DENVER — This is what happens when a group of quarterbacks leave lawyers and medical doctors to make football decisions.
In what was an embarrassment to the Broncos as an organization and NFL as a corporation, the Saints ran to a ridiculously easy, 31-3, win Sunday before no fans and no home quarterback at Empower Field at Mile High.
This may well have been the least competitive offensive performance in Broncos history. And despite commentary to the contrary that criticized the league for its heavy-handed ways, head coach Vic Fangio laid blame at the maskless faces of quarterbacks Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles for violating COVID protocol rules and getting disqualified from the game.
“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.”
Expectations were that an NFL team trying to play without a professional quarterback would not go well. But this performance was worse than expected. Even the Broncos' lone scoring drive was inept. Trailing, 17-0 at halftime, Broncos' rookie Essang Bassey intercepted Saints' quarterback Taysom Hill early in the third quarter and returned it into Saints' territory.
After a fitting three-play, 1-yard drive for the woefully inept Broncos' offense, Brandon McManus continued his torrid kicking by nailing a 58-yard field goal to put the Broncos on the scoreboard.
The Saints answered with a 36-yard touchdown run by Latavius Murray, who ran through a huge hole and an empty secondary. That put the Saints up 24-3 late in the third quarter and it became 31-3 when Murray added another touchdown run later in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos fell to 4-7 and will next play Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium against the 10-1 Kansas City Chiefs. The Saints improved to 9-2.
On a clear, chilly late-November afternoon at empty Empower Field, the Broncos were forced to play without any of their four quarterbacks because of COVID concerns and the league refusing to move the game to Tuesday, when at least one of the quarterbacks figured to clear his 5-day quarantine period.
Instead the game kicked off as scheduled. Bassey's college teammate, undrafted rookie receiver Kendall Hinton, was called up from the practice squad. Why Hinton? He played some quarterback for Wake Forest before converting to receiver two years ago.
At halftime, Hinton was 0 for 7 with an interception. He wasn’t close to a completion, not that he should be blamed. It wasn't his fault he was thrust into this impossible situation against a Saints' defense that is stout against the league's best quarterbacks.
"I feel like maybe it could have been moved, but at the same time, maybe the league just making an example of us as far as us not doing the things we need to do in that particular room, that quarterback room,'' said safety Kareem Jackson. "Obviously, guys didn't follow the protocols so for them to see that, I guess they felt like they had to make an example."
Hinton did complete a screen pass to tight end Noah Fant in the second half, but also threw his second interception. Hinton was 1 of 9 for 13 yards and two interceptions that computed to a 0.0 passer rating. He, nor any other Bronco, attempted a pass after Hinton threw his second pick with 10:04 left in the third quarter.
"Yes, absolutely I expected to play better,'' Hinton said. "Saints have a great defense but I honestly don't feel like I played to the best of my ability. Of course, a day or two of practice would have definitely helped. But I definitely think I could have done more things out there."
It's the first time since 1998 that an NFL team finished a game with more interceptions (2) than completions (1). The rest of the Broncos' offense was little more than direct snaps to their running backs. Royce Freeman was used primarily in the second half and finished with 50 yards on eight carries. Melvin Gordon had 31 yards on 12 carries and Phillip Lindsay, who handled most of the first-half offense, was limited to 20 yards on 9 carries against a stacked Saints' defensive box.
The Broncos’ offense looked like a bad high school team. Yet, it still felt like they were winning with the score 0-0 entering the second quarter.
With 3 minutes left in the first quarter, the Broncos had 0 yards passing – Hinton was way off on his 2 attempts -- yet, that beat the Saints’ passing game that had -13 yards as Taysom Hill – who is more athlete than passer – took two sacks (DeMarcus Walker, Bradley Chubb).
Otherwise, the Broncos primarily used the direct snap, Wildcat play, leaving the top receiving targets -- Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick and Fant -- had little reason to show up.
What a farce. Hinton is a smallish player anyway and he appeared overmatched with the speed of the game -- as you'd expect from someone who was on the streets working as a fundraising salesman.
“How the linebackers closed within seconds, it’s just something you got to experience to kind of prepare for that,'' Hinton said. "You don't know until you see it.”
The league ruled Saturday that Lock, Rypien and Bortles could not play Sunday because they were considered high-risk, close contacts with another quarterback, Jeff Driskel, who tested positive. None of the 4 quarterbacks have symptoms and the “close contacts” have all tested negative.
"Earlier in the year, our game got pushed back,'' said Jackson in reference to Denver's week 5 games against New England that got pushed back to week 6. "It may have been different circumstances, but I just feel like we weren't given that same opportunity as far as pushing our game back or delaying it or anything like that. I'm not sure what could have happened, but just going into the game, it's a tough situation.''
The league decided because the COVID issue was contained to the quarterback room, the game could go on safely. Junior varsity-caliber performance be darned.
"On Tuesday of this past week, the players were off, but they came in as a group to work on their own, which is commendable,'' Fangio said when asked to explain what Lock, Rypien and Bortles did wrong. "They got together and were watching video and they got lax with their masks and got lax with their distancing from each other, I guess."
Denver did hang tough thanks to Fangio’s defense against the Saints’ passing-challenged offense. On a drive that sandwiched the first and second quarter, the Saints primarily ran the ball until Hill ran it in for a 1-yard touchdown. After Hill used a hard count on fourth-and-1 to draw Denver defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones for a first-down encroachment penalty, the Saints ran it 10 straight times for the final 60 yards of their drive.
“We blocked them,'' said Saints' coach Sean Payton. "It's a good front and a good defense. It's hard to run for 200 yards in this league and I was proud of how those guys played and responded.”
It was 7-0 Saints with 10:19 left in second quarter. The Saints rushed for 229 yards on 44 carries. For the game, the two teams combined for 77 rushing attempts against just 25 combined passes. No wonder the game only took 2 hours, 40 minutes to complete.
A bad snap by Broncos center Lloyd Cushenberry III hopped past Lindsay and the Saints returned the fumble to the 13-yard line. Hill – who also isn’t much a passer – finished the short drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.
With seconds left in the first half, the Broncos had Hinton throw it deep down field, but it was intercepted by the Saints’ Janoris Jenkins, setting up a final-play, 40-yard field goal by Will Lutz.
Broncos misery was half over.
"For me, I'm not really disappointed in our guys, the quarterbacks,'' Jackson said. "I know the protocols have picked up a little bit. Wearing that mask and being in the room on a day-to-day basis definitely becomes kind of irritating, but honestly, we have to do what we have to do.
"But at the same time, I just feel like going into the game, we weren't given a chance.”
Providing Lock, Rypien and Bortles continue to test negative -- a big if in the minds of NFL medical officials -- they can return Tuesday and participate in the team's first practice in preparation for the Chiefs on Wednesday.
The Broncos have a five-year, 10-game losing streak against the Chiefs, who are listed as 14-point favorites. And that's with Lock returning as the Broncos' quarterback.
Three starters didn't finish the game -- Lindsay, who left early in the second half with a knee injury; cornerback and punt returner Bryce Callahan, who left with a foot injury; and right tackle Demar Dotson, who has been battling a groin injury and was replaced in the second half by Elijah Wilkinson.
Lindsay will have an MRI on his knee Monday morning. ...
McManus now has 7 field goals of at least 50 yards this year, a team single-season record. ...
Former Broncos star receiver Emmanuel Sanders returned with the Saints but had just one catch for 4 yards. Hill only completed 9 of 16 for 78 yards with an interception. He is replacing Saints' icon Drew Brees, who is on injured reserve with fractured ribs.
PHOTOS | Denver Broncos vs. New Orleans Saints
Broncos podcast: Klis' Mike Drop
Denver Broncos headlines, game previews and interviews with our 9NEWS Broncos Insider Mike Klis.
HOW TO LISTEN
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Sports