ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A contrite Matt Prater apologized to the Denver Broncos and their fans for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy by drinking beer, resulting in a four-game ban to start the season.
Prater’s lawyer said the NFL initially sought a yearlong suspension after Prater tested positive for alcohol consumption while on vacation in the offseason.
Prater, the league’s top kicker, has been in the NFL’s drug program, which includes alcohol, since a DUI arrest on Aug. 12, 2011. He said he realized one more strike meant he’d face sitting out an entire season when he decided to have some beers “right after the season.”
“Why did I risk it?” Prater said. “I made a mistake. I don’t have an excuse for it. I screwed up and now I’m paying the price for it.”
The suspension will cost Prater $705,882 in base salary and forces the Broncos to go with Plan B until their Oct. 12 game against the Jets. He’ll miss games against Indianapolis, Kansas City, Seattle and Arizona.
The Broncos’ options include keeping rookie Mitch Ewald or another young, cheap kicker, or signing an experienced one, although a vested veteran’s 2014 salary would be fully guaranteed.
“At the end of the day, there’s an opening there,” said Ewald, a rookie from Indiana. “Is it for me? Who knows? It might be, it might be for somebody else. I’ve just got to keep working hard and see what happens.”
Among other possibilities is Jay Feely, the 38-year-old kicker who was cut by the Arizona Cardinals on Monday.
Either way, coach John Fox indicated it will only be a stop-gap solution and that the Broncos will welcome back Prater when his suspension is over.
“He’s part of our family,” Fox said. “He’s one of ours and we’re going to support him through this.”
Prater pledged not to have a sip of alcohol “as long as I’m in this program,” which ostensibly covers the rest of his NFL career.
“I’m definitely going to make some changes in my life to improve and not drink at all or risk doing anything stupid like that,” he said.
Prater said he wouldn’t go into bars or parties “and now I’m just going to dedicate myself to working out and getting stronger in the time I have off. I’m going to come in here and be here five days a week just hitting the weights and I’ll have to kick at a high school field.”
Prater’s base salary this season is $3 million and his cap charge is $3.8 million. Were he to get waived, he’d count $1.6 million against this year’s salary cap.
Prater’s suspension for the first five weeks — Denver’s bye is in Week 4 — could be a big blow to the Broncos, who are trying to become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to win a Super Bowl the year after losing it.
Prater led the league last year by making 25 of 26 field goals (96.2 percent), including a record-breaking 64-yarder in December against Tennessee. He also led the NFL with 81 kickoff touchbacks and scored 150 of Denver’s record 606 points and earned his first Pro Bowl honor.
Prater apologized to his teammates before practice Monday.
“Everyone’s been supportive,” Prater said. “I addressed the team and apologized to them this morning because it affects the team just like everyone else and they’re supportive and they’re behind me and I’m lucky to have such good teammates.”
Prater missed two of four field goal attempts this preseason, including a 49-yarder in an 18-17 loss to Houston on Saturday night after learning before kickoff that he’d be suspended. He was good from 32 yards to open the scoring but the football sailed haphazardly through the uprights because he kicked the ground.
Prater said the looming suspension weighed heavily on him: “Yeah, it definitely has. Like last game, I obviously didn’t have my best game. It’s been on my mind and affected me.”
Ewald was wide left on a 36-yarder with 4:36 left that would have given Denver a 20-10 lead. That miss opened the door for the Texans’ TD drive and 2-point conversion that won it in the final minute.
“I just rushed myself,” said Ewald, who figures to get all the work in Denver’s preseason finale at Dallas on Thursday night.
Notes: Fox on Texans safety D.J. Swearinger’s shoulder-to-helmet hit that left WR Wes Welker with a concussion: “It’s football. It happens. It’s part of the game.” Fox said he has no indication whatsoever that Welker is considering retirement in light of his third concussion in 10 months, and WR Emmanuel Sanders said Welker’s spirits were high Monday.