A week before their home game against the New Orleans Saints, all seemed normal in Denver Broncosville. Sure, they weren’t very good, and were having a middling year, but that’s just part and parcel of being an NFL team. Nothing unusual. Even when third-string quarterback Jeff Driskel tested positive for Covid-19 three days before they played, the league quickly cleared the team (sans Driskel and Deontae Spencer) to return to practice. The pandemic might have hit the Broncos, but it looked as if they were going to get off lightly.
They were not. During Saturday’s practice, then entire QB corps was yanked off the field and into quarantine, having each failed to properly observe mask protocols during a meeting with Driskel earlier that week, before his positive test. No Blake Bortles. No Brett Rypien. No Drew Lock. The Broncos found themselves without any quarterbacks at all the day before the 8-2 Saints were due to visit town.
Meanwhile, the Saints were having quarterback struggles of their own. Long-term starter Drew Brees suffered multiple broken ribs after an illegal hit against the San Francisco 49ers, leaving Tayson Hill as their starter going into Denver. New Orleans having their backups available obviously put them in stronger position than the Broncos did, but it was still hardly an enviable one. Hill’s quarterbacking experience before his week 11 start against the Atlanta Falcons was limited to a handful of gimmick plays, and he remains significantly more comfortable running the ball than throwing it.
After trying and failing to persuade the NFL to allow them to use Rob Calabrese — the offensive quality control coach — at quarterback, the Bronco’s eventual solution to their personnel crisis was Kendall Hinton, a practice squad wide receiver who had started intermittently at QB for Wake Forest during his college career.
Hill vs. Hinton. Utility player vs. backup wide receiver. The stage was set for one of the weirdest games in recent NFL history. Here’s how the first few drives went:
During this spell, there were 31 yards of total offense. There were 19 plays and three pass attempts, all of them incomplete. Things got better for the Saints from there — their third drive went for a touchdown, and they even had a three-yard pass completion in there. Well done Taysom Hill. By the end of the day he’d picked up 78 passing yards, completing nine of 16 attempts.
Things did not get better for Hinton, who didn’t actually start the game for the Broncos. That honor went to Phillip Lindsay, who got stuffed on a few rush attempts before Denver unleashed their new quarterback.
(I want to point out that I’m absolutely not making fun of Hinton here. If nothing else, this post should be a celebration of his bravery. Sure, he was awful in this game. But being willing to step in unprepared to quarterback against any NFL defense, let alone one as fearsome as the Saints, is one of the bravest things I can imagine. Kendall Hinton is a hero. A lesser man would have faked his own death and resurfaced on some tropical island wearing an ebullient fake mustache.)
Hinton’s passing line was ugly. He didn’t make his first completion until the third quarter, when he found tight end Noah Fant for 13 yards:
There is some dark comedy in the fact that the catch here was made behind the line of scrimmage after Fant disengaged from a block. Of the 13 yards earned on this play — the Broncos’ only passing yards of the game — Hinton was responsible for minus two of them. But hey, a completion is a completion.
His next play was an interception. Hinton already been picked once, by Janoris Jenkins, and frankly he should have had more. His throws were half desperation and all prayer, and even when he was able to get some zip on the ball he never seemed to have a clear idea a) where it was going or b) where it should be going. He finished the game with two interceptions against one complete pass. It turns out that playing quarterback in the NFL is very hard, even if you’re good enough at the position to have sometimes started there in college.
With the Broncos’ passing game nonexistent, the Saints were able to crush their running game too, limiting the hosts to just 100 rushing yards despite them running the ball on virtually every play. Even while getting absolutely manhandled, however, the Broncos still got on the board after getting a turnover in the Saints’ half and kicking a field goal. It turns out that shutting out NFL teams is also very hard, even if a Covid outbreak gives them a totally dysfunctional offense.
The overall shape of the game is absolutely wild. Hill’s passing game was just credible enough to open up some space for the Saints to run, which is why they were able to cruise to a comfortable 31-3 victory, but still, it wasn’t good: 9/16 for 68 yards, with a passer rating of 43.2. The teams combined for 75 passing yards and 332 rushing. Between the 2010 and 2019 seasons, NFL teams earned an average of 234 passing yards a game; the Broncos and Saints combined for less than a third of that.
Still, this wasn’t the worst team passing game of all time. Chargers and Ryan Leaf, for instance, once managed an astonishing -19 passing yards in a 23-7 loss against the Kansas City Chiefs in 1998. Leaf started the day with a four yard pass to Freddie Jones, then went 0-14 on pass attempts and was sacked twice for -23 yards. At least Hinton’s sack was only for a short loss. And then there are the ‘79 Seahawks, who contrived to get passing yards on two completions but took enough sacks to put them in solidly negative territory, not just for passing yards but for total yards.
Neither was it the worst combined passing game ever. Back in 1973, the Falcons and Cardinals contrived to give us a game in which both starting quarterbacks put up a passer rating of 0.0, and combined passing yardage of 40, a magnificent performance which even the most wildly perverse of sports fans must be hoping never happens again.
As we said earlier, playing quarterback in the NFL is a very hard thing to do. But breaking records for NFL futility is also very hard, and no matter how hard the QB-less Broncos (and Brees-less Saints) tried, they couldn’t quite get there. Impressive effort, though.