ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — With cornerback Aqib Talib’s suspension now official — it was reduced from two games to one after his appeal hearing Tuesday — the Denver Broncos have two major items to wrestle with over the next week.
The first is that they’ve had a team captain suspended for fighting, an oddity few folks in the league have dealt with. The second is that the to-do list in the passing game for the Miami Dolphins is now to throw the ball at anybody not named Chris Harris Jr.
Given that Talib has been named to the Pro Bowl three times and been a first-team All-Pro selection once (in 2016) in his four years with the Broncos, he will certainly be missed in coverage. He’s also earned enough cache in the Broncos’ locker room that his teammates voted him captain.
Former Broncos coach Gary Kubiak often said Talib was one of the hardest-working and smartest players he had been around. But once you’ve been selected a team captain, there is more to do than walk out for the coin toss.
On that list, at least in Broncos coach Vance Joseph’s mind, is to not get tossed out of a game. But Talib was tossed for rekindling a long-standing feud and fighting with Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree on Sunday.
“It’s unacceptable; we can’t do it,” is how Joseph framed it earlier this week. “We can’t lose our best corner in a game like that. It obviously hurt us down the stretch. I told our guys, if we can defuse those things, we have to defuse them. We can’t fall into the trap of getting into a fight that ends up losing one of our best players. We can’t do it. It’s unacceptable; we can’t do it.”
So, in a season in which the Broncos were shut out for the first time in a quarter century and suffered their first seven-game losing streak since 1967, they’ve now had a team captain ejected from a game and then suspended. This was after a team captain (quarterback Trevor Siemian) was made a game-day inactive against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Losses, pressure, mistakes and personnel decisions that haven’t worked out have dented the Broncos’ beloved culture this season. Talib’s suspension is now on the growing pile of missteps.
Talib has had moments before — he had some off-the-field problems in Tampa and missed the Broncos’ visit to the White House in the months following their Super Bowl 50 win due to gunshot wounds he had suffered in his leg that offseason. He has admitted to trying to grow beyond those things now that he has a family of his own.
Talib and the Broncos had hoped the NFL would look at the circumstances of Sunday’s fight — Talib said, “I hope the league sees how it started” — and his appeal said that they believed Crabtree just kept coming after Talib and that a fight was almost inevitable. The suspension reductions — Crabtree’s also was reduced from two games to one — show both players made some procedural points worth noting.
For his part, Talib said his week he was “disappointed” that he and Crabtree started up the fight again in the end zone after extracting themselves from the initial scuffle.
“The second half of it could have definitely been defused,” Talib said. “That’s what I’m disappointed about — the second half of it. The first half, that was him being extra. That’s what he wanted. He didn’t want to play that game. He wanted to come out and wrestle all day.”
From a football perspective, it means Harris won’t get much of a look from the Dolphins if the Broncos don’t match him up on specific receivers. The past two Broncos opponents have been especially effective at isolating Bradley Roby or rookie Brendan Langley in coverage.
The Bengals went after Roby plenty — including on a touchdown by A.J. Green — and the Raiders went after Langley after Talib’s ejection, including on a 9-yard touchdown catch by Amari Cooper. The Dolphins, with former Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase as their coach, figure to spread the Denver defense out, forcing it to play nickel or dime and then direct the ball away from Harris.
Joseph said Talib’s absence adversely affected the Broncos against the Raiders. There’s no reason to think it won’t have the same effect against the Dolphins, yet another self-inflicted problem in a season full of them.