The Broncos will be without their star cornerback for only one game.
On appeal Tuesday, Aqib Talib and Oakland receiver Michael Crabtree both had their two-game suspensions for fighting reduced to one game. Talib will miss the Broncos’ game at Miami on Sunday and be eligible to return to the team Dec. 4.
Had they stood, the initial two-game bans for Talib and Crabtree would have been the harshest punishments ever handed out by the NFL for an in-game fight. In a statement from Jon Runyan, the league’s vice president of football operations, Crabtree was suspended because he punched Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, then pushed Talib into the sideline on the subsequent play and “triggered a melee and endangered various sideline and league personnel.” Crabtree, Runyan wrote, also “grabbed and twisted” Talib’s facemask and threw a punch at him.
“Hard to understand the reasoning for this judgment based on most recent ruling w/ altercation see WR Cin and DB Jax = 0 games suspended,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio tweeted on Monday, referencing a fight between Bengals receiver A.J. Green and Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey this year. Punches were thrown, and the two were ejected from the game, but they did not receive suspensions.
In his letter to Talib, Runyan stated that his violations included ripping Crabtree’s chain from his neck “just as you did last year when you played against him,” throwing off Crabtree’s helmet and “endangering him and various sideline personnel in the near vicinity,” re-engaging Crabtree after they had been separated and throwing a punch.
Before receiving the suspension, Talib admitted the re-engaging — “the second half,” as he called it — could have been avoided.
“I guess the second half of it definitely could have been defused,” Talib said. “That’s what I’m disappointed about, the second half of it. The first half, that was him being extra. That’s what he wanted. He didn’t want to play that game. He wanted to come out and wrestle all day.”
Broncos general manager John Elway, in his weekly interview Tuesday on Orange and Blue 760 radio, defended his player and said he believed the punishment didn’t match Talib’s role in the skirmish.
“From our point of view, we thought Crabtree was the aggressor,” Elway said after the appeal hearing with the league. “He was the one that started it. Obviously it’s not something we want in the game, and I understand that from the league’s perspective, that they don’t want it in the league. … Our team, I thought, did a pretty good job of handling the situation that really could have gotten way out of control; even though it was a little bit out of control, it could have been a lot of worse with the way things went about and Crabtree’s mentality. I thought Aqib did everything he could possibly do to try to stay out of the fracas, and Crabtree kept coming after him.”
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said the two-game suspensions were handed down because the players’ actions were “premeditated” — there’s history there,” he said of Talib and Crabtree — and “prolonged” and put others at risk, including league personnel.
“I think a two-game suspension is designed to both discipline appropriately a player and get their attention,” Lockhart said.
Talib’s appeal was heard by former NFL receiver James Thrash, and Crabtree’s appeal was heard by former linebacker Derrick Brooks, both of whom were appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association as appeals officers for on-field player discipline.
In 2015, Talib was suspended by the league one game for poking then-Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen in the eye. Talib’s appeal that year was heard by Brooks, a teammate of Talib’s, and the ruling was upheld.
Though his penalty this time around was reduced, Talib’s absence leaves the Broncos thin at cornerback, with only Harris, Bradley Roby and rookie Brendan Langley on the active roster. After Talib’s first-quarter ejection at Oakland, the Broncos inserted Langley as the third corner, and he was targeted often by the Raiders. Amari Cooper beat him for a 9-yard touchdown in the second quarter, then Langley was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, leading to another Raiders score.
“We can’t lose our best corner in a game like that. It obviously hurt us down the stretch,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said Monday. “I told our guys, if we can defuse those things, we have to defuse them. We can’t fall into the trap of getting into a fight that ends up losing one of our best players. We can’t do it. It’s unacceptable. We can’t do it.”
To bolster the secondary during Talib’s suspension, the Broncos could promote practice-squad corner Marcus Rios, an undrafted player out of UCLA. Or they might seek help from an outside free agent.