ENGLEWOOD — The hole opened up, and Denver Broncos rookie running back Maurice Clarett zipped right through it.
The hole, in this case, was an opening in the crowd created by security guards. Clarett walked past the fans with an armful of shoulder pads — part of rookie hazing by the veterans —
on his way to the locker room Thursday morning during the final day of training camp.
This was Clarett’s most impressive run to date, complete with defenders in hot pursuit.
The defenders, in this case, were members of the media who
were eager to talk to Clarett following his first day back to practice since Aug. 8. He has been nursing a groin injury since early in camp.
But Clarett wasn’t in a talkative mood. The beleaguered former Ohio State star had nothing to say about his return to the field, only a fixed glare. He never uttered a word.
“He looked good,” said Denver coach Mike Shanahan, the appointed spokesperson for Clarett. “It didn’t look like there were any problems.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Shanahan sent a subtle message to the third-round draft pick that he needed to be at practice. No practice adds up to zero playing time. Clarett more than likely won’t play Saturday in a preseason game against San Francisco.
“If you are not practicing, that does not help your chances,” Shanahan said.
The day after Shanahan’s message, Clarett was back in pads.
“I wasn’t trying to send him any message,” Shanahan claimed. “He knows when he is healthy and can play. He practiced and looked fine. It didn’t look like there were any setbacks. Hopefully he’s well so he can compete with the rest of the backs.”
Clarett is clearly running fifth among the backs, and time is running out to move up the depth chart. During Thursday’s practice, he looked rusty. He fell down going through the hole twice and was smacked hard by safety Nick Ferguson on another play.
“He’s missed a lot of reps,” Shanahan said. “It takes some time. Hopefully, he can stay healthy and we’ll get a chance to evaluate him.”
Denver quarterback Jake Plummer was asked to evaluate Clarett but couldn’t offer an opinion.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Plummer said. “He’s not with the (first team). It’s good to see he’s healthy. I don’t want a kid to come in here and be hurt.
“You can’t make the club in the tub.”
In other words, you have to show the team what you’ve got. Rehabbing in a whirlpool isn’t the same as sweating on the field.
“We have a lot of competition,” receiver Rod Smith said.
And then the 11-year veteran gave a read-between-the-lines lecture on the difference between playing with pain and being injured. Teammates like defensive end Courtney Brown (dislocated elbow) are legitimately hurt; others play with pain.
“This is a grind,” Smith said. “There’s a difference between being hurt and injured. If you have a tweak here and there, which has been the case for me all camp, you have to find a way to get going each and every morning to come out to practice.
“Some of these guys are going to have to grow up quick with that, because in this business, they’re not going to wait on you. We still have to move forward whether you’re here or not.”
Clarett’s future is up in the air. The Broncos’ options are limited: They can put him on the 53-man roster when it’s announced on Sept. 3, cut him outright, put him on injured reserve (he does have a sore groin) or try to sneak him onto the practice squad.
The practice squad option may make the most sense, but Clarett would have to clear waivers before that could happen. Chances are good that another team might take a gamble and put him on their active roster.
Cutting Clarett seems a remote possibility as well, but since he signed an incentive-loaded contract, it wouldn’t have many financial repercussions under the cap for Denver.
The Broncos are running out of time to make a decision. They need to see Clarett more in a uniform and less in a whirlpool.
“The only way he can get better is to compete,” Shanahan said. “We’ve all got to practice.”