A year ago, optimism overflowed in Denver. Russell Wilson was the new star quarterback of a team loaded at receiver.
Injuries quickly undercut such optimism, starting with receiver Tim Patrick and continuing elsewhere within the offense. A year has passed, and the Broncos find themselves in a similarly discouraging position.
Patrick suffered a torn Achilles in practice Monday, ruling him out for 2023 -- the second straight season in which Patrick won't be able to play a down after signing a three-year extension in late 2021. The hits didn't stop at Patrick. On Monday, KJ Hamler revealed he'd been diagnosed with a mild heart irritation that prompted the Broncos to waive him with a non-football injury designation, although it is expected Denver will attempt to bring him back when ready, per NFL Network Insider Mike Garafolo.
"Spoke to him last night. Of course, he's disappointed," Broncos coach Sean Payton said Tuesday of Patrick. "My understanding was (it happened) a year ago almost to the day. I think the hard thing, and I said it yesterday, is for a player that's spent most of his offseason rehabbing, and all of a sudden to hit another roadblock. He sounded better last night. He's tough-minded. He's a real good leader. And the good news is it's a clean injury that's better than likely 100 percent recovery. It's pretty clean, relative, the type of surgery he's gonna have. I don't have a date yet when that's gonna take place, but that's where we're at there."
Payton tried to find a silver lining with Hamler's situation, as well, but admitted it was an distinctive situation.
"His is unique. And it's a unique condition," Payton said of Hamler. "We had a long visit with him. With him, the good news is we feel like -- I don't want to put a prognosis or timeline on it -- but approximately a month. Probably another couple weeks to get in football shape. We're hopeful that once the symptoms dissipate and he's cleared, then that leaves us a lot of options. So, we spent a lot of time with he and his agent coming up with the best plan, and we feel like we have a good one."
Doctors discovered Hamler's heart condition after the receiver experienced chest pains while working out prior to the start of training camp, placing him on a fairly uncertain timetable for the immediate future. It sounds as if Denver feels more confident about Hamler's outlook than the average fan, but regardless, an absence remains disheartening.
"All of us, when you get ready for a break, a rehab, you want to know there's light at the end of the tunnel," Payton said. "And I think it's important they hear that from me and (Broncos general manager) George (Paton). That's the purpose of the meeting we had with KJ. He was good. Obviously disappointed, but with his situation, it's more of a condition than an injury. It's something that's new relative to he's never had a history of it. So, it's a little unique. But the good news is we feel like about a month and a half from now, that option, based on how he's feeling, we feel like that has a chance to work out in his favor and our favor."
Patrick's injury, meanwhile, is incredibly unfortunate. The former undrafted free agent and practice-squad promotion worked his way into a significant place in Denver's offense in recent years, and had undoubtedly earned his extension. Patrick entered 2022 primed to make an even bigger contribution for a Denver offense that finally had a legitimate quarterback. Instead, he spent 2022 watching from afar, much like he will in 2023.
Patrick's bad luck was not lost on his fellow Broncos.
"It sucks to be having this same conversation that we had last year. Tim's a guy that, you can't replace the person," Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton told NFL Network's James Palmer on Inside Training Camp Live. "The player that he is, everyone knows the player he is. He's put the player that he is on tape. People can go and see the guy he is on the field. But you can't replace the person that he is. And to have to be in the situation two years in a row. There are very few people who can speak to going through an injury and then back having to go through another injury a year later.
"All we can do is be there for him, encourage him, lift him up. If he sees this, bro, you know I love you to death. You're my dog. And anybody that knows him that may not have reached out to him, just reach out to him. Send him some love and some support. Let him know that he's not doing this by himself. But yeah, the person that he is, it's hard to replace that, but he's a great guy. We're definitely going to miss him on the field. We're lifting him up through the rest of this season, he's going to be in our thoughts and prayers. And every day we step on that field and go out there and play, he's right there with us."
The silver lining to this reality is the Broncos aren't in unfamiliar territory. 2022 taught them how to adjust when necessary, which they'll need to do so again in 2023. This time, Payton will be the one leading them through the storm. We'll see if they can manage it better than they did a year ago.