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Imagine air traffic control trying to talk a passenger through landing a 747.
Now you understand the nightmare of the Denver Broncos.
With all four of their quarterbacks on the COVID-19 list, the Broncos limped through a game against New Orleans on Sunday with a practice-squad receiver taking the snaps.
The results were predictable. Kendall Hinton, who played some quarterback at Wake Forest before switching to receiver, completed one pass for 13 yards and was intercepted twice in a 31-3 defeat.
It was a mad scramble for Hinton, who estimated he was working with one-tenth of the playbook, or 20 to 30 plays. He did what he could but was faced with a near-impossible challenge.
“I would not say this is how I planned it out in my dreams,” said Hinton, who played three years of quarterback at Wake Forest before changing positions. “But it usually doesn't work out how you want it.”
Denver coach Vic Fangio said Hinton “did everything he could,” considering he had only about four hours of preparation.
“He was excited for it,” Fangio said. “We were excited for him; his teammates were excited for him. That’s a big, big ask and it just didn’t work out.”
The seeds of crisis were sown last week when third-stringer Jeff Driskel tested positive for the coronavirus. Subsequently, the other three Broncos quarterbacks — starter Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles — were added to the COVID list as high-risk contacts with an infected teammate. According to reports, they broke NFL rules by not wearing masks in meeting rooms and were evasive during the contact-tracing process.
“We count on them to be the leaders of our team, the leaders of our offense,” Fangio said, “and those guys made a mistake.”
The Broncos unsuccessfully attempted to get the game postponed a day or two. The NFL is unreceptive to such requests when rules violations have occurred.
“Maybe the league felt like they had to make an example out of us,” Broncos safety Kareem Jackson said.
More than a freak show, the Mile High mauling was an ominous hint of the uncertain path ahead for the NFL as it moves forward amid climbing case numbers.
The Baltimore Ravens have 23 players on the COVID list, among them seven starters, heading into their twice-postponed Tuesday night game against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.
According to the Associated Press, the NFL fined the Saints $500,000 and stripped them of a seventh-round pick in next spring’s draft for violating COVID protocols, and the New England Patriots were fined $350,000 for similar violations.
The San Francisco 49ers, fresh off a 23-20 victory over the Rams on Sunday, have to practice and play two scheduled home games somewhere other than Santa Clara County, which has temporarily suspended contact sports in an effort to curb the outbreak. The rules take effect Monday through Dec. 21.
The 49ers have home games scheduled for Dec. 7 against Buffalo and Dec. 13 against Washington at Levi’s Stadium.
The Santa Clara rules also require anyone who has traveled more than 150 miles from the county to quarantine for 14 days. The 49ers returned from Los Angeles before the rules went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said after Sunday’s game that he was not happy with the way the team learned about the new rules.
“For us to be heading out here yesterday, and the relationship we have with them [the county] and for all of our players and coaches and our wives to find that out while we were getting on the plane and no one to tell us, it was extremely disappointing,” he said.
The NFL repeatedly has made it clear that it is evaluating every option in an effort to complete the season, a goal commissioner Roger Goodell made clear when the schedule was released in May.
One of the options discussed at league headquarters is pushing the pause button on the season for a week or two to allow teams to catch their breath and regain their equilibrium. Those missing two weeks could be tacked on the end of the season so that essential games could be played.
The problem is, sending players home for a week or two could create more problems than it solves, as more time with family and friends also means more potential exposure to the virus.
In order to create more December drama and to incentivize teams to keep their foot on the gas through the end of the season, the league loads the back end of schedules with division games. Therefore, there’s still a lot up for grabs, and the NFL couldn’t just abbreviate the season and start the playoffs early.
Say the league were to postpone Weeks 13 and 14, and create Weeks 18 and 19 for those games. Not every game would have to be played, but which ones would be essential?
What if the Steelers were 15-0 and had the top seed in the AFC secured? Their finale wouldn’t be essential, per se, but would the NFL deny them the opportunity to go 16-0? And how about the winless New York Jets? They’re already out of the playoff picture but they might need to lose to lock up the No. 1 pick in the draft.
At this point, that’s all fantasy football. The NFL is thinking week by week, and even day by day, in these tenuous times.
“It’s tough for all of us,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s a challenging year.”
Then, capturing the dystopian season in one quip: “I felt bad for the cardboard fans.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.