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.