ENGLEWOOD — Maybe Vance Joseph didn’t need to ace some of his other press conferences. But he had to nail this one.
“Next man up,” Joseph said with conviction about one hour after the Broncos lost star wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders for the remainder of the season. “We’re going to move on.”
The Broncos are one fragile football team. From their precarious footing in the AFC playoff picture to a depth chart that requires a daily refresh due to injuries, they're operating on thin ice.
Their margin for error slimmed another notch when Sanders went down with a ruptured Achilles just 12 minutes into Wednesday’s practice. The injury occurred during an innocuous, non-contact passing drill. Sanders took four or five steps before making an inside move that never developed. He crumpled to the turf, tossed his helmet into the grass, leaned back on both arms and stared at the sky as if he knew what had happened right when it happened. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave joined the athletic training staff on the scene.
The Broncos later placed Sanders on injured reserve, ending his year and nudging them into a stretch of four high-leverage December games without yet another starter on offense. Sanders joins Matt Paradis, Ronald Leary, Max Garcia and Jeff Heuerman as one-time starters now done — not to mention promising tight end Jake Butt, who was lost to a knee injury in September.
To account for the loss of Sanders, the Broncos claimed wide receiver Andre Holmes, who was cut from the Buffalo Bills and is known for his ability as a deep threat. The Broncos this week also lost star cornerback Chris Harris Jr. with a broken leg. They needed to hear a strong message from Joseph, and the second-year coach delivered.
"We can’t cry about it," Joseph said. “We have to move on and go play a football game on Sunday.”
The setback hurts Sanders more than it hurts the Broncos. His contract is up after the 2019 season, and, after the Broncos drafted Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton, his future in Colorado already was up in the air. Could the Broncos part with both Sanders and Demaryius Thomas in a span of six months? It’s possible. For Sunday's game at San Francisco the focus of a moody offense turns to a rookie class of Sutton, Hamilton and Phillip Lindsay to save the season.
"It's a role that any young guy wants to have,” Sutton said after learning the bad news.
“It sounds cold, but it’s not. It’s about the next man has to be prepared,” said Lindsay, who was named the offensive player (not rookie) of the month in the AFC. “That’s just how football is.”
Sanders this season became the sixth wide receiver since 1970 to throw, catch and rush for a touchdown. One of the most productive free agent signings in club history, he arrived in Colorado in 2014 alongside DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward — the free agent class that ultimately powered the Broncos to Super Bowl 50. Sanders is 6 yards shy of being the 10th Bronco to record 5,000 yards with the team, and his absence will be felt.