ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos came down hard on their two executives facing drunken driving charges, suspending them without pay and making it clear they must straighten out their lives if they want to work in the NFL again.
Director of player personnel Matt Russell was suspended indefinitely, and director of pro personnel Tom Heckert was suspended for a month.
Team president Joe Ellis said both men expressed remorse. But “this in no way excuses their conduct,” Ellis said.
Russell and Heckert will be provided with confidential treatment, rehabilitation and counseling services and must comply with these programs before they’re allowed to return to work, Ellis said.
While the two “will be punished and held accountable, our first priority is their health and well-being. We must ensure they receive any care they need and support them however possible,” Ellis said.
While some critics were calling for the executives’ ouster, Ellis emphasized, “We’re not inclined to tear down lives even further. We’re inclined to help people rebuild themselves.”
The Broncos issued the penalties Monday after consulting with the NFL commissioner’s office, which informed them it has no plans to impose additional discipline.
However, both men still face legal ramifications for their actions that could affect their future employment with the Broncos, who said they “will give careful consideration to the legal proceedings in determining their future standing with the organization.”
Executive vice president John Elway‘s top two advisers were arrested and jailed on suspicion of drunken driving in separate incidents within a month of each other this summer, resulting in the biggest black eye for the organization since a videotape scandal cost former coach Josh McDaniels his job in 2010.
Elway was brought on board after McDaniels’ firing, and the Hall of Fame quarterback who led Denver to five Super Bowls and two championships quickly restored its reputation — until the trouble for his top two lieutenants this offseason.
“When I was named to this position two years ago, I spoke of the role this organization has in the community. We all have an individual responsibility to represent this team in the appropriate manner at all times,” Elway said. “It’s particularly disappointing that two members of my staff acted so irresponsibly. Simply put, it’s unacceptable and inexcusable.”
“I was extremely concerned when Tom Heckert notified me of his arrest in June. We talked about it as a staff, reinforced the intolerable nature of his actions and notified the league as we began the disciplinary process. To hear of Matt Russell’s incident last week was especially disturbing considering the timing and severity of those allegations,” Elway added.
“While Matt and Tom have apologized and taken accountability, it’s most important they take advantage of whatever help they need. We will learn from this and take the necessary action as we move forward in a positive way.”
The punishment reflected a mixture of team owner Pat Bowlen‘s indignation and compassion.
“We handed down what we believe is significant discipline and at the same time, the two gentlemen have not been fired,” Ellis said. “They can get the proper help and counseling and education that’s necessary and the hope is they can improve their lives and rebuild their lives.”
The team’s top brass informed Heckert and Russell of their suspensions Monday morning.
“They embraced it and understand the need for it and we are moving forward to take the right steps to correct the situation,” Ellis said.
The fallout from the executives’ DUI arrests could very well affect the Broncos on the field as this summer’s trendy Super Bowl pick will be without its top two personnel men at a time when player evaluations are paramount with training camp just around the corner.
Elway said other key members of the personnel department such as Lenny McGill, the team’s assistant college scouting director, and assistant pro personnel director Anthony “Champ” Kelly will divvy up the workload at Dove Valley and “we’ll look at adding possibly somebody else from outside to pick up the slack” during the suspensions.
Ellis said he suspects the Broncos’ fortunes on the field won’t be affected by their front office troubles, however.
“What this does to the football team other than serving as an unpleasant reminder of not drinking and driving, I really don’t anticipate these situations will affect our coaches and players,” Ellis said. “I think they’ll come out ready to go a week from Thursday.”
Russell, Elway’s right-hand man, was arrested July 6 while celebrating his 40th birthday. He hit two vehicles, including a police SUV in Breckenridge, injuring an officer, and he registered a 0.246 percent breath alcohol content, three times the legal threshold for a DUI violation in Colorado, according to the arrest affidavit.
The Broncos kept Heckert’s arrest quiet until the AP reported it last Tuesday, a day after Russell apologized for his arrest. That revelation led the organization to acknowledge a “disturbing pattern of irresponsible behavior” that it vowed to clean up.
Heckert’s blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.162 percent upon his release seven hours after his June 11 arrest in Parker, according to a Douglas County Sheriff’s Office report.
Heckert, who turns 46 this week, is a former general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns who had been working for the Broncos just 36 days when he was arrested.
The Denver Post reported Monday that a search of state records also revealed backup offensive lineman Quentin Saulsberry was arrested May 19 in Arapahoe County on suspicion of drunken driving.
Despite the rash of drunken driving arrests, Ellis said he doesn’t think the Broncos have a cultural problem at their Dove Valley headquarters, just a handful of employees “who made extremely poor decisions that completely contradict the values and beliefs regarding social responsibilities that Mr. Bowlen expects us all to follow.”