hinton played 24 of the Broncos’ 43 snaps on offense, and running backs Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay took direct snaps the rest of the time.
Lindsay left the game in the second half because of a knee injury — Broncos coach Vic Fangio said he “tweaked his knee a little bit” — and did not return. Freeman led the team in rushing, with 50 yards on eight carries.
The Broncos, now 4-7, were in an unprecedented position after Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles, who is on the practice squad, were removed from Saturday’s practice and told to isolate after being designated as “high-risk” close contacts to quarterback Jeff Driskel, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.
The Broncos asked the NFL to move the game to Monday or another day so the quarterbacks, who all tested negative this past week, including Saturday’s test, could be in uniform. That request was denied. The team then asked if two assistant coaches could be signed to the roster for Sunday’s game, and that request was also denied.
“I was disappointed on a couple levels: that our quarterbacks put us in this position, that our quarterbacks put the league in that position. We count on them to be the leaders of the team, the leaders of the offense, and those guys made a mistake, and that is disappointing,” Fangio said. “Obviously, I haven’t done a good enough job of selling the protocols to them when they’re on their own … There was a failing there, and that’s disappointing.”
Fangio said the quarterbacks did not follow the mask or social distance protocols properly Tuesday, when they elected to come to the team’s facility and meet on their own. Lock issued an apology earlier in the day for his “mistake” in breaking the COVID-19 mask protocols.
It all put Hinton in the most uncomfortable of positions.
The 23-year-old rookie was with the Broncos in training camp before he was waived when rosters leaguewide went to 53 players early in September. Because there were no preseason games this summer, Hinton’s first game appearance of any kind for the Broncos was against the Saints.
“When I got the call, it was pure excitement. Of course, there was nerves and disbelief,” Hinton said. ” … Coming in, I knew I had no idea of what the speed of the game was like. … We knew it would be a tough situation, for sure.”
Although the Broncos tried to put a hastily assembled game plan into use with a variety of personnel groupings, it was all a bit of a slog, as they didn’t get their second first down of the game until their first possession of the second half.
They punted seven times and scored their only points on a 58-yard field goal by Brandon McManus with 7 minutes, 7 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Broncos’ defense did all the heavy lifting it could, as the repeated three-and-outs by the Denver offense kept giving the ball back to the Saints. The 112 offensive yards the Saints allowed Sunday marked the lowest total in franchise history.
Saints quarterback Taysom Hill had just 43 yards passing by the end of the third quarter and 78 yards in the game. The Saints rushed 44 times for 229 yards, with all four of their touchdowns on run plays.
Coach Sean Payton and Hill both said the Saints’ game plan changed significantly in the 48 hours leading up to the game, leading to New Orleans’ run-heavy offense. Payton credited the defense, the run game and Hill for all delivering with the altered approach.
“We were going to go into a game and call it much differently than we normally would, based on the opponent we were playing and what happened and what changed with the opponent. And I thought we did that,” said Payton, who was asked if he sympathized with Fangio under these unique circumstances.
“I think it’s tough for all the [teams in different situations],” Payton said. “Look, this is a challenging year. I felt bad for the cardboard fans. It is what it is.”
ESPN’s Mike Triplett contributed to this report.