ENGLEWOOD, Colo—The Denver Broncos have been bitten hard and fast by the injury bug thus far in 2015, losing rookie third round pick Jeff Heuerman to a torn ACL a few weeks ago and today, news broke that All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady also tore his ACL and is “likely” done for the season.
For a team that has endured the tectonic changes of a new coaching staff, and has had to balance it with the pressure of Super Bowl expectations, losing Clady is truly a tragic loss. Clady was drafted to play in the zone blocking scheme back in 2008 and was looking forward to embracing it again this season.
Today, following organized team activities, head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick “Rico” Dennison spoke from the podium at Dove Valley about the loss and what their plan along the offensive line is moving forward.
“Obviously I wasn’t going to talk to you guys today but you all know why I’m here,” Kubiak began. “Yesterday in practice, Ryan was setting on a play and kind of felt his knee buckle a little bit. He actually played another play and then pulled himself out; he said his knee was sore. We really weren’t that worried about it last night, everybody felt good. But we thought we’d take a look at it this morning and unfortunately we got some horrible news. So he’s got an ACL [injury] and we are going to get it taken care of and then make some decisions; there will be no decisions made real quickly.”
The decisions Kubiak is referring to are whether to put Clady on season-ending injured reserve, or to put him on I.R.—with designation to return. If it’s a significant tear, we can expect Clady to miss the entire season. If it’s a partial tear, there’s a small glimmer of hope that he could return at some point in the 2015 season.
“Obviously there’s the IR designation that’s always available to the football team,” Kubiak said. “So, they are going to let it calm down here for I think eight-to-10 days and then they are going to go in and take care of it and make a decision from there. Ryan’s got a little history of coming off of an injury so they have a pretty good feel of how long it would take him to do something like this. So, like I said, no decision will be made real quick.”
Clady tore his patellar tendon in a pickup basketball game towards the end of April of 2010. Often, that’s a season-ending injury. However, in a seemingly miraculous recovery, he returned to the team in time to start all 16 games. He was solid that year, but it was the only season he played in each game that he didn’t earn a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Obviously, with that track record, the Broncos are hoping that Clady can repeat history. It took him three months to recover from the PCL, but with even a partially torn ACL, he’s likely looking at almost double that, which would conceivably put him in the conversation for late November. But literally every domino would have to fall perfectly.
Chris Harris, Jr. recovered from a partially torn ACL at a rapid rate. He was injured in the Broncos 2014 Divisional Round playoff victory over the San Diego Chargers and made it back to the field in time for his All-Pro campaign. It can be done, but for a 300-pounder, the odds aren’t good.
In the meantime, the Broncos will turn to their young tackle duo of Ty Sambrailo and Michael Schofield to stop the gap. Sambrailo was drafted in the second round a month ago and started today at left tackle in OTAs. Schofield could serve as the swing tackle, because Chris Clark is currently holding down the fort at right tackle, as Kubiak informed us today.
“I think the thought right now is to leave [T] Chris [Clark] on the right side,” he said. “They’re going to move around. Those guys have to play everywhere. We actually practiced [T] Ty [Sambrailo] on the left today. Ty is a very athletic young man, that’s a lot to ask of a very young player. But we’ve got a good month here of work and I sat down with Rick and Clancy this morning and James and we felt like, “Let’s start working him there today.’ That’s a process we started today. We’ll see what happens but between he, [T Michael] Schofield [and] Chris, all of those guys are going to have to be interchangeable and we will see what happens from there.”
Translation: Sambrailo will get the first look at LT, while Clark gets first swing at RT, but it’ll be an intense competition and it’ll involve Schofield and Ryan Harris, who was signed today off the street. No matter which way you cut it, though, losing Clady hurts.
“Anytime you lose a player it’s a blow,” Kubiak said. “Ryan is obviously not only a veteran player on this team, he’s a leader on this team too. So that makes it even more difficult. If you’re in this business—player and coach—you’re going to face these very difficult situations like this and how you respond to them has a lot to do with how you end up being, what your football team ends up being.”
The cup the Broncos must drink from is a bitter one. Dennison was really looking forward to the opportunity of working with Clady again in he and Kubiak’s offensive scheme. But it’s one of the collateral side effects of the game and Dennison knows the Broncos will have to find a way to weather the storm.
“In my time [in the league], he’s been a great player—still a great player,” Dennison said. “We drafted him and had a good relationship. I know what he’s capable of, so I was really looking forward to getting him in and obviously be a great leader, too. He has experience on the line. Between him and [G] Louis [Vasquez], we’d have a good solid guy on either side. We thought we were in good shape. It’s nothing that anybody did or didn’t do, it’s just one of those things that happened and we’ll go from there.”
Dennsion was Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator back when the Broncos selected Clady in the first round in 2008. He has years of experience working with NFL offensive lines. And he’s no stranger to competition.
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“We’re looking for five starters every time,” he said. “Obviously you have a pretty good inclination that Ryan was going to be one of the five. Like I said, we’ll throw them out there, let them compete and let them play [and] pick the best five. The best five is who does the best job. We can say all we want about this or that or the other experiences, but it’s whoever plays the best and does the best job for our team. That’s what we’re going to do.”
So far, Dennison likes what he has seen out of Sambrailo and Schofield. Schofield was reportedly in the mix for looks at left guard, before Clady got hurt, so it’s possible he might continue to compete for that job with guys like Ben Garland, Shelley Smith and rookie fourth round pick Max Garcia.
“I think they’re both developing,” Dennison said. “I think that’s a good thing. The learning you see every day—there is something else they learn how to do or understand what’s going on and [how to] communicate with the guy next to them. That’s always been a big deal for me. The five of them have got to work as a unit. When you move guys around, I think that’s important. You’ve got to understand what the guy next to them is doing; I think both those guys got a good relationship with the rest of the guys up front.”
Yesterday, Kubiak made it sound like the Broncos would like to have their starting offensive line unit figured out in time for the beginning of training camp. Losing Clady obviously changes that dynamic. For Dennison, the only deadline on his radar is Week 1 vs. the Baltimore Ravens.
“I like to go into the first game,” he said. “Preseason, I could care less what we’re thinking. There could be a lot of question marks, but we’re going to go into the first game knowing well what we’re going to do.”
Over the course of the next three months, we’ll find out how the chips are going to fall along the offensive line. Competition will be fierce and the young guys will have to rise to the occasion, because as “Rico” put it, the NFL isn’t going to offer the Broncos a mulligan for losing an All-Pro tackle.
“That’s the only choice that you have,” he said. “You’ve got to go out and play. They’re not going to stop the game or give us a mulligan or [anything]. We’re expected to play. The biggest disappointment is for Ryan himself.”