Moments after practice ended Tuesday, Broncos coach Vic Fangio queued up the video to see exactly what happened to outside linebacker Von Miller.
If Fangio was looking for something to pop off his screen, he never saw it.
“It was a normal play,” he said Wednesday. “He just rushed around the edge and never hit the ground and never looked bad. If you saw the video, you’d think nothing happened. But it did.”
A normal play in which something happened to Miller and potentially the Broncos’ season. Something unfortunate. Something bad. Something jarring. Miller sustained a dislocation to his peroneal tendon that will likely result in season-ending surgery. Fangio would not say Miller is definitely out for all of 2020, but Miller will be placed on injured reserve to create a roster spot.
“It’s too early to say for sure (if he’s out for the year),” Fangio said. “He’s definitely out for a while.”
Miller’s injury, because of his status as the Broncos’ most visible player, his productivity over the last decade (franchise-record 106 sacks) and his vow to lead his young teammates, sent shockwaves through the Broncos’ facility five days before they open against Tennessee.
“It’s a huge-beyond-words loss for our defense,” safety Justin Simmons said. “The thing I am most hurt for him about is he won’t be able to see how great he was going to be this year.”
Said quarterback Drew Lock: “Without a doubt, it’s a punch in the gut for everybody just knowing how good of a teammate he is and how good of a leader is for this team.”
The Broncos didn’t declare Miller’s season over because they don’t have to — the this-year-only rule allowing teams to reactivate unlimited players from injured reserve allows them flexibility.
Miller underwent an MRI on Tuesday and Fangio said he was scheduled to meet with “two, three other doctors,” to finalize a course of action.
What the MRI revealed will determine if Miller is out three months or six, according to Dr. Kenneth Jung, foot-and-ankle surgeon at Cedars-Sinai’s Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
Jung, also a consultant for the Los Angeles Rams, said the ankle has two peroneal tendons which run on the outer part of the ankle behind the fibula.
“With sharp-twitching maneuvers at a high force, which edge rushers make, you use those tendons to fire as the foot plants into the ground,” Jung said in a phone interview.
Jung’s description would explain how Miller could have been injured without any contact — one torque-heavy step did the damage. A dislocation of the tendon means the tendon flipped over the side of the bone. Jung said the MRIs will reveal if there is a tendon tear or if tissue, which holds the tendon in place, was damaged.
Surgery is generally required to repair the tendon and/or the surrounding tissue.
“If the tissue is torn, it’s hard to keep the tendons from popping back into place after they fire,” Jung said. “It would be difficult to keep the tendons stable without surgery.”
The ankle can’t be repaired arthroscopically because the tendons and tissue are located behind the bone.
If the damage is non-tendon related, Miller could return in around three months. If the tendon is damaged, the timetable is closer to six months. Jung said Miller would start rehabilitation 7-10 days after surgery.
“It’s not the most common injury,” Jung said. “Definitely kind of a freaky injury when the ankle gets in position for the tendons to come out of place.”
The Broncos lost outside linebacker Bradley Chubb in Week 4 of last year and were able to win seven of their last 12 games. The task is just as tall trying to win without Miller, but Fangio believes the Broncos are better equipped to handle the adversity.
“You have to acknowledge the loss and you have to acknowledge your sadness on a personal level, but we can go out and still play winning football,” Fangio said. “We’ll move forward while never forgetting Von and hoping that he returns at some point this year.
“We have a better team this year overall so I expect us to still be a good team without Von.”
The Broncos face several questions as they try and win without Miller.
What does it mean right now? Jeremiah Attaochu and Malik Reed will pick up Miller’s snaps opposite Chubb, whose playing time is expected to be managed against Tennessee on Monday night.
What does it mean for Chubb? Without Miller working on the other edge, Chubb should expect additional attention from opponents. It will be Fangio’s challenge to create pressures that allow Chubb to get advantageous matchups.
What does it mean next week? Even if the Broncos wanted to bring in a veteran pass-rusher like Clay Matthews, Terrell Suggs or Cameron Wake this week, it would be tough to have them complete the COVID-19 protocols to be available Monday. But don’t count out a veteran being signed in time to face Pittsburgh in Week 2.
What does it mean for Miller? Uncertainty. The final year of his contract in 2021 carries a cap number of $22.125 million. If he is cut before June 1, it will create $13.875 million of cap space that could be allocated toward new contracts for Chubb and Simmons.
The Broncos have the next few days to process Miller’s injury and get ready for the Titans.
“Anytime you lose anybody, you’re disappointed,” Fangio said. “But we will move on and we will make it work.”