ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The league decided the Broncos' punishment of personnel executives Matt Russell and Tom Heckert for their recent DUI arrests was sufficient. Heckert will be suspended one month without pay; Russell's suspension is indefinite, and will also be unpaid.
But what will be crucial to their futures — both in their career and personally — is how they use what the Broncos will give them during their suspensions. They will provide them access to counseling, alcohol-awareness education and treatment "as needed."
"Well, the key right now for each guy, frankly, is they're getting the right counseling and assistance and help that they need to educate themselves, to make better decisions and move forward in a productive fashion," said team president Joe Ellis. "If they can come out of that, I think they'll be better-suited and the organization will, and they can be productive employees here at the Broncos and productive people away from the building when they're not working for us."
Executive vice president John Elway noted that the Broncos had to show a "compassionate side" in the process of administering discipline. But because the circumstances of the arrests of Russell and Heckert were different, the punishments had to vary, as well.
"That's why it's so important to look at each circumstance separately and be able to figure out what the correct punishment is for each one," Elway said. "I feel good about where the punishment came down.
"I look at it three ways. No. 1, the embarrassment to the organization, so the punishment must be set out. No. 2, you've got to look at ... where we get better, we look at our policies from within and try to get our policies to where it doesn't happen again, and also the compassionate side, where we have to be concerned with Matt and Tom, to be able to get them in the evaluation process and make sure that for their lives, they get the evaluation and see where they are."
The Broncos aso needed to mete punishment that was severe enough to send a message that their arrests were missteps that are taken seriously in every realm: in the public sphere, throughout the organization and in the locker room. Of those three, the locker-room perception is perhaps the trickiest. With sterner discipline from the league office for myriad infractions becoming routine in recent years, it was important for players to know that the standards will be the same upstairs and downstairs.
"No question. I think it's important for the players to know that they're not going to be held any different from anybody else, and the front office is just as accountable as the players are going to be held," Elway said. "(It's) to make sure that we're consistent there (and) able to have the punishment meet that crime — and also have the players understand that we mean business in the front office, as well as with them."
Broncos fans and the community at large need to know that, too.
"There's been a lot of anxiety and, frankly, outrage, in the community about what happened with these two executives here — as there should have been. We're taking steps to correct it. As an organization, we need to continue to look at things we can do internally to try to prevent these kinds of things from happening, and we'll take some steps to do that, as well.
"We have to do better. There's no question about it. I'll leave at that. We're moving forward and keeping an active eye in all of this."
Given the gravity of the actions committed by Russell and Heckert, football concerns appear rather trivial in the wake of these arrests. Nevertheless, the Broncos must plan for filling the organizational gaps that will exist during their suspensions, which come during a particularly important time of the year in regards to roster construction.
Heckert will miss training camp. He will return in time for the last two weeks of the preseason, which means he will be present for both roster-trimming deadlines. But the first part of August is vital, as well — especially in pro scouting, because that is the department responsible for filling the unexpected roster holes that can be created when the depth is tested by injury and potential underperformance. Last summer, that process brought the team one eventual starter (Keith Brooking) and one key backup (Jim Leonhard), underscoring the importance of pro scouting's pre-cutdown work.
In the meantime, Elway said he is "in the process" of figuring out how responsibilities will change while Heckert and Russell are suspended.
"Everyone's going to have to step up and do a little bit more," he said. "We should be able to get everything handled and pick up the slack."