Before Sunday, Kendall Hinton hadn’t taken a snap for the Denver Broncos at quarterback — not in a game, not in a practice, not in the recesses of his imagination — for a pretty logical reason: He is not a quarterback.
Once, back at Wake Forest, he was. But as a junior he moved to wide receiver, a role he held until Saturday, when four Denver quarterbacks were ruled ineligible to play because they’d been exposed to coronavirus, causing Hinton to start cramming for the first N.F.L. game of his career, at a position he hadn’t played in more than two years.
A tumultuous weekend across the league, rife with outbreaks, schedule adjustments and new regulations intended to slow the scourge, continued Sunday with a poor imitation of a professional football game in Denver, though Hinton won’t remember it that way. Thrust into an absurd situation, he didn’t complete a pass until after halftime of the Broncos’ 31-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints that served as a distillation of the N.F.L. experience amid the pandemic.
On one sideline at Empower Field: the Saints (9-2), a repeat violator of league protocols. New Orleans had incurred $250,000 in fines, and Coach Sean Payton $100,000, for his failure to regularly wear a mask in Week 2, and it was reported Sunday that they were docked another $500,000, plus a seventh-round draft pick, for celebrating in their locker room without masks following a Nov. 8 victory at Tampa Bay. Payton, who contracted the virus in March, had danced along with them.
On the other sideline: The Broncos (4-7), who were thrust into quarterback-by-committee disarray because three quarterbacks — Blake Bortles, Drew Lock and Brett Rypien — gathered at team headquarters Tuesday, an off day, to watch film for two hours with a fourth quarterback, Jeff Driskel, who two days later tested positive for the coronavirus. The quarterbacks failed to immediately disclose to contact tracers that they didn’t wear masks or tracking devices and did not distance sufficiently for the meeting.
“We count on them to be the leaders of the team and leaders of the offense,” Broncos Coach Vic Fangio said after Sunday’s game, “and those guys made a mistake and that is disappointing.”
The Broncos had requested to move the game to Tuesday, ESPN reported, since that would have conceivably allowed a quarterback enough time to get cleared to return. But the league has said multiple times that games will not be postponed for one player or a position group, and it was not going to consider Denver’s situation a special circumstance.
“Maybe it could have been moved,” Broncos safety Kareem Jackson said. “But at the same time, maybe the league’s just making an example of us.”
Long before the season began, the league insisted that it was aiming to play a full 256-game slate without interruption — a challenge, without a so-called bubble environment — and with Super Bowl LV contested, as scheduled, on Feb. 7 in Tampa, Fla. Whether that would happen, whether it will still happen, hinged always on the discipline of players and staffers, but also the vagaries of a virus that has ravaged the nation.
As transmission rates have surged across the nation, they have also done so in the N.F.L., and the events that transpired over the long Thanksgiving weekend might very well have signaled a preview for the remainder of the season.
In Santa Clara County, Calif., officials imposed a three-week ban on contact sports that will force the San Francisco 49ers to play their two scheduled home games in that period elsewhere, while the Baltimore Ravens continued to grapple with an outbreak that has sidelined more than two dozen players and staff members and has postponed their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, originally scheduled for the prime time slot on Thanksgiving, twice.
As such, it’s also possible that the virus will again wipe out an entire position group for a game, resulting in even more of the competitive inequities that are viewed as an inevitable consequence of playing football during a pandemic.
The Broncos learned Saturday that all four quarterbacks would be unavailable, and since league rules prohibit new acquisitions from playing without having quarantined in advance, they faced a conundrum: Who could play the position?
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Regrouping, they pared the playbook to a tenth of its size, Hinton estimated — about 20 to 30 plays. Denver opted for a committee at quarterback — three running backs took snaps Sunday — and prepped Hinton for having extended playing time. He said it was difficult to tell what kept him up late Saturday: nerves or studying.
Emergency situations surface in other sports, but there’s no real equivalent to what unfolded for the Broncos. Even in the N.H.L., where in the most dire conditions a civilian is called on to play goalie, the athlete has generally has done so, at some level, recently.
On the eve of the season, Denver waived Hinton, who worked in sales until joining the practice squad in early November. On Sunday, Hinton, playing the most difficult position in professional team sports on 24 hours’ notice, was asked to maneuver a tractor-trailer the day after earning his drivers’ license.
Warren Ruggiero, Hinton’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Wake Forest, said it was wild to imagine that Hinton would play quarterback in the N.F.L. before the man who replaced him — John Wolford, now the No. 2 quarterback for the Rams.
“A lot of times, he’d just make a Kendall Hinton play, you know?” Ruggiero said. “He’d figure it out and run around and make a couple guys miss. He always had that in him.”
Hinton still does have that in him, but the speed of the Saints’ defense stunned him Sunday. He ran twice for seven yards and connected on one of nine passes, to Noah Fant, for 13 yards. Denver finished with 112 total yards, six first downs and more turnovers (three) than completions.
“In the final analysis,” Fangio said, “it was just too big of an ask.”
With two or three days of practice, Hinton said, he would have played better — he just knew it.
“I would not say this is how I planned it out in my dreams,” Hinton said. “But it usually doesn’t work out how you want it.”