Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman may not be in the John Fox doghouse, exactly. But he's a long way from the Dove Valley penthouse.
Hillman's first quarter fumble Sunday in the Broncos' 38-3 romp of the Kansas City Chiefs set off a chain of near catastrophic events.
First, right tackle Orlando Franklin got his legs taken out while trying to chase down Kansas City cornerback Brandon Flowers, who was on his way to a 64-yard return. Franklin missed a series but returned.
Flowers did not go the 76 yards needed for a touchdown because retreating Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning got just enough arm on the returner to slow him down and allow hustling tight end Joel Dreessen to finish off the tackle.
"It wasn't that Ronnie was intentionally trying to fumble," Fox said Monday at his post-regular season press conference. "But the reality is, it happened. He'll learn from it. He'll get back. He'll get another opportunity to compete, starting Wednesday."
When Knowshon Moreno fumbled in the Broncos' second game at Atlanta, he didn't dress in the next eight games. Moreno has redeemed himself and then some this year, but imagine if Manning suffered an injury following Hillman's fumble.
Two other well-known quarterbacks — Joe Namath in a 1971 preseason game; Jay Cutler in game 10 of 2011 — suffered major injuries while chasing down turnover returns.
Flowers return set up a field goal and the Chiefs only points, but had it not been for Manning fighting off a blocker downfield, the play could have turned a potential 14-0 Broncos lead (the ball was fumbled at the Chiefs' 24) into a 7-7 tie.
"At that point in time, it was a huge play," Fox said. "It was a huge swing in momentum. We had one player (Franklin) go down and another guy (Manning) trying to become a safety that shouldn't be. Mistakes breed mistakes and you just try to limit them."
Hillman never saw the field again. In the tailback rotation behind starter Knowshon Moreno, Hillman was replaced by Lance Ball and Jacob Hester, who turned out to be the game's leading rushers.
"It's next man up," Fox said. "We kind of made an adjustment and those were the two guys that had to step in."
After the game, Hillman walked off without comment.
Also from Fox's press conference:
• The players will get Monday and Tuesday off, then practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before coming in for a light workout on Saturday morning. The players will get the rest of the weekend off but will return Monday for their full practice week in preparation of the Broncos' second-round playoff game Saturday, Jan. 12 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
• Fox would not confirm reports the Chicago Bears asked permission to interview Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. The Broncos did grant the Bears permission to interview McCoy here in the Denver area either Saturday or Sunday when the team is off.
In general, Fox talked about how he, McCoy and possibly defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would handle any possible distractions during the job search process. There were seven NFL head coaches fired Monday.
"No different than a player making the Pro Bowl or being voted this or voted that," Fox said. "With team success, you get recognition.Those guys are all professionals. They understand the focus it's going to take for us to where we want. they've got a lot of investment in it so I don't anticipate that being a problem for us."