ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos again have their quarterbacks.
Per sources, starting quarterback Drew Lock, his backup Brett Rypien and veteran practice squad quarterback Blake Bortles have all tested negative Tuesday, clearing them to return. They will participate in the team’s virtual meetings Tuesday and will participate in practice Wednesday at UCHealth Training Center as the 4-7 Broncos prepare for their daunting task of taking on the 10-1 and defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football at Arrowhead Stadium. The game will be broadcast on 9NEWS.
Lock, Rypien and Bortles could have been available to play Tuesday night had the NFL pushed their game against the New Orleans Saints back from Sunday. The league did not, though, because officials believed if all Broncos’ quarterbacks were removed from participating there would be little risk of virus transmission of playing the game.
That the league’s decision forced the Broncos to employ practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton as an emergency quarterback against the Saints, resulting in an embarrassingly non-competitive defeat, was deemed inconsequential by NFL officials.
But now that all three quarterbacks have been cleared, it brings into question the league’s decision to place Lock, Rypien and Bortles – all of whom have tested negative and showed no symptoms -- in a five-day quarantine in the first place.
"It was the opinion of medical professionals, not a guess. to determine these quarterbacks to be high-risk close contacts and to isolate them,'' NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a text to 9News. "There have been more than 20 players who were determined to be high-risk who later turned positive. The medical professionals are concerned for the health of players and personnel.
"Going to make the same decision every time."
Per sources, those three quarterbacks, plus the Broncos other reserve quarterback, Jeff Driskel, gathered for an extra film session last Tuesday during a Broncos off day and after practice Wednesday in a large room inside the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse.
On Thursday morning, Driskel tested positive for the virus with no symptoms. The Broncos sent a surveillance videotape of the quarterbacks’ film sessions from Tuesday and Wednesday to the league office on Friday morning. All agree the quarterbacks did not always wear their masks or socially distance properly. But many Broncos officials, and Lock himself, have indicated they did wear their masks and/or properly socially distance most of the time.
The league didn’t get back to the Broncos until 12:45 p.m. Saturday – more than 26 hours after they received the tape of the QB film sessions – with orders Lock, Rypien and Bortles had to be sent home because of the likelihood they would be classified as “high-risk close contacts” with Driskel. The Broncos started practice at 1 p.m. with offensive assistant Rob Calabrese, a former quarterback at Central Florida, running through offensive plays.
Per sources, several Broncos officials were disappointed in the league’s decision to quarantine all three negative-testing quarterbacks, believing the COVID protocol violations were not that severe. The league felt otherwise. In a conference call between Broncos and NFL officials that started around 3:15 p.m. Saturday, the league notified the team its game Sunday against the Saints would go on as scheduled but the three quarterbacks would be placed in a five-day quarantine as high-risk close contacts and therefore would not be eligible to play.
During the conference call, Broncos general manager John Elway voiced his extreme disappointment that the league would not postpone the game until Tuesday, when at least one of the quarterbacks figured to be cleared – as the NFL in virus cases involving Tennessee, New England and Baltimore had allowed.
The league refused the Broncos’ request, stating that in those other teams’ cases, there was virus spread throughout the team and had a greater risk of transmission by playing the game as scheduled. In the Broncos’ situation, the virus was contained to the QB room and by removing the QBs, the game could be played safely. Around 4 p.m., the Broncos held a walkthrough in which Hinton got some practice reps while offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur also had running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman execute direct snap running plays from the Wildcat formation.
Not surprisingly, nothing worked. The unforeseen circumstances led to a farcical offensive performance against the Saints, with the Broncos losing 31-3. The Broncos only score came after their rookie cornerback Essang Bassey grabbed a deflection for interception and returned it into Saints’ territory, followed three plays later by a Brandon McManus 58-yard field goal.
Before the game, Lock released a statement apologizing for putting his team in such a difficult position:
“In a controlled and socially distanced area, we let our masking slip for a limited amount of time. An honest mistake, but one I will own.’’
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, no doubt frustrated by the abdominal offensive performance he had just overseen, absolved the league of blame during his postgame Zoom media conference Sunday evening, instead directing fault at his quarterbacks.
“I was disappointed on a couple levels. That our quarterbacks put us in this position, that our quarterbacks put the league in this position,'' Fangio said. "We count on them to be the leaders of the team and leaders of the offense and those guys made a mistake and that is disappointing.
"Obviously, I haven’t done a good enough job of selling the protocols to them when they are on their own so part of that could fall on me. I thought I was. We have emphasized it a lot and we’re really doing good with COVID up to this point as it relates relative to other teams. There was a failing there and that’s disappointing.”
Fangio said during day-after-game Zoom media conference, the team would discuss fining all four quarterbacks for their actions. While Lock, Rypien and Bortles are cleared, Driskel is not eligible to return until Saturday, providing he passes multiple virus tests.
As emergency insurance, the Broncos brought in quarterback Kyle Shurmur, whose dad is the Broncos’ offensive coordinator, for a visit Monday. Kyle Shurmur was a three-year starter at Vanderbilt, throwing 50 combined touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons of 2017-18. Undrafted, Kyle Shurmur spent last season on the Chiefs’ practice squad, but was released after the 2020 draft in late-April.
He had begun to dabble in coaching at Vanderbilt when the Broncos arranged to fly him in Sunday and begin his COVID testing on Monday. Kyle Shurmur was primarily brought in for the worst-case scenario that Lock, Rypien and Bortles eventually tested positive, which would have extended their self-isolation period. But now Kyle Shurmur will not be forced into emergency duty against his former Chiefs on Sunday night as Lock will be the Broncos’ starting quarterback, providing he continues to test negative.
Lock and Rypien have tested negative for more than 130 consecutive days, while Bortles has tested negative for nearly 70 consecutive days.
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