Less than eight months into his NFL career, Brian Clark learned first-hand about the vagaries of the professional game and playing time within it … and that on-field work can be taketh away just as swiftly as it is giveth.
The undrafted rookie spent the season’s first seven weeks on the practice squad, then found himself not only on the 53-man roster, but active for the Week 8 game against Indianapolis after Quincy Morgan struggled in his return to Cleveland seven days earlier, electing to run the opening kickoff out of the end zone from three yards deep and being promptly stopped at the Denver 9-yard-line.
Five days later, on Friday, Oct. 27, Clark’s situation changed drastically. The Green Bay Packers called, and wanted him on their 53-man roster — which is the only manner in which another team may claim a practice-squad player — by providing a promotion to the primary roster, although it is the player’s prerogative to decline the opportunity if he wants to stay on his current practice squad.
Clark was informed that there existed a flight reservation in his name. But he had another reservation, and that sent him from the players lounge at Broncos headquarters to the upstairs offices of Head Coach Mike Shanahan and General Manager Ted Sundquist.
“I was getting ready to leave the building; I just happened to be on the computer, so I was getting ready to leave to go catch my flight, and I said, ‘Just being the kind of person I am, I owe Coach Shanahan and Ted Sundquist enough respect to let them know what’s going on as far as getting ready to leave,’” Clark said.
The conscientious Clark thought such meetings were common courtesy. Sundquist informed him that it didn’t have to be merely that.
“My understanding was that when someone claims you off a practice squad, you initially have to go,” Clark said. “But Ted let me know that (the Broncos) have an opportunity to keep you, as well. So I said, ‘Oh, wow.’ He said, ‘Stay right here.’ They kept me in the office; I ended up staying at the facility until probably five o’clock that day.”
Clark’s outbound plane was scheduled to push back from the gate and have its wheels in motion by 6:45 p.m. Wheels of another kind turned in the offices, with top Broncos brass explaining to a rookie who hadn’t sniffed the field in the regular season their long-term plans for him.
“They were trying to keep me here,” Clark said. “I told them that I was getting ready to leave, and they said, ‘No.’ I talked to Coach Shanahan and Ted; we were all in there talking and they pulled out the dry-erase board, and we were drawing up things. It was crazy.
“Talking with Sundquist, he knows that I want to be in the NFL for 10-plus years. He said, ‘Wanting to do that, let’s graph it out here.’ I still have to go out and perform, but best-case scenario, he plotted things out and saw where he wanted to use me, that I would someday have the opportunity to compete for Rod (Smith’s) spot, and he pointed out to me, ‘Coaches love you. They know you. They’ve gotten to know what you can do.’”
Nevertheless, Clark had to check with another key figure in the equation.
“I said, ‘Look, I need to go home, talk to my wife and figure this out,’ and I talked with my agent and talked with my wife,” Clark recalled. “As soon as I told her, she said, ‘Stay here.’ She didn’t want to go to Wisconsin. It was kind of hard to make a business decision when my wife says, ‘I want to stay here.’”
Two days later, Clark was on the active roster — earlier than expected.
“Talking to (Shanahan) prior to him bringing in Quincy, he told me that he felt like I was a good returner, but at the time, he wanted a returner that he felt could break it at any time,” Clark remembered. “He said, ‘Right now, I just want to develop you. I know you have that potential, but I want to develop you.’ So that was his main reason to put me on the practice squad and bring in Quincy, so when it came down to me being able to do kickoff returns, I was kind of like, ‘Well, Coach, you said you wanted to develop me,’ but he said, ‘Things happen. I want to keep you here. If Green Bay feels strongly enough about you to put you on their kickoff return, then we’re going to give you a shot at ours.”
Clark ended the season as the Broncos’ leader in kickoff returns and total yardage, but Morgan ended up averaging 2.6 more yards per return after returning to the lineup in Week 15. That marked the week when Clark began a three-week, season-ending stint on the inactive list after he averaged 19.2 yards per return at San Diego — one of just two games out of seven in which he played where he averaged less than 20 yards per return. Until that day, his average had been on the upswing — 17.8 at Pittsburgh, 22.0 at Oakland, no returns against San Diego, 25.2 at Kansas City and 28.0 against Seattle, including a season-best 36-yard runback.
But after his day at San Diego, Morgan promptly broke a 64-yard return the following week, and the job was his for the final three games of the season. However, Clark has youth and potential on his side, and should have every opportunity to reclaim kickoff-return duties — and more beyond them — when organized team activities begin in May.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Finished the year with a 22.3-yard average on 23 returns, for a final tally of 512 yards … Had more kickoff returns and more yardage on those runbacks than any Broncos rookie since Deltha O’Neal in 2000.
NEXT: Running back Cedric Cobbs.