DENVER --** There were eight words that no one expected to hear during Saturday's preseason game between the Broncos and Texans:
"Unsportsmanlike conduct, offense, No. 18, with a taunt."
If heard in a vacuum, referee Craig Wrolstad's announcement would have made as little sense as a punt on first down. But the context was everything -- of the night, of the week, and of the practices from the start of organized team activities to this point.
The 2014 Broncos are still in a gestational state of their evolution, but one trait is already evident: a jagged edge. Although the team prides itself on its precision, its emotions can run hot, evidenced in practices through training camp.
When nerves are stepped on, its players stand on alert. When one is threatened, others rush to help. And when one is hurt -- by a hit from the same player who spent the better part of the week instigating one dustup after another -- even the one player renowned for his coolness under pressure will heat up.
The infraction was relatively tame, and barely qualified as "taunting" under the league's expansion of player-conduct monitoring. Quarterback Peyton Manning ran up to Texans safety D.J. Swearinger, said a few words -- "choice words," according to Swearinger -- and went back to the sideline. Of course, he did it seconds after throwing a 29-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, so the real punishment was on the scoreboard.
But Manning had played the first 16 years of his career without a single discipline penalty -- just some false starts, delays of game, intentional groundings and a handful of others, all part of the normal run of play. If there was ever a moment to draw such an infraction, the second quarter of a preseason game was the most consequence-free time to do it.
"Fifteen yards with five seconds left in the half -- it can't hurt you that much, right?" said Manning. "I think if you're going to get one, that's a good time to get one."
Manning could not be blamed for being upset. Swearinger's chatter during three days of spirited practice was harmless. But now, there was a consequence: Wes Welker, a team leader, walking to the locker room with his third concussion in 10 months, a direct result of Swearinger's shoulder colliding with Welker's helmet.
Until that point, Swearinger was basically harmless -- just a talkative safety trying to prove himself. But in a game where the final score will soon be forgotten, the hit on Welker could linger. Anger was justified.
"It definitely made me mad," said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. "The fact that if Peyton is addressing a situation, that means it was a bad situation."
As Head Coach John Fox said, Welker "won't come back until he's ready to come back," with the veteran receiver's safety being the only relevant concern. He is now under the league-mandated post-concussion protocol, which incorporates myriad tests and consultations with multiple doctors.
But on the positive side, Manning's reaction will linger, too.
"I loved it. Because (Swearinger) was one of their guys in practice that was just out of control, and starting fights, and things like that," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
"Quarterbacks aren't going to get in there and fight and get in tussles during practice. I guess that was his way of fighting: throwing a bomb with 10 seconds left and letting him know he felt."
And in doing so, he let his teammates know how he felt about them. An attack on one is an attack on all.
"That's how we are. He was defending his teammate," said cornerback Aqib Talib. "That's what he's about _ all of us."
Added Sanders: "The thing about this team, most teams they call the other guys teammates. We're brothers here. We're a band of brothers. Wes went down and a guy standing over him, taunting him, Peyton doesn't like that. No one likes that."
And the response was a moment that will define the Broncos for long after the preseason is forgotten: a quarterback standing up for one of his own, to a player who agitated them for days.