DENVER — The Broncos' offense began a quarterback-less game on Sunday with three consecutive direct snaps to Phillip Lindsay, and it was largely effective.
Lindsay gained 18 yards on his first three carries, and Royce Freeman took a direct snap of his own to set up a third-and-3 on Denver's opening drive.
That's when Kendall Hinton made his unexpected, unlikely debut. On Saturday morning, Hinton was a rookie wide receiver on the practice squad. By Sunday, he was the team's quarterback, although he didn't officially earn the start.
"Those were the options, you saw them — the wildcat [formation almost] every play," Head Coach Vic Fangio said of the team's makeshift offensive system. "Kendall had some experience playing quarterback in college. That's about what our choices were."
The Broncos turned to Hinton after placing starting quarterback Drew Lock, reserve quarterback Brett Rypien and practice squad quarterback Blake Bortles on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Sunday as close contacts, which disqualified them for Sunday's game.
Jeff Driskel had previously been placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and because of the NFL's COVID protocols, the Broncos were unable to sign a free agent to their team ahead of Sunday's game.
"I was disappointed on a couple levels," Fangio said. "That our quarterbacks put us in this position and that our quarterbacks put the league in this position. We count on them to be the leaders of the team and leaders of the offense and those guys made a mistake and that is disappointing. Obviously, I haven't done a good enough job of selling the protocols to them when they are on their own so part of that could fall on me. I thought I was. We have emphasized it a lot and we're really doing good with COVID up to this point as it relates relative to other teams. There was a failing there and that's disappointing."
Fangio said Lock, Rypien, Driskel and Bortles gathered on Tuesday to watch extra film but got "lax with their masks" and social distancing.
The game was played as scheduled — Fangio declined to comment whether he thought it should have been moved — and Hinton, Lindsay and Freeman took the reins.
Hinton's opportunity, though, didn't result in much success. On third-and-3 on the team's opening drive, Hinton was flushed from the pocket and threw incomplete. He would not complete a pass in the first half, as he finished 0-of-7 with an interception, and the Broncos gained just 15 more yards in the half after that initial drive.
Hinton found Noah Fant for a 13-yard gain on the first drive of the second half, but it was the team's lone completion of the day. The Broncos became just the ninth team since the merger with one or fewer pass completions in a game, and they were the first since 49ers completed one pass in 2005. Denver's previously low mark for completions was two, which came in 2011.
"Absolutely I expected to play to play better," Hinton said. "The Saints have a great defense, but I honestly don't feel like I played nearly to the best of my ability. And of course, a day or two of practice would have definitely helped. I definitely think I could have did more things out there."
The Broncos also became the first team since 1998 to throw fewer completions (1) than interceptions (2), and Hinton finished 1-of-9 for 13 yards and two interceptions.
"He did everything he could," Fangio said. "He was excited for the opportunity. We had about a two-, three-, four-hour window to get him ready, which isn't a lot obviously. He was excited for it. We were excited for him; his teammates were excited for him. That's a big, big ask and it just didn't work out."
Were it not for an unprecedented situation at quarterback, the Broncos may have had a chance to upset the now 9-2 Saints. The Broncos forced punts on four of the Saints' first five drives, and New Orleans' lone scoring drive came after Dre'Mont Jones jumped offside on a fourth-and-1 play.
New Orleans' other first-half touchdown came after a promising start to a Denver drive ended with a low snap from Lloyd Cushenberry III. Kwon Alexander picked up the fumble, and while Garett Bolles prevented him from scoring, Taysom Hill was able to power the ball in from two yards out for his second score of the afternoon. The Saints added a field goal as time expired in the first half to push their lead to 17-0 after Hinton threw a late interception.
Hill didn't find nearly as much success through the air, as he started the game 6-of-13 for 38 yards, an interception and a 21.0 quarterback rating. He was also sacked three times, as the Saints started just 3-of-10 on third down,
Denver added its lone points of the afternoon in large part to the defense, as well. Rookie cornerback Essang Bassey intercepted Hill after A.J. Bouye broke up a pass, and he returned the ball into New Orleans' territory. It would be the Broncos' only possession to cross midfield.
"It was just kind of, play with the cards we were given, you know, make the most out of the situation," Bassey said of the team's mindset. "I know on defense you're not worried about what the offense does. We were going to go out and play hard and that was kind of the same mindset. We just got to pick it up a little bit more, be a little extra focused just because we knew it was an uphill battle coming into today, but that was pretty much the mindset going into the game."
The Broncos were unable to gain a first down, but Brandon McManus hit from 58 yards — the longest field goal of his career — to end the chances of a shutout win.
Denver's offense, though, was unable to muster a consistent enough output to challenge New Orleans' defense. The Broncos tallied just six first downs and were 1-of-10 on third down. The team's 112 offensive yards was the lowest output in franchise history (since the merger) other than a 1992 loss to the Eagles in which they tallied 82 total yards.
Denver's 12 passing yards is the team's lowest output since 1983, when they had one net passing yard in a win over Pittsburgh.
"I have a lot of love and respect for our players," Fangio said. "They're competitors, they're fighters and they did that this afternoon, all the way to the end, under some extreme circumstances that have never been seen before. They went out there and competed. I know the score is what it is, but our guys competed. They played hard, they played physical and I love them and respect them even more."