ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the league meetings concluded in Palm Beach, Fla. on April 1, the rules change that drew the most national attention was the increased penalties for over-the-top touchdown celebrations.
But the tweak that may have the most practical impact on the Broncos and other NFL teams is the decision to increase the practice squads from five to eight players, bringing the total number of players in the locker room to 61 during the regular season.
"I think the guiding force behind this was to allow for a larger development of players," General Manager Ted Sundquist said as he reflected upon the meetings following his return to Denver. "When you think that 96 more players will be allowed to continue to practice and to develop on NFL squads, that can only be a positive.
"I know that there were some concerns with some of the clubs about the cost, but at the same time -- when you think about it -- if you've got eight players from which to choose should you have an injury, they in the long run will save you money when you move them up to the active roster, because you can pay them the rookie minimum, versus trying to sign a five-, six-year veteran player off the street. It's helpful two-fold, but to me, the greatest importance of the thing is that ability to develop three more players to your roster."
It also gives the Broncos and other NFL teams far more flexibility in cobbling together the practice squad. The daily necessities of having certain amounts of players at each position can mix with simply retaining the best prospects, regardless of position or practice need.
"A lot of times you need practice-squad guys just to get through practice at offensive line, defensive line and wide receivers -- especially when you have older wide receivers like we had with Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith; you're trying to save their legs," Sundquist said. "You end up going in that direction when you might have wanted to keep one more linebacker or one more defensive end."
If teams aren't forced to shoehorn players at specific positions onto the practice squad, they may have the chance to retain players with greater long-term potential, which could compel clubs to retain players they might have been forced to cast aside in the past. No longer will clubs have to solely consider which players will actually provide the most benefit in the practice sessions of the moment.
"To be quite honest with you, you may see many more quarterbacks on practice squads than you have in the past, for that reason," Sundquist said. "The need to fill positions to keep practice moving was much more important in some instances than it was to pick and choose developmental prospects. Now, this gives you room to bring a quarterback on. Really, you might not need a fourth quarterback to practice, but now you can bring him on just for developmental concerns."
It also will allow for the consistent development of players at other positions. Under previous practice-squad guidelines, the team was often forced into a juggling act, waiving and re-signing players in moves that were ripples from transactions on the 53-man roster.
A notable example of the practice-squad shuffle during the injury-plagued season of last year was cornerback Brandon Williams. He joined the practice squad on Sept. 3, was released on Sept. 10, re-joined the squad on Sept. 17, and was waived again on Oct. 14. Fullback Kyle Johnson was also waived from the practice squad twice before re-joining the club on Christmas Eve.
"A guy like (offensive lineman) Tyler Lenda -- you might have seen him around a little longer," Sundquist said. The Broncos released Lenda last Aug. 26, re-signed him three days later after placing Nicholas Eason on injured reserve, then released him again at the final cut-down on Aug. 31.
"(Cornerback) Brandon Williams, guys like that," Sundquist continued. "An eight-man practice squad would have given us a spot to where we wouldn't have had to have brought him on and let him go. And it would have given us an opportunity to go after a couple of more college free agents. We might have been a little more aggressive going after guys."
The Broncos only signed three college free agents the day after the draft last year -- Lenda, punter Mat McBriar and running back Cecil Sapp. Twenty-one days later, Denver added two more rookie free agents -- Williams and safety Bobby Walker. Only Sapp managed to stick, toiling on the practice squad most of the year before earning a promotion two days before the regular season's final game.
Denver's history of developing practice-squad players is solid; Smith, center Tom Nalen, defensive lineman Maa Tanuvasa, tight end Dwayne Carswell and cornerback-turned-special teams coach Ronnie Bradford are among the team's most notable practice-squad products since it was instituted in 1989. The Broncos had five practice-squad alumni on the first team at the end of 2003 -- Smith, Nalen, cornerback Kelly Herndon and linebackers Donnie Spragan and Jashon Sykes. Player/coach Jimmy Spencer also came of age on the Washington Redskins' practice squad during their most recent world championship season of 1991.
That development of players shows why Denver's practice squad is far more than just a collection of players clinging to an NFL dream.
"There's no such thing as roster filler, in my opinion," Sundquist said. "You're not just signing a guy to get you through camp. That's a popular saying. But every guy we bring onto this roster, we truly think has an opportunity or the potential to contribute and help us win a championship. Sometimes you're having to let players go just because there's not enough room."
Now, there will be a little more.
REGARDING THE OTHER RULES ALTERATIONS:
Celebrations: While the new restrictions on choreographed celebrations forbid the use of cellular phones and Sharpie markers, they don't preclude the continuation of fan-oriented post-touchdown actions such as Green Bay's Lambeau Leap or the Broncos' Mile High Salute, which has been utilized occasionally since its creator, Terrell Davis, last played for the team in January 2002.
"A single player, saluting in the end zone, saluting the fans, will not be penalized," Sundquist said. "That's not what they're talking about. What they're talking about is choreographed, with two or more people. Now, does that mean that one player cannot salute another in the end zone? As I interpret it, yes, that is correct. Can they salute each other on the sideline? Yes they can. Can the individual player turn and salute the fans, which is the origin of the Mile High Salute? Yes, they can."
Sundquist hopes to see more of it, simply because of what it signifies -- a Broncos touchdown.
"I hope the current players kind of look at that similar to the Lambeau Leap, something that is uniquely Denver, and involves the fans more than the usual celebration," Sundquist said. "I think it's a pretty classy way to celebrate a touchdown and link the team with our fans. I would like to see that carried on by our young players. I would like to see lots of Mile High Salutes from Ashley Lelie, Jake Plummer, Quentin Griffin and all the guys who might have the opportunity to take the ball into the end zone."
Pass Defense: There's no change in the rules on pass defense, merely an emphasis on watching for illegal-contact infractions from defensive backs. Passing in the league dipped to its lowest level in 11 years last year, engendering discussion of the subject at the meetings.
"Obviously, I think the competition committee and the league in general looked at the decrease in passing yardage over this past season as compared to seasons and became concerned," Sundquist said. "They did some studying and saw that there was probably a little bit more extracurricular activity than there should be -- tugging on the jersey, re-directing receivers, that sort of thing."
But Sundquist believes the Broncos' cornerbacks will be unaffected by the emphasis.
"I don't really worry about this changing our game," he said. "I've always felt like our cornerbacks are extremely athletic, whether we're talking about Lenny (Walls), Kelly (Herndon), Deltha (O'Neal) or especially a guy like Champ (Bailey). Champ's game is short-area quickness, speed, route anticipation, timing and breaking on the ball.
"I don't think anybody's ever accused Champ Bailey of being overly physical on receivers downfield. This guy's a position cover corner. I don't worry about this on Champ whatsoever. That's not his game. His game has not been mugging receivers downfield. Let's say a guy like Chris McAlister, he's a big, physical, guy. He's a clutch-and-grabber. And he's got a reputation for mugging people. To worry about how this rule's going to affect the Broncos, I don't. I feel pretty good about the athleticism on our defense."
Time Outs From the Sideline: Starting this fall, coaches will be able to call time out from the sideline, a shift which should help teams manage the clock better when the situation calls for hurry-up mode.
"It's very similar, if not an absolute parallel to the college rule," Sundquist said. "You still have to gain eye contact with the side judge. In the heat of battle, when you're trying to get guys in and out in the two-minute drill, sometimes trying to get that communication across to the guy on the field (is difficult)."
Being able to take a timeout from the sidelines will have benefits throughout the game, as well. If a coach doesn't like what he sees, or spots 12 men on the field, he can take the timeout and avert potential disaster.
"I certainly think so," Sundquist said. "Once the huddle breaks, the coach-to-quarterback communication ability is gone. But in the press box, the coaches in the press box can certainly communicate with the head coach on the sideline and say, 'Whoa, that's not what we're expecting; let's call time out.'
The Numbers Game: Wide receivers can now freely wear jersey numbers between 10 and 19, in addition to the numbers in the 80s that players at the position have worn for decades. In the past, receivers could only wear such numbers if there were no available numbers in the 80s -- something that happened to the Broncos this year, as all numbers between 80 and 89 were spoken for when Charlie Adams and Nate Jackson earned promotion to the active roster in December.
Adams and Jackson wore Nos. 12 and 14, respectively. Now they can keep them, even if there are open numbers in the 80s.
The change would also make it logistically easier for the Broncos to honor Shannon Sharpe's No. 84, if the team chose to do so when Sharpe ends his career, whether it is this year or in the future.
"I think that was the driving force behind that -- teams that have retired jerseys in the 80s, it gives you a little more flexibility to do that," Sundquist said.
Kicking -- Dead Football in the End Zone:: The league voted to declare a play over when a football crosses into the end zone on a punt or field-goal attempt -- a rule that could have come in handy when Chris McAlister returned a missed field goal 107 yards at the Broncos' expense in 2002.
"No doubt, no doubt," Sundquist said. "I think the idea there was to allow a few more seconds on the clock and allow a few more plays. A ball in the end zone, you can just let it roll there and sit and sit and sit."
REPLAY: The league voted to approve instant replay for five more years, choosing to forego making it a permanent part of the game for now.
"I think part of the thought process was that with five years and a review coming up again in five years, it would put even more pressure on the system to continue to improve, versus just saying we've reached a point where we'll make it permanent and there's no reason to continue to push even better technology or more camera angles or better communication between the field and the official in the press box," Sundquist said. "With a five-year period here, knowing that this will come up for review again in 2009, those that want to see replay continue to be a part of our game will then continue to try to improve the system."
O'Neal Update: Discussions with other teams continue regarding O'Neal. The Broncos have been working towards a deal of the receiver/cornerback since early March.
"We've had numerous discussions with a number of different teams and we still feel that Deltha has some football left in him and is a good football player. He probably just needs a change of scenery," Sundquist said. "I think in the end someone's going to get a pretty good football player and we may end up helping ourselves come draft time. If we're not able to get anything done, then I think we hold on to a pretty good football player."
MORE FROM SUNDQUIST ON THE OFFSEASON:
- From March 15: Patience Paramount in Free Agency
- From March 8: Upgrading Cornerback: That Was the No. 1 Priority
- From March 4: For Broncos -- and Every Team -- Change is Inevitable
- From Feb. 20: Speaking of Everything: Sundquist Updates Offseason Issues