ENGLEWOOD – Denver Broncos coach John Fox gathered his players at midfield last month just before they dispersed for summer vacation and gave them his usual admonition about staying out of trouble.
By all accounts, they have heeded that advice not to embarrass themselves or the organization. But Executive Vice President John Elway’s top two assistants haven’t.
“Just make good decisions, be smart,” Fox said that hot June 13 afternoon, a mantra heard across the league as players scattered for some R&R after months of offseason workouts.
One day before, the Broncos brass had learned that Tom Heckert, the former Cleveland Browns general manager, had been charged with drunken driving in nearby Parker just a month after being hired as Denver’s director of pro personnel.
The Broncos kept Heckert’s June 11 arrest quiet until The Associated Press reported it Tuesday, a day after Broncos director of player personnel Matt Russell, Elway’s right-hand man, apologized for his arrest over the weekend on suspicion of driving under the influence stemming from his crash into a police sports utility vehicle.
The revelation of a second Broncos executive facing DUI charges led the organization to acknowledge a “disturbing pattern of irresponsible behavior” that it vowed to clean up.
Neither Heckert, 45, nor Russell, 40, are expected to be fired, but team President Joe Ellis promised severe penalties separate from any legal consequences. The team has been consulting with the NFL about discipline, and it’s expected that both men also will undergo treatment for alcohol problems.
The executives’ arrests come at a time when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell favors stiffer penalties for first-time drunken drivers and the league has strengthened its ties to MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving – which participated in the latest NFL rookie symposium.
Restoring respectability won’t come easily or quickly, Ellis said.
“We’re not perfect. We’ve made our errors. We admit. You can say we apologized for it, but I think an apology rings hollow when you run into the back of a police car or you’re blowing a blood alcohol limit that’s three times the legal limit. I don’t think fans, I don’t think the public, I don’t think anybody wants to hear an apology,” Ellis said.
“So, I think you have to acknowledge your mistakes, and you have to fix them, and you have to do that the right way,” Ellis said. “There’s a lot of things we do. We offer programs, we offer a lot of help, there’s a ton of stuff the National Football League makes available to all the teams in an effort for them to avoid this kind of thing. In this case, we had two guys that couldn’t do it. And that’s just sad. That’s too bad. But we’re going to move on, and our hope is that you won’t see this kind of incident from an employee again.”
After Heckert’s arrest became public, social media blew up with negative comments directed at the Broncos, many of them critical of the team’s decision to keep Heckert’s arrest quiet. Former center Tom Nalen, who is going into the team’s Ring of Fame this fall, called them cowardly in a tweet, although he later backtracked on his radio show.
Like any other business, the Broncos weren’t inclined to publicize a DUI charge facing an employee who wasn’t a senior executive.
“Well, we handle those things internally,” Ellis said. “When they become external, then we deal with them. But we’re not in the business of announcing those kinds of things before they need to be addressed. And we were in consultation with the league all along, and in terms of internal communication everybody understood it. Everybody that was involved. Everybody that needed to know.”
The Broncos haven’t faced this kind of backlash since the infamous videotape scandal that led to coach Josh McDaniels’ ouster three years ago, after which Elway was brought on board to fix the franchise.
In his quest to return the Broncos to the top, Elway hired John Fox, re-signed Champ Bailey and lured Peyton Manning. Wes Welker was the cornerstone of several high-profile additions to an already star-studded roster this offseason. Combine that with a chip on their collective shoulders from last season’s playoff pratfall, and Denver was the trendy Super Bowl pick this summer.
Elway had the organization positively aglow until this week.
Now, they’re sharing headlines with Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots player who is charged with murder, and the mug shots of Heckert and Russell are serving as unfortunate faces of the franchise during this down time before training camp starts in two weeks.
The fallout very well could affect them on the field in 2013. With penalties expected to be handed down soon, the Broncos figure to be without their top two personnel men at a time when player evaluations are paramount.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league is leaving comment on both cases up to the Broncos, and Ellis said he’s not allowed to comment on the process for arriving at discipline decisions. He did say, however, that the Broncos are treating each case separately, and he has no timeline.
Asked if discipline might be staggered so that the Broncos aren’t without both personnel men at the same time, Ellis said, “I don’t think that’s part of the equation. I don’t worry about that. That’s the least of my concerns.”