Linebacker Joe Mays is appealing his $50,000 fine and one-game suspension for his vicious hit last weekend that sent Matt Schaub's helmet and a chunk of his left ear flying.
If the NFL upholds his punishment, the Broncos will have to face the Oakland Raiders, the league's longtime renegades, without Mays, who's known as one of the game's hardest hitters and is also considered one of the nicest men in pro football.
"Joe Mays is not a dirty player. He was not intentionally trying to hurt anybody," coach John Fox told The Associated Press on Wednesday, choosing his words carefully so as not to incur the wrath of the commissioner's office again.
"He was playing football, and in football sometimes there's a fine line in putting the hurt on somebody and trying to hurt them."
The Broncos (1-2) are already thin at linebacker with Nate Irving (concussion) hurt and D.J. Williams serving a six-game suspension for violating the league's banned-substances policy, the same infraction that sidelined tight end Virgil Green for the first four games.
Mays was docked $7,875 after Week 2 because of his unpenalized hit on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan after he slid to declare himself down.
The latest Mays penalty came a day after the NFL levied a $30,000 fine against Fox and a $25,000 fine against defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio for verbal abuse of the replacement officials during the Atlanta game.
"That's life, man," said safety Rahim Moore, who was fined $21,000 for his illegal hit on defenseless Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the Broncos' opener.
"When the coaches curse, that's not something they intend to do. And we're not just out there hitting guys for fines. I mean, who wants money taken from them? Nobody does.
"So, we just play the game, we're passionate. At the same time, we respect the rules and regulations here at the Denver Broncos. They don't teach us to do things the wrong way. We just try to play hard every snap, that's it."
Moore cringed at the notion that the Broncos are crossing the line willy-nilly.
"When it's all said and done, you want people to be able to get up out of bed the next morning," Moore said. "And unfortunately, we've been fined and had some problems with our team, but we're trying to win. So, we've got to deal with the consequences."
Fox insisted he wasn't worried that the Broncos might be viewed as the NFL's new bad boys.
"I've been doing this a long time. I've been doing it the same way for almost a quarter of a century," Fox said. "I know Joe Mays. I know Jack Del Rio. If people want to create that image they can. But I know differently."
The big, bad Broncos?
"That just makes me laugh," defensive tackle Mitch Unrein said. "Well, of course, we want to be considered a tough team and you try to set a standard of play: we're going to play hard and we're going to hit you hard, but we're not going to try to do anything cheap. That's not the name of the game. Unfortunately, some guys have gotten fined for it, but nothing's intentional."
Mays said after the game that he expected a fine but not a suspension, adding, "it was definitely not my intention to do that. I'm just trying to play fast."
He explained that Schaub "kind of ducked his head toward the end" as he came free and was about to make impact. "So, there's nothing I can do about it, I can't take it back," Mays said. "I guess it's on to the next game."
Not for Mays, unless he can get his suspension overturned by Art Shell or Ted Cottrell, who are jointly appointed by the league and union to review discipline handed out for on-field conduct.
"I think it's terrible," defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "Joe's one of the best human beings I know, and there's no way he would maliciously go after a quarterback like that or hit him in the head on purpose. You guys have got to realize how fast these things happen."
Bannan said the league is asking the impossible of players to avoid those types of hits entirely.
"Especially on the back end, you're watching these safeties and cornerbacks coming to hit a guy across the middle and that guy adjusts at the last second or something happens, I don't know how you adjust in midair going fullspeed," Bannan said. "Sometimes your head may hit him, and a lot of times, that's an accident."
If Mays isn't allowed to play, the Broncos will go with Keith Brooking in the middle. He'd been rotating with Wesley Woodyard at weakside linebacker. Two rookies who haven't played any defensive snaps, Danny Trevathan and Steven Johnson, would be in the rotation.
Mays apologized to Schaub both during and after Denver's 31-25 loss Sunday, and Schaub indicated Wednesday he didn't begrudge Mays for the hard hit that left him bloodied and with a chunk of his left ear somewhere in the grass at Sports Authority Field.
"It's a violent game we play. Things happen. It's the nature of playing football, there are no hard feelings," Schaub said. "The league does what the league needs to do. He definitely came up and apologized and felt bad about the hit. And I'm fine, so we'll just move on."
Unrein said it was a shame Mays might be getting a bad rap, though.
"It's a violent game and from ever since you're a little kid, you're always preached to go as hard as you can, hit as hard as you can every play," Unrein said. "Things happen so fast out there, a split-second, if he sees you coming, he lowers his head, too.
"And you know, Joe's such a nice guy, he never plays to hurt anybody. He just plays the game so hard and with so much passion."
Johnson looked at Mays' empty locker Wednesday and shook his head.
"Back in the day, it probably would have just looked like a good hit and they probably would have moved on to the next play and put it on a highlight reel," Johnson said. "But now the game's changed. You've just got to roll with the punches."
Notes: Help is on the way for QB Peyton Manning, who's been sacked eight times so far, putting him on pace for a career-high 43: RG Chris Kuper practiced Wednesday for the first time since breaking his left forearm on Aug. 14. Kuper declined comment until he's played in a game, which may not come until Week 5 at New England. ... WR Matthew Willis (hamstring) and CB Quinton Carter (knee) missed practice.
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