Monthly Archives: August 2013

Helton milestone delayed by former teammate

One day after he turned back the clock, driving in six runs for the first time in 10 years, Todd Helton looked all of 40 years old Saturday night, striking out three times and putting off career hit No. 2,500 for another day.

“That’s this game,” he said after going 0-for-4 in the Reds’ 8-3 victory over the Rockies.

“I mean, the last two games is this game summed up. You can be great one day and have a hat trick the next. That’s just the way it goes. That’s why it’s so important to keep your emotions in check and show up the next day ready to play.”

The oddest part of it was the guy who handcuffed him and his teammates for eight innings.

Greg Reynolds is the biggest draft bust in Rockies history. The second overall pick in 2006, the 6-foot-7-inch Reynolds suffered a shoulder injury before getting to the big leagues and never was the power pitcher the Rocks thought they were getting when they passed on Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum to take him.

In two big league stints with the Rocks, Reynolds went 5-8 with a 7.47 earned-run average. Now 28, he pitched eight innings in his third start for the Reds, surrendering three runs and seven hits and earning his first big league win in more than two years. If it hadn’t been for a two-run homer by Rockies outfielder Corey Dickerson in the eighth, his numbers would have been even better.

“He threw the ball well,” Helton said. “He threw about like I remember, he just didn’t make any mistakes and he didn’t have the cutter that he has now. That proved to be his best pitch tonight, at least to me, that cutter.”

Helton’s two three-run homers Friday night gave him 2,499 career hits. For his final at-bat Friday and each of his four plate appearances Saturday, the crowd at Coors Field gave him a standing ovation in anticipation of No. 2,500.

“I definitely feel it, but I like it,” Helton said. “I put so much pressure on myself to get a hit every time, it’s no different than the pressure I put on myself, but it proved to be a little tough tonight. That’s the beautiful thing about this game and the tragic thing about this game is one night you can be great and the next night you can do what I did. But that’s why you don’t get too high when things go good, and vice versa.”

In fact, 37,616 fans showed up Saturday for the opportunity to see a little history.

Helton got good wood on a Reynolds fastball in the second inning, driving it deep to left-center field, but he put enough air under it to allow Cincinnati center fielder Shin-Soo Choo time to range over and catch it.

Helton struck out in each of his final three at-bats, the first two against Reynolds and the third against reliever Sam LeCure in the ninth.

“He threw mostly fastballs, really,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said of Reynolds. “He two-seamed it and he cut it and he commanded it. But he did it almost exclusively with a couple different fastballs.”

Normally, Weiss rests Helton in day games following night games, which is the situation Sunday. But with Kershaw, arguably the best lefty in the game, scheduled to start at Coors for the Dodgers on Labor Day, there’s a pretty good chance Helton will start Sunday in the series finale against the Reds.

“Kershaw going Monday, so, yeah, exactly, that’s the coversation I’m going to have with him,” Weiss said Saturday night.

“I’m going to try,” Helton said. “I’m going to hopefully go home and get some rest and wake up and see how I feel. But, yeah, the plan is to play tomorrow.”

“If he’s good to go, sure, we’ll run him out there,” Weiss added, “but I’ll check with him, see how he’s doing.”

Postcards from the Broncos’ bubble

Forty-five hours before final cuts were due at the NFL offices in New York, 75 players dressed for the Broncos’ final preseason game. By Saturday afternoon, only 53 of them will still be employed.

Twenty-seven players, including the starters, didn’t play in the final exhibition. Their attention is already focused on the season opener against Baltimore next week. The other 48 spent the warm summer evening competing for 26 jobs.

Although the game doesn’t count, and without stars is the least compelling week of the season, it produces lots of important decisions. As you may have heard, football is a violent game that often injures its participants. So the makeup of the back end of a team’s roster can have a lot to do with how far it will go in the long season ahead. These are the people who were auditioning Thursday night at Mile High.

People like Zac Dysert, a big, athletic, rookie quarterback from Miami of Ohio, where he was a three-year team captain and put up passing numbers that approached those of Ben Roethlisberger.

A seventh-round draft choice, Dysert played the entire second half. He completed nine of 20 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 90.2. He rushed three times for 23 yards, besting Brock Osweiler, the No. 2 quarterback and heir apparent to Peyton Manning, who scrambled four times for 25 yards.

After Dysert’s first series, a six-play, 94-yard touchdown drive, he was three-for-three for 70 yards and a touchdown, with a passer rating of 158.3, which is the best passer rating possible. Do not ask why.

A week ago, the Broncos might have waived Dysert in final cuts, confident he would clear waivers, what with every other team trying to get down to the roster limit too. Then they could sign him to their practice squad and keep him around, just in case.

After Thursday night, the question is whether they want to expose him to the likes of Buffalo and the New York Jets, but particularly the Bills, who appear set to start an undrafted college free agent in their opener next week. Dysert, at least, was drafted. If the Broncos don’t want to risk losing him, they would have to devote one of their 53 roster spots to someone who would not contribute on the field except in the case of an emergency.

That’s just one of the difficult decisions facing Broncos brass. Wide receiver Gerell Robinson is another. In his second Broncos training camp, Robinson had a nice game — five receptions for 99 yards — including a touchdown catch on a pass from Dysert to cap that 94-yard drive.

But how many receivers will they keep?┬áThe Broncos’ answer was five each of the first two seasons in which John Elway and John Fox were in charge. The depth chart shows three wide receivers as the base offensive set.

The starters are Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. It would be surprising if veteran Andre Caldwell and fifth-round draft pick Tavarres King were not on the final 53. So the club would have to keep more wideouts than it has in either of the past two seasons for Robinson to make it.

Then there’s the scrum in the defensive backfield. The Broncos brought in veteran cornerback Quentin Jammer with the idea of moving him to safety to add experience and coverage ability there. But Jammer, the fifth overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft, showed remarkably little feel at safety and now seems likely to be waived.

So five days ago, the Broncos moved cornerback Omar Bolden, their fourth-round pick a year ago, to safety. Bolden played there Thursday night, and did it pretty well.

If Bolden makes the team as a combo defensive back they can list at safety, the Broncos would have five corners (Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris, Tony Carter and third-round draft pick Kayvon Webster) and five safeties (Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho, Mike Adams, David Bruton and Bolden). That’s 10 DBs. They kept 10 last year, but only nine the year before.

If they keep just nine, would the veteran Adams be on the bubble with the emergence in this camp of Ihenacho? Could Carter be on the bubble with the emergence of Webster?

I could keep going like this through every position group, but I’ll spare you so we can hear from some of the folks fighting for jobs. Two of them are interior offensive linemen. The Broncos have lost two centers to major injuries over the past year and they’re scrambling there.

They moved guard Manny Ramirez to center during the offseason, even before veteran Dan Koppen tore an anterior cruciate ligament in July, and Ramirez has been good enough to win the starting job, sort of by default.

They brought in veteran Steve Vallos, who has built an NFL career as a backup center/guard. They wooed veteran Ryan Lilja out of retirement. Lilja was a longtime guard in the huddle with Manning in Indianapolis who became a center last year in Kansas City. The Broncos brought him to camp just months after he’d had microfracture knee surgery.

I caught Lilja at his locker after Thursday night’s game. He was in a hurry to leave. He started the game at center but came out before any other starting lineman and was replaced by Vallos, who played the rest of the game. Several times, it looked as if his knee was bothering him. You can read his brief comments for yourself. I got a sense that he was done and cut off the interview so he wouldn’t have to say anything that wasn’t true.

I could be totally wrong about that, of course. For all I know, he’s already cemented his status as the backup center and they just wanted to get him off that knee. But I thought Vallos played better and was more mobile, particularly on the downfield block that helped spring Lance Ball break for a 69-yard gain after catching a screen pass from Dysert.

So I talked to a few of the guys fighting for jobs and tried to get a feel for their mindsets going into the next day and a half, when they’ll get a call from the Broncos asking them to bring in their iPads . . . or not.

Quarterback Zac Dysert

You looked pretty good out there tonight.

I tried. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the O-line. The receivers, they made me look good. I just tried not to do too much. I just tried to do my job, put the team in a position to win. That’s all I was trying to do.

Have you thought about making the 53-man roster versus possibly being waived with the intent of signing you back to the practice squad?

Definitely, definitely. I tried to use tonight to my advantage, make the most out of the opportunity and just try to prove myself to them, that I can play.

Do you think you made a good case?

I think I did some good things. Definitely have a lot to work on still, but I think I did a lot of positive things, yes sir.

You’ve been a quarterback in a training camp with Peyton Manning. What’s that like?

Oh, it’s awesome. I can’t really put it into words, how awesome it was. He was my idol growing up, so being able to sit in the same room with him, on the same field, learn from him, practice with him, you can’t really put it into words.

Did he give you any advice when you were playing tonight?

He was just giving me keys to look for, what the defense was doing, little tips to what kind of coverage they might be playing, blitzes they were bringing, things like that.

What are you thinking about the process that will unfold over the next 48 hours?

Denver’s definitely the first choice, but, you know, if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. I’ve just got to make the most out of the opportunity I get.

Center Steve Vallos

What was your goal tonight?

Just prove myself. Anytime you get to step on the field, it’s just another opportunity to prove yourself, especially in these preseason games, because every team looks at them. You never know what can happen.

You were brought into an unsettled situation in the interior of the offensive line.

It’s made me better. Interior, guards, center, we have a lot of good players. You learn things from everybody. It’s a competition, so that makes everybody better. We’ll see what happens. I mean, I think a lot of guys played well this preseason, so it’s going to be tough choices for them.

Do you have any feel for where you stand?

You never know. I’ve felt good and bad things have happened and I’ve felt bad and good things have happened. It’s just one of those things where it’s out of your control. I’ve done everything in my power, so it’s not up to me now . . . . I felt like I had a good camp for coming in late; I felt I did pretty well.

What was it like as a center working with Peyton Manning?

It was a good experience. I mean, he’s a great player. He’s so knowledgeable about every part of the game and it really brings everybody up to his level. He expects everyone to have a high understanding of the game and I think that’s good for the whole team.

Is that challenging for a center?

I wouldn’t say it’s challenging because I’ve been in offenses where the center has to make a lot more calls. (Manning) knows it and he sees it and he calls stuff. It’s a lot easier than playing with a young quarterback that doesn’t know things, where a center has to make more calls. I think sometimes it’s a lot easier because he knows what’s coming and he’ll change protections and stuff.

Center Ryan Lilja

They brought you in here out of retirement, not long after you had microfracture surgery. How did it go?

It’s obviously tough to come out and just jump right into the fire like that in training camp, try to catch up a little bit. So it wasn’t ideal. Kind of a balancing act, trying to gain a little weight, learn the offense, learn all the calls, stay healthy, while it’s all going like this (snaps fingers).

Jeff Saturday dropped something like 60 pounds after he retired last year. Were you dropping weight before the Broncos called?

I wasn’t down quite as much as Jeff, but I dropped about 20. I was just working on just trying to stay healthy and just kind of make the transition back into retirement. This was an opportunity that I thought was too good to pass up, so we’ll see how it works out. Hey, I gotta go (exits).

Cornerback Kayvon Webster

You made a couple of big hits that drew flags, but it looked like your coaches were smiling.

I’m pretty sure they thought it wasn’t a flag. They just was happy to see the young guy like me come in and make plays like they drafted me to do, so they was kind of excited.

How important is that sort of physical play to your game?

I think it’s real important. You never want to go out there and not give it your all, tackling and stuff like that. When I go out there, I try to put a lot of people’s game in one — tackle, cover, catch and do all those things.

How do you feel your camp has gone?

I think camp went really well. I learned a lot from the veteran guys that we have in the secondary position and I think I’m improving day in and day out.

Are you nervous about the next 48 hours?

You can’t worry about those things. It’s already written. God already has a plan and in the morning whatever happens, happens. If I’m not here, gotta go somewhere else and do my job. But if I’m here, they’re going to get my very best every day.

No trouble sleeping?

No trouble sleeping.

Cornerback/safety Omar Bolden

What’s the biggest difference for you this year compared to last, when you were a rookie?

Mentally, I’ve grasped the game so much more this year, as far as understanding the defense, understanding my responsibilities and where I have to be. And physically, I feel like I’m back to the guy that I used to be. Coming off an ACL, sometimes in the media we try to be politically correct and tell you guys the right things, so I’m always going to say I feel good, but that first year, man, it was shaky, just coming off the injury, trying to get your groove back and stuff like that. But at this point, man, all that is out the window.

What’s the biggest issue coming off an ACL repair?

To be honest, it’s kind of just a confidence thing. It’s like, can I still do the things that I used to do? Can I do them as fast, and as sudden, as I used to do them? And then with repetition, you gain that confidence back.

So they bring in a veteran like Quentin Jammer to play some safety and then suddenly at the end of camp they ask you to move to safety. How did you react to that?

I’ve grasped more of the defense this year, so it’s not too hard for me to make that switch, just because I understand a little bit more. But basically I was just out there playing today. I was kind of telling myself before the play, “It doesn’t matter what happens, just play, just play fast and play physical.”

Do you have a preference between corner and safety?

To be honest, I’m trying to do whatever I can do to get on the field. So if that’s at safety, if it’s at nickel, if it’s at corner, I’m versatile.

Do you get nervous about final cuts?

I don’t. I’m a ballplayer, man, so if the situation didn’t work out here for me, I know I’ll find a home somewhere. So I kind of just don’t worry about that. If my phone rings, then it rings. If it doesn’t, at the end of the day, I’m happy with what I put on film.

Is that a different feeling from the one you had this time a year ago?

Last year, even though I was drafted, it’s so intense around cut time, man. It’s like, have I done enough? This time, this year, I feel like I’ve put enough on film and I’m just going to let the chips fall where they fall. That’s how it is in this business. You don’t control that. What we do control is what goes on between those white lines.

Ronnie Hillman’s misery

At 5-9 and an alleged 195 pounds, 21-year-old Ronnie Hillman was going to be the starting running back for a team oddsmakers like to go to the Super Bowl. At least, that’s what the depth chart said.

Willis McGahee was gone, somebody had to do it, and Hillman seemed a more promising choice than the talented, injury-prone, ever-disappointing Knowshon Moreno.

But about that depth chart. The Broncos’ personnel brain trust, led by John Elway, liked Hillman in the 2012 draft, selecting him in the third round, but liked Montee Ball better in the 2013 draft, taking him in the second.

Ball, the rookie, is a year older than Hillman. Listed at 5-10, 215, Ball was the sort of workhorse in college, at Wisconsin, that Elway envisioned taking some of the offensive burden from Peyton Manning’s shoulders.

But Ball was making pretty much all the rookie mistakes, including letting Manning get his head bounced off the turf in Seattle in preseason game No. 2. He was processing the considerable complexities of the Manning-engineered offense as newly-learned information. It was taking too long. This is not uncommon for rookies.

Week 2 of the preseason was sort of a draw. Hillman was inches — or less — away from a touchdown when it turned into a fumble and a 106-yard touchdown the other way. Ball missed a block in pass protection that led to the sort of hit on the 37-year-old Manning that makes you cringe and close one eye.

Week 3 was going really well for Hillman until the nightmare recurred. He had carried the ball six times for 34 yards and caught two passes for 12 yards when he swung into the right flat early in the second quarter, caught a short swing pass from Manning and found himself in the grasp of Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree.

Ogletree would create another turnover later, intercepting Manning on a play the veteran quarterback attributed mostly to Ogletree.

“He obviously has a pretty wide wingspan,” Manning said. “I was surprised he was even able to get his hands on that ball. So if we play the Rams again, I will remember that.”

That hadn’t happened yet when Ogletree ripped the ball from Hillman’s grasp, chased it down and carried it into the end zone to give St. Louis a 17-7 lead. That’s two touchdowns on Hillman carries the past two weeks, neither by his team.

So I asked him afterward what happened this time.

“I had two hands on the ball, so I really don’t know,” he said. “It just got it out. Obviously, they returned it for a touchdown, so I’ll just try to work on it and try to hold on tighter, I guess.”

I asked how much trouble he was having processing these back-to-back disasters.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I’m tough on myself more than anybody else. I’m probably just going to see what I did wrong and see exactly what’s going on with me and fix it.”

Does he think it affects the competition for the starting running back job?

“Definitely,” he said. “When you put the ball on the ground and you’ve got guys like Montee and Knowshon running the ball as well as they did tonight, and Lance (Ball), it kind of affects your competition. Those guys did a great job today and it’s unacceptable what I done and I just got to work on it.”

His mindset going forward?

“Just use it as a tool to get better and prevent this from happening again,” he said. “It’s preseason, but it’s no excuse for what I done. Just go to practice and improve.”

Asked if he still had confidence in Hillman, coach John Fox did his best to lighten the burden.

“I still have great confidence,” Fox said. “I mean, we ran the ball pretty effectively. I think we had 30 carries for 140-plus yards (actually 33 for 133), about 4.5 yards per carry (4.0). I think it’s very evident that we turn the ball over four times and we’re still able to win. That’s the bright side. The not-so-bright side is we had four turnovers. The stuff that we worked so hard on last week, we will work very hard again on it this week. When we have young players learning to play in the league for the first time, it can happen. We just have to eliminate that before the regular season.”

Have the fumbles cost Hillman his advantage?

“Well, I think the one this week was altogether different,” Fox said. “I personally thought his progress was stopped; otherwise he’s got to get on the ground faster or do a better job of holding onto the ball when guys yank on him late in the down. Again, every one of these things is a learning experience for these guys. I think he will work on it, so I have not lost confidence in him whatsoever.”

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas lost three fumbles in the Broncos’ first five games a year ago. He was instructed to carry a ball all week, tucked tightly against his body, wrapped in a couple of green beanies bearing the names of a coach’s children. Precious cargo was the message. Thomas did not fumble again. So Fox was asked Saturday night if he would try a similar regimen with Hillman.

“We’re doing everything,” Fox said. “We worked hard on it last week. You’re giving up our little drills, but we’ll continue that. That will be part of the process, and hopefully we’ll get better at that.”

With the Broncos still the most popular pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, Manning has used his group interviews to emphasize all the personnel changes they’ve made, insisting this year has brought a learning curve nearly as long as last year’s, his first in Denver. One of those changes is at running back, where Elway decided to let the veteran McGahee go.

Manning said Saturday night that Montee Ball, the rookie second-round draft choice, “is going to play a lot.” He suggested at one point that whoever starts, Ball will play as much as a starter might. In the preseason game in which the starters are supposed to play the most, the rookie ended up with the most carries, 14, for 43 yards. Although Hillman was sent back out for the first series after his second-quarter fumble, he did not carry the ball again, nor did Manning throw it to him again.

“We’re going to have a young running back,” Manning said. Someone asked if he had any advice for Hillman.

“I have given him advice, but that is something that I would like to keep between me and him,” Manning said. “Ronnie has coaches that are coming to him first and communicate with him regularly. I don’t necessarily have any words that need to be shared with the public.”

Hillman, who took questions at his locker until the last camera crew had its one-on-one, heard more than one inquisitor attempt to soften his pain, asking, in effect, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

“It’s kind of hard to look at the positives when you have a negative like that, so for me, I’m just going to focus on what I have to improve on and get better,” Hillman said.

Nothing in all of sports is forgotten more quickly than games that don’t count, mostly because their statistics don’t, either. Hillman’s ability to bounce back is quite literally in his own hands.

“It’s in my head right now, but I’ll forget about it tonight and tomorrow and come back to practice Monday, ready,” he said. “I’m fine emotionally. I’m harder on myself than anybody else, so I’ll just go back and work on it.”

Whoever is listed first on the depth chart once the games begin to count, running back looks like a committee for a while. If Moreno remains the most reliable back in pass protection, he may get some third downs. Hillman will again get an opportunity to turn heads with his quickness, but these nightmares will have to stop.