There was no shortage of bemusement in advance of Sunday’s Denver Broncos-New Orleans Saints game. On Saturday all four Broncos quarterbacks were ruled out, Jeff Driskel because he tested positive for Covid-19, the others because they took their masks off around him and were therefore deemed “close contacts”. The Broncos naturally panicked. First they asked the NFL to postpone the game. Denied. Then they asked the league if offensive quality control coach Ron Calabrese, a former college quarterback, was an option given his familiarity with the team’s playbook. Denied again. Out of options, the Broncos finally settled on wide-receiver Kendall Hinton, an undrafted rookie practice squad member who had played some quarterback at college.
We had no idea what to expect. Perhaps the Broncos would introduce some new brand of offense that would take the league by storm. Or … maybe not.
It turns out watching an NFL team play without an actual quarterback is like watching a car being operated by someone who doesn’t know how to drive. They might know where to find the pedal but when it comes to making U-turns or changing lanes, watch out.
To no one’s surprise, the Saints routed the Broncos 31-3. There is no way to overstate how much more enjoyable the build-up to this game was than the experience of watching it. Hinton, to his credit, took the field with grace. He is just a kid trying to get some action; he wasn’t begging coaches to make a positional switch. All told, poor Hinton completed one pass for 13 yards and threw two interceptions.
And viewers learned an important lesson: watching an NFL game without quarterbacks is an awful, anxiety-inducing experience.
There is a deeper lesson for the NFL. The league is a powerful, rich organization but it can’t outwit Covid-19, which is raging out of control in America. Positivity rates have surged across the country, and between 150,000-200,000 new cases are reported every day. It’s a terrifying and difficult time to try and squeeze in the remainder of an NFL season. The Broncos’ situation was unusual because it involved all of their quarterbacks but every team is being hit with Covid, despite strict protocols. There is no guarantee the Broncos’ situation won’t be repeated elsewhere.
We’re only at the beginning of the holiday wave and already the quality of play and competitive balance has been severely impacted. The undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers lost their Thanksgiving mini-bye after the Baltimore Ravens’ Covid outbreak. The San Francisco 49ers will probably move to Arizona for three weeks after Santa Clara county, where the team is based, banned contact sports as Covid-19 rates surge in California. More players every week are missing games due to their appearance on the Covid list. This week stars such as Adam Thielen, Jonathan Taylor, Larry Fitzgerald and the reigning MVP, Lamar Jackson were among the lengthy list of players sitting out due to the virus.
The NFL seems hellbent on finishing the season, no matter the health risks and watered-down quality of the product. The league has been aggressive with hefty penalties, hopeful they will serve as a deterrent. The Saints were fined $500,000 and lost a draft pick due to maskless locker room celebrations. The Patriots were recently fined $350,000 for events in October which led to Cam Newton and others testing positive.
But despite the NFL’s precautions, it can’t control a pandemic. Given the minuscule chance of the league pausing the season or creating an NBA-style bubble, we should all prepare for a grim rest of the season.
In the meantime, some advice to teams: Pick one of your quarterbacks and put him in isolation.
Video of the week
Calling Kendall Hinton’s emergency start at quarterback a disaster may be an understatement. Thus, the NFL world let out a collective exhale when Hinton finally got his first completion in the second half. It was his only one of the day. Poor kid.
MVP of the week
Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs. Hill put up the first-quarter of a lifetime which is saying a lot given the speedster’s already storied on-field career. With two minutes left of the first quarter, Hill already had 203 receiving yards, two touchdowns and one backflip. The Bucs made some nice defensive adjustments afterwards, but Hill still finished the game with 13 catches, 269 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught the pass that sealed the 27-24 win for Kansas City.
It helps when the person throwing you the ball is Patrick Mahomes. He had a sensational game of his own with 462 passing yards. The consistent precision between Mahomes and Hill is magical … unless you’re the rest of the AFC tasked with slowing down these two.
Quote of the week
Worth a reminder: the NFL is now on Sunday of Week 12, and it has yet to cancel a single game this season.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 29, 2020
A strange, seemingly tone-deaf message from the NFL’s most followed reporter. No matter Schefter’s intention, his words highlight the chasm between the rah-rah-football-who-cares-about-risks-keep-the-money-flowing crowd and those who think it’s absurd that the league isn’t temporarily shutting down. Yes, the NFL hasn’t technically cancelled games. But this weekend alone they moved games; have a team with 18 Covid-19 cases and counting; other players with Covid, in James Conner and Mark Andrews, who have weakened immune systems; a team (the 49ers) whose county has banned contact sports. Oh, and another team who had to pick a practice squad wideout as its starting quarterback. Everything is just fine. Yelp.
Stat of the week
Jeremy Chinn scores on consecutive snaps. The Carolina Panthers safety demonstrated his smarts when he scored on back-to-back snaps against the Minnesota Vikings. The first was a sack and scoop, after Zach Kerr pounced on Kirk Cousins. On the very next snap, Chinn deftly stripped the ball from Dalvin Cook and scored once again. All in a minute’s work.
Chinn not only became the first defensive player to achieve the feat, he also become the first Panthers defensive player to score two touchdowns in a game. The dazzling sequence elevated Chinn’s Defensive Rookie of the Year prospects, though Washington’s Chase Young will be tough to beat.
Elsewhere around the league
— The Jacksonville Jaguars fired general manager Dave Caldwell after the team’s 27-25 loss to Cleveland, their 10th defeat in a row. Three years ago, the Jaguars were a quarter away from the Super Bowl, but that championship caliber defense has been dismantled since. Owner Shad Khan named former 49ers GM Trent Baalke as Caldwell’s interim replacement, which left San Francisco fans gasping given Baalke’s tumultuous time in the Bay. Khan did inform Doug Marrone and his coaching staff that they were safe throughout the rest of the season, according to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
— All hail King (Derrick) Henry. Again. Henry gashed the Indianapolis Colts for 173 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-26 Tennessee Titans win that could have playoff implications. It was Henry’s eighth straight 100-yard game on the road, putting him two games behind Barry Sanders and the NFL record. Many NFL teams have steered away from a featured back but if there were more rushers with Henry’s cocktail of power and vision, they would most likely chance their strategy. Luckily for Tennessee, Henry is one-of-a-kind.
— There are no more adjectives to describe the now 0-12 New York Jets. After Sunday’s 20-3 loss to the Dolphins, the path to 0-16 and drafting Trevor Lawrence is crystal clear: don’t fire Adam Gase. Gase’s genius coaching prowess was again on display, this time in the form of incessantly feeding 37-year-old Frank Gore like he’s Walter Payton in his prime. Some consolation for Jets fans: three of their young players: defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, offensive tackle Mekhi Becton and wide receiver Denzel Mims look like they belong in this league.
— The Detroit Lions cleaned house, firing head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn, after their loss to the Houston Texans on Thanksgiving. No one was happier about this news than Lions fans, especially the Patricia part. To celebrate, a horde of Lions fans thanked Deshaun Watson for his four-touchdown performance that sealed Patricia’s coffin by donating to the Deshaun Watson Foundation. Many of the donations were for $13, the number of wins in the three-year Patricia era.
— Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson became the first woman in NFL history to coach a positional group in a game. Browson subbed for tight-end coach Drew Petzing, who stayed back in Cleveland to be with his wife after she gave birth to their first child.
— The 49ers pulled off a dramatic win over division stalwart Rams on a 42-yard field goal as time expired. The return of Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert and Richard Sherman were key as all three played important roles. So was a gutsy performance by the injury-laden defense and Nick Mullins, who overcame an early interception and led the game-winning drive. But the MVP of this one was Kyle Shanahan who dialed up a hell of a game to hand the Rams their first loss in their new palace. It was San Francisco’s fourth straight win over Los Angeles.