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It’s time for the Broncos to shut down their stars in the preseason

(Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

It’s time to shut it down and get ready for the regular-season opener. That should be the plan from here on out for every indispensable Bronco.

Von Miller? He got a few plays against the Seahawks last week, so he’s ready for the Raiders on Sept. 9.

Same for Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe and Bradley Chubb. Heck, go ahead and lump in Justin Simmons, Bryce Callahan and Kareem Jackson. None of these key defensive players need to play another down during the preseason.

On the other side of the ball, Joe Flacco led a scoring drive to open the game in Seattle. The next time he steps onto a field to face an opponent should be in Oakland. Courtland Sutton falls into the same category, while Emmanuel Sanders shouldn’t play a single down in any exhibition game.

Why? Because the risk doesn’t come close to matching the reward.

During the Broncos 22-14 loss to the Seahawks, three players were lost to injury. Austin Fort blew out his ACL, ending what looked like a promising rookie season. Andy Janovich will miss six to eight weeks due to an injured pectoral, while recently signed running back Theo Riddick will be sidelined for the same amount of time because of a fracture in his shoulder.

Fort’s injury is a bummer, just because the converted quarterback from Wyoming was one of the surprises of training camp. But losing him won’t be devastating to Denver, as there are plenty of other tight ends who can fill the void, assuming they can hold up; that group has been a M*A*S*H unit in recent years.

But replacing Janovich and Riddick won’t be nearly as easy. There isn’t an simple answer for bridging the gap until they return three to five weeks into the regular season.

Jano was expected to play a key role in Rich Scangarello’s offense this season. The Broncos new offensive coordinator arrived from San Francisco, where fullback Kyle Juszczyk was integral to the 49ers attack, both as a lead blocker in the running game and as a pass catcher out of the backfield.

It was apparent that Janovich was going to be used in a similar manner in Denver. He’s been catching passes throughout training camp and he threw the key block that sprang Royce Freeman’s 50-yard scamper in the first quarter against Seattle.

While there are options for replacing him in the lineup, none of them are perfect. Rookie George Aston is a true fullback, but he’s not near the threat in the passing game. Same goes for a backup offensive lineman, who could line up in the backfield in short-yardage and goal-line situations. A reserve tight end could be used, but none are as well-suited to be a lead blocker as Janovich.

Filling the void left by Riddick will be equally tricky. While only on the roster for a week, it was already clear that the veteran running back was going to used in a variety of ways in Scangarello’s attack.

Against the Seahawks, there were two examples of what Riddick brings to the offense. He lined up wide on one play, ran a slant behind the slot receiver and was wide open for what should’ve been a first down; Kevin Hogan’s throw was just a bit off. The same thing happened later in the game, when Riddick ran a perfect “Texas” route and was all alone in the middle of the field for what should’ve been a big gain.

Finding another back who can do these things, essentially playing the role of a wide receiver without letting the defense know that Denver is going to line up in a passing formation, won’t be easy. The Broncos have been trying to use Phillip Lindsay in this role, but he’s not nearly as seasoned of a route runner as Riddick.

These problems are short-term, which makes them bearable for Denver. But they are frustrating nonetheless because they were totally avoidable.

No, there’s nothing that could’ve been done during the game to prevent Janovich and Riddick from getting hurt. They were just playing football, which is inherently dangerous.

The point, however, is that they never should’ve been on the field. To lose a couple of key players in a meaningless game is exasperating.

In a perfect world, nobody would have to play in the preseason. It’s a part of training camp that has long outlived its usefulness, both in terms of preparing players for the season and as a financial windfall for the owners.

Back in the day, when professional athletes didn’t train year-round, they had to get back into “playing shape.” A few games where the final score didn’t matter provided a great way to work off an offseason worth of brats and beers. But now, players arrive on the first day of training camp in tip-top shape; they don’t need exhibition games to get into shape, just like they no longer need two-a-day practices.

Economically, teams still make a tidy profit in the preseason. They essentially pay the players nothing to take the field, but charge full price for tickets, parking and concessions. So their margins are huge, with virtually every dollar brought in being pure profit.

Once upon a time, this was vital to a team’s bottom line. Back when the gate was the top revenue stream for a franchise, adding two more home dates was a big boost. But now, national television contracts, which are built upon the regular season and playoffs, provide the lion’s share of a team’s revenue. As a result, the preseason games represent a much smaller slice of a franchise’s overall income pie.

So the league could do away with preseason games if they wanted to do so. The product on the field wouldn’t suffer one bit, as high school and college teams manage to hit the ground running without playing exhibitions, and the negative financial impact would be minimal.

At this point, the only reason to play the games is to evaluate young and unknown players. It’s a good way to determine who should earn the final few spots on the 53-man roster.

“If you’re into developing players, preseason games are important,” Vic Fangio explained yesterday after practice. “If you’re not into developing players, then they’re not.”

Okay, fine. That’s a debatable point, given that practices and scrimmages could accomplish the same goal, but the head coach deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one; he knows more about developing players than the rest of us.

That said, a team certainly doesn’t need four or five exhibition games to make those evaluations. Two would be plenty.

And they definitely don’t need to put their key players in harm’s way. Guaranteed starters don’t need to be developed; they just need to be healthy come Week 1.

That’s why guys like Miller, Harris, Flacco and Chubb shouldn’t play another down during the preseason. Losing them for any significant time would be catastrophic for the Broncos, while playing them in an exhibition provides no benefit.

The risk outweighs the reward. So if the NFL won’t cancel the preseason, Fangio should do the next best thing; he should sit his star players until Sept. 9.


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