ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In this strangest of NFL seasons because of the ever-spreading COVID virus, this has to be the most insane development: The Broncos will have no quarterbacks when they play the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon.
No. 3 quarterback Jeff Driskel is out because he learned Thursday morning he tested positive for the virus. And starting quarterback Drew Lock, backup Brett Rypien and practice squad veteran Blake Bortles have been ruled out because they were determined to be in high-risk close contact with Driskel on Wednesday.
The league's COVID protocols mandates that players identified as high-risk close contacts must self-isolate for 5 days. That window for Lock, Rypien and Bortles started Thursday, the day Driskel learned he was positive, and will end Tuesday. What a way to start Chiefs' week.
But the Broncos can worry their game next week at Arrowhead Stadium later. 9NEWS has learned that practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton, who played three seasons of quarterback at Wake Forest, will make his NFL debut Sunday as the Broncos' starting quarterback. The oddsmakers immediately changed the Broncos from 6-point underdogs to 14.5 underdogs against the Saints. The total points over/under fell from 45 to 36.5 points.
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio had previously said the team's emergency quarterback had been running back Royce Freeman. And this is clearly an emergency. It's also possible the Broncos could use running backs Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay to operate from the Wildcat formation.
One source told 9NEWS that Broncos' general manager John Elway expressed disappointment to league officials that they didn't move their game against the Saints back to Tuesday, as the league did previously with Baltimore (moved to this Tuesday), Tennessee (moved to a Tuesday) and New England (moved back a full week).
Broncos players were incredulous by the league's decision.
"I'm not one to complain, but NFL y’all can’t possibly send us into a game without a QB,'' wrote tight end Noah Fant on his twitter account. "The most important position to a offense. We don’t even got a back up. ... "
"Aye, I wonder if they (the Saints) will let us borrow (Jameis) Winston for a day,'' tweeted safety Kareem Jackson, referring to the Saint's backup quarterback to Taysom Hill, who is replacing the injured Drew Brees.
The Broncos put a statement that confirmed the string of 9NEWS reports on the bizarre development:
“Shortly before Saturday’s practice, we were notified by the NFL that new contact tracing information required quarterbacks Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles to be identified as high-risk COVID-19 close contacts.
"The three quarterbacks, who are not experiencing any symptoms, immediately left the practice field and departed UCHealth Training Center. All three have consistently tested negative for COVID-19 via both daily PCR testing and additional POC testing administered as a precaution.
"With NFL/NFLPA protocols mandating a five-day quarantine period for high-risk close contacts, we were informed by the league that Lock, Rypien and Bortles will be ineligible to participate in Sunday’s game against New Orleans.”
9NEWS was the first report that the NFL pulled all three of the Broncos' active quarterbacks before practice Saturday out of contact tracing concerns and also the first to report Hinton as a possible replacement.
Sources said the issues were the three quarterbacks involved the COVID protocols of mask wearing, social distancing and contact tracers at the time of their close contact with Driskel. Specifically, it dealt with the quarterbacks meeting room that is in the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse. The room is quite large -- 9NEWS used it as a studio for several weeks this year and in 2018 it held the Case Keenum and draft pick introductory press conferences.
Per source, the Broncos sent several hours of surveillance tape from the QB meeting room, along with contact tracing data and interviews to the league on Friday morning. According to the source, while the quarterbacks weren't textbook in following the COVID protocols, the video sent to the league shows them wearing masks for extensive periods, distancing and in possession of tracers.
The league did not finish reviewing the video and getting back to the Broncos until Saturday afternoon -- more than 24 hours after receiving the tape from the team. At 12:45 p.m., about a half hour before the start of practice, the league notified the team Lock, Rypien and Bortles had to be sent home.
It was during a conference call with NFL officials around 3:15 p.m. Saturday that the Broncos were officially told their game against the New Orleans Saints would go on as scheduled at Sunday afternoon at Empower Field at Mile High -- and that none of the three quarterbacks would be allowed to play.
Driskel says he has no symptoms and feels completely healthy, but as a precaution the Broncos ran both regular and Rapid Point of Care (POC) tests on Lock, Rypien and Bortles on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
None of the other quarterbacks are experiencing symptoms and all have so far tested negative.
With no quarterbacks available, Broncos offensive quality control coach Rob Calabrese, a former quarterback at Central Floriday, ran the offense against air Saturday with receivers running their routes and running backs taking their handoffs.
Sources tell 9NEWS the Broncos did inquire to the league as to whether they could sign Calabrese or another offensive assistant coach who played quarterback in college, Justin Rascati, for the game -- as NHL teams do with emergency goalies. The league rebuffed the idea.
Hinton threw for 245 yards in his first college start as a freshman against Indiana, then suffered a knee injury early in his sophomore season.
In parts of four seasons as a Wake Forest quarterback, Hinton completed 133 of 251 passes (53%) for 1,504 yards, 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He also rushed for 881 yards and 12 touchdowns before converting to receiver in his redshirt senior season.
He signed with the Broncos after the 2020 draft as an undrafted free agent. Hinton was among the final cuts prior to the setting of the season-opening roster in September, but was brought back to the practice squad on November 4.
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