DENVER -- A feeling of emptiness and ordinariness envelope fourth preseason games. The starters don't play, and the crowds suffer as a result. Only 60,136 wandered into the stadium on this warm Thursday night. Even in Denver, where football is a way of life, the final exhibition contest -- won easily by the Broncos 30-2 -- fought the optics of a scrimmage.
And when it started with the Broncos leading the Arizona Cardinals 3-2 after the first quarter, well, that didn't help. Deep into the first half, former Northern Colorado star quarterback Kyle Sloter -- the reason for watching for many infected with Slotermania -- stopped noticing the outside noise. The stage, after a safety on an ugly sack and a near interception on his first pass, no longer felt too big.
"It was a difficult start. I can't mistakes like that," said Sloter, who finished 15-for-23 with 220 yards and one touchdown. "But I left it all on the field."
Sloter's signature drive, not to be confused with The Drive, began on the 2-yard line in the shadow of the goal post. Sloter, who narrowly avoided a second safety on the previous possession, rocketed a 32-yard completion to receiver Jordan Taylor. He followed with a 32-yard connection to wideout Anthony Nash. The fans, 15,211 less than normal given the insignificance of the contest, erupted. Stevan Ridley, whose chances of sticking on the team plummeted with running back Jamaal Charles' showing last week, burst for 27 yards. The Broncos rushed to the line of scrimmage, showing hints of the promised uptempo attack under new coordinator Mike McCoy. Ridley trucked in from 3 yards, widening the Broncos' advantage to finish off 10-2 over the Cardinals.
The score meant little, but Sloter had delivered something that mattered, giving the Broncos something to think about as they decide how to fill out the depth chart behind Trevor Siemian.
The defense, as it is wont to do, took over. Dymonte Thomas, a longshot to make the team, put a moment on film, taking an interception 58 yards for the score. Most impressive, Thomas pulled it off by racing through the middle like Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, with no player willing to stop the ball or step in front to take the charge.
It created an avenue for Sloter to finish with a strong first half, shedding the odor of the forgettable start. He guided an eight-play, 49-yard march that produced a 44-yard Brandon McManus field goal for a 20-2 halftime lead.
In the fourth quarter, Sloter found reserve tight end Steven Scheu in the seam for a 21-yard score, a play illustrating his growth as he looked off the safety before zipping the strike. With 9:13 remaining, the Broncos owned a 30-2 advantage.
Was Sloter's performance enough for the Broncos pause at the most important position? Denver remains poised to add a third quarterback with all options on the table. Paxton Lynch, in a sling with a sprained shoulder, could miss the first month. The most likely scenario? Landing a player with less than four years experience, thus the salary would not be guaranteed. If this transpires, Sloter could make it as the third quarterback. Denver could also look to use Sloter as the backup for one week, then add a vet in Week 2 when only 25 percent of a salary guarantees.
"I don't know what will happen. That's out of my control," Sloter said. "I have always believed in myself."
Sloter helped himself, if not with the Broncos, where he clearly wants to stay, than another team. At the least, he should be on a practice squad. He boasts NFL measurables at nearly 6-foot-5, 220 pounds with a strong arm. He also can run, seen in his rollouts.
The Broncos are expected to begin cutting a chunk of their 37 players on Friday with an official announcement on Saturday. This serves as a chaotic time in the NFL. There will be 1,184 players cut around the league with roughly 300 stick on practice squads. Roughly 15 spots were up for grabs Thursday -- the final five roster slots and 10 practice squad spots.
Wide receiver Kalif Raymond showed burst on returns, linebacker Kevin Snyder delivered a few big hits and Jamaal Carter, if not already on the team, should have sealed it with a consistent outing.
This game was about backups. One in particular. Can Sloter become the Broncos reserve clause?
"There wasn't one moment I will remember. It's the the time together with these guys," Sloter said. "They accepted me as one of their own."
The clock is ticking. Thursday's game was unremarkable. It did not matter in the standings. But it counted to those players who will be checking their phones through the next 48 hours.
Ward's uncertain future
Safety T.J. Ward walked through the kickoff luncheon Wednesday, laughing and joking with teammates. He is one of the heartbeats of the locker room. Multiple players told Denver7 how unhappy they are about the increasing likelihood of Ward being traded or released. Brandon Marshall tweeted his displeasure. Von Miller insisted it had to be "fake news," failing to see how the team could move on from Ward. And defensive end Derek Wolfe admitted he would be upset.
"It can't be real, right? He's been a Pro Bowler for us. It can't be real," Miller said after Thursday's game. "He's been such an impactful football player on and off the field. That's the nature of the National Football League. I with T.J. I am with him 100 percent. I don't think he should be going."
Coach Vance Joseph provided a telling statement, saying whether Ward would be on the roster was an issue for this weekend. He could have squelched the story, and instead it only further pointed the arrow to Ward's exit.
Ward's situation is a reminder that the NFL is not only a cold business, but a young man's game. He is expendable at 30 because of the emergence of Justin Simmons and Jamaal Carter this preseason. There are enough teams who need a strong safety that a trade could materialize. But suitors are reluctant to move if they feel like Ward will be released. Teams where Ward could make sense include Tampa Bay, Houston, Dallas and Miami.
"It's way beyond what we can control. You look at what teammates have said and the wave on social media. When I was drafted, T.J. was the first guy to text me on draft day," Simmons said. "Just to put into words how much he means to me. What has T.J. done to make me a better player? The easier question would be what hasn't he done. He has been there for me since Day One. "
Zaire Anderson, who is trying to stave off Kevin Snyder for a roster spot, entered the concussion protocol in the first quarter and was cleared to return. ... The Broncos captains Thursday: Anderson, receiver Jordan Taylor, defensive end Shelby Harris, guard Connor McGovern, and punter Riley Dixon. ... Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis opened at defensive end with Vontarrius Dora and Kasin Edebali at outside linebacker. Tyrique Jarrett started at nose tackle. Domata Peko will need to be spelled in the opener, making me wonder if Harris can fill that role. Kyle Peko, a candidate for the role, did not play Thursday after re-injuring his foot this week in practice. ... Jamal Carter broke up pass in second quarter. His ability to play in the box and cover is one of the reasons Ward has become expendable. ... Also, an area of concern: special teams. It has been uneven at best on coverage teams and just had punt partially blocked. ... Chris Lewis-Harris and Lorenzo Doss both made their final case for a roster spot. It is a position that could be a toss-up.