ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson was helped to the locker room Sunday after he entered concussion protocol against the Kansas City Chiefs, it was another reminder of the team’s injury-ravaged season.
The Broncos were suddenly faced with the question of how the offense will proceed at quarterback for the four games remaining regular season games.
“He’s in the concussion protocol,’’ said Broncos Nathaniel Hackett. “So, we’ll go through the step-by-step process and do it the right way.’’
And after being down 27-0 in the second quarter, the Broncos (3-10) still slugged it out with the Chiefs (10-3), one of the league’s best teams.
But their season’s story had added another chapter with Wilson’s injury, wide receiver Kendall Hinton’s injury (hamstring) and running back Mike Boone’s injury (ankle). In a year when the Broncos have already for much of the season led the league in players on injured reserve, the Broncos face some decisions over the final four weeks about what to do on offense.
“This team -- we never finish how we want to, but one thing I can say for sure is that we never quit,’’ wide receiver Jerry Jeudy said. “We just keep fighting throughout the game even when we were down 27-0, 21-0 -- we still kept fighting. If there’s time on the clock, there’s time in the game; there’s still a chance.’’
How that fight looks moving forward is uncertain. Of the 11 players on offense who started the season opener in Seattle, tight end Eric Tomlinson is the only player who has played every game. Running back Javonte Williams (knee) has been on injured reserve since his Week 4 injury, the Broncos’ top three wide receivers in the opener have all missed time, and receiver Tim Patrick has been on injured reserve since training camp.
Plus, when guard Dalton Risner missed Sunday’s game against the Chiefs due to back and shoulder injuries, it meant the Broncos have not had one offensive lineman play in every game this season. In Sunday’s game alone the Broncos used three different players in Risner’s left guard spot -- rookie Luke Wattenberg, who has worked mostly at center, as well as Netane Muti and Quinn Bailey, who have been on the practice squad for most of the year.
And even if Wilson is medically cleared to play at some point over the next four weeks, the Chiefs' six sacks and 11 quarterback hits against the Broncos’ patchwork line should give the Broncos’ pause on whether to shut Wilson down for the year.
Asked if Risner’s absence impacted the offense Sunday, Hackett said, “It did a lot. Dalton has been our rock. He's been the one guy that's been here throughout the season. Losing him, both as a leader and as a player, was definitely something we were a little nervous about."
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton also missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury, so Hinton’s injury may put that position largely in the hands of Jeudy and two undrafted rookies -- Jalen Virgil and Brandon Johnson. Jeudy had his first three-touchdown game against the Chiefs, but he’s still working back from an ankle injury that kept him out for two games.
“With three of the four starters down, it’s tough,’’ Jeudy said. “Having to be the only starter still playing, you want to be able to give it your all and put your best foot forward to bring the young guys up. (But) we have great young guys that can compete and do the same things the older guys are doing.’’
The Broncos’ top two healthy running backs weren't on any NFL rosters earlier this season. Latavius Murray was signed off the New Orleans Saints practice squad in early October and Marlon Mack, who had a 66-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the Chiefs, was signed off the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad in late October.
The 32-year-old Murray is now the Broncos’ leading rusher, with 380 yards and three rushing touchdowns which lead the team. And Mack, with four receptions on the year, now has the team’s second-longest touchdown catch.
“It's always been there, we’ve just had some rough patches, but we’re sticking together … keep going each day,’’ Mack said.
It all puts Hackett, now with eight one-score losses on the Broncos’ docket after Sunday, in a position of trying to manage all of those moving roster parts over the last month of the season with his own future up for discussion by the team’s first-year ownership group.
“The goal is to win,’’ Hackett said. “We all know that. But to watch these guys when you're down 27-0, everybody had a choice on how they wanted to continue that game … We have to finish. We had opportunities to continually win that game. I appreciate that, and that is kind of that moral victory, but we want to win the game."