Canton, Ohio — For a while Thursday, Vic Fangio didn’t know if his long-awaited debut as a head coach would happen in the Hall of Fame game.
Fangio finished team meetings, then headed to a hospital because of a kidney stone. Though determined to lead his new team, the Denver Broncos, against Atlanta, “I didn’t know if I would make it.”
He did, and he was made a winner thanks to a late rally.
Fangio, an NFL assistant coach for nearly two decades, saw a late interception set up rookie Juwann Winfree’s 15-yard touchdown catch, and his team edged the Falcons 14-10 to open the NFL’s preseason.
Yes, it was an exhibition game — the real first test comes Sept. 9 at Oakland. Still, Fangio was getting his chance to run a team. So this truly was a debut.
“Winning has cured more things than penicillin,” joked Fangio, who still had not passed the stone when he met with the media after the game. “Nobody is doing backflips and cartwheels like in the regular season.”
Trey Johnson’s interception of Matt Schaub’s pass after the Atlanta backup quarterback was pressured set up Denver at the Falcons 38 with 5:21 remaining. A 14-yard pass interference call on fourth down against Rashard Causey kept Denver in it, but the Broncos were hurt by a holding penalty against rookie Ryan Crozier.
Unfazed, rookie Brett Rypien hurled a pass into the right corner of the end zone, where it was deflected and Winfree latched onto it with 1:26 remaining.
“Trey made a nice play at the end, and Winfree made an acrobatic catch,” Fangio said. “It’s always good to be here for this game. It’s always great to be around great ex-players and owners.”
Fangio also became the first coach to utilize the new rule allowing challenges of pass interference calls. Late in the second quarter, Linden Stephens was called for a 43-yard defensive penalty. Officials upheld the call.
“I made a statement I’d be the first to throw the flag on defensive pass interference,” said Fangio, one of the premier defensive coordinators the league has seen.
Both teams had eight-play first-half drives for touchdowns. Denver’s was finished by Khalfani Muhammad’s 3-yard run up the middle. Atlanta tied it with a precise two-minute drill guided by first-year quarterback Kurt Benkert, who is seeking a backup job to Matt Ryan. Benkert took the Falcons 61 yards in 1:17, hitting running back Brian Hill with a 3-yard touchdown pass.
Benkert conducted another impressive series in the third period, going 56 yards in 12 plays to Giorgio Tavecchio’s 27-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.
Benkert headed to the locker room early in the fourth quarter with a toe injury. He went 19 of 34 for 185 yards.
Otherwise, it pretty much was a slopfest marred by dropped passes, penalties and missed assignments. Then again, how much can be expected in such an early preseason game?
The class of 2019 was introduced before the game and walked across the 50-yard line flanked by players from each team. The loudest cheers went to former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey , which was predictable considering all the orange-clad folks in the stands. Former Chiefs and Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez gestured and joshed with the Atlanta players as he strode through. Ed Reed , Ty Law (Michigan), Kevin Mawae , Gil Brandt,Johnny Robinson and the family of late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen also received loud ovations from the crowd of 20,802.
Newton eases back
Cam Newton said, like many Carolina Panthers fans, he also breathed a sigh of relief after uncorking a 45-yard pass completion to wide receiver Curtis Samuel on the first day of training camp.
But the Panthers quarterback cautioned that his rehab from offseason arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder remains “a work in progress.”
“I don’t want people to assume, ‘Oh, Cam is back,’ ” Newton said Thursday.
“I’m doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that I’m able to practice and to practice with the capabilities I know I can and the team expects me to.”
The Panthers are taking a cautious approach with the 30-year-old quarterback so far.
He’s been held out of team drills three times in eight days as trainers look to ease him back into action and not overload his shoulder. On Thursday Newton didn’t throw at all and had an ice bag on the shoulder for a portion of practice, although coach Ron Rivera said it was a planned day off for his QB.
Newton, the 2015 league MVP, struggled last season with shoulder problems, preventing him from throwing more than 20 yards downfield and forcing him to miss the final two games.
The Panthers don’t want to find themselves in a similar situation this season.
So even though Panthers quarterbacks coach Scott Turner said last week Newton had “no limitations” at training camp, it’s pretty clear the plan is to proceed with caution.
Newton, entering his ninth season, said he’s fine with that.
Early in his career he would refuse to take a day off from practice, but his philosophy has changed.
“One thing I wanted to work on was being honest with myself, knowing when my body is talking to me, knowing that it’s OK to sit out a practice,” said Newton, who has been hit more than any other QB since coming into the league in 2011, according to ESPN Stats and Information. “I’m at a point in my career now where I’m as hungry as ever, but I have to be smarter than ever.”
Coaches want him to be smart on the field, too.
Part of that is avoiding unnecessary contact.
The other is continuing to improve his throwing mechanics, something that he began working on last season when Turner was hired as quarterbacks coach.
“We’re making sure his feet and his eyes are working together,” Turner said. “Making him a little more compact in his upper body, a little more closed off, just to make him as efficient as possible and put the least amount of stress possible on the shoulder.”
Five-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil snapped out of retirement Thursday and agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Jets.
Kalil, 34, who started every game last season for Carolina after playing just six in 2017 because of a neck injury, will need to pass a physical today before signing his contract with New York.
Financial terms weren’t immediately available. NFL Network reported the deal is worth $8.4 million.
... Jaguars rookie linebacker Quincy Williams, a third-round draft pick who showed enough over the last three months to lock down a starting spot, will miss 4-to-6 weeks because of a torn meniscus in his right knee.
... Kicker Phil Dawson, 44, has retired from the NFL after 20 seasons. He spent his first 14 seasons with the Browns and will sign a one-day contract to ceremonially retire with the franchise. Dawson played in 305 games — the seventh most in league history — and ranks 11th with 1,847 points.