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Sunday football notes

NFL has gotten unique offseason right — but hurdles remain before season can begin

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t want anyone in the league publicly discussing anything but a full 16-game season.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

The thousands of people who work at NFL headquarters and across the 32 teams deserve a round of applause. The execution of the league’s offseason has been nearly flawless amid a global pandemic that has shut down society since mid-March. NFL free agency, the draft, the schedule release, virtual team workouts, a new collective bargaining agreement — everything got accomplished in impressive fashion considering the unique circumstances.

Now comes their most difficult task yet: What Roger Goodell may as well call, “Operation Get the 2020 Season Played at All Costs.”

The regular season may be four months away, but significant hurdles remain for the NFL to get back on the field. The virus is still raging, second waves could be coming this year, and as long as anyone who comes in contact with someone infected with COVID-19 has to be quarantined for two weeks, it is hard to see how football can be played, even without fans in the stands. The CFL, set to begin in July, is already talking about canceling the season.

“It’s difficult to imagine a stadium that’s filled until we have immunity and until we have a vaccine,” California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, said last week. “There are conditions that persist in this state and this nation that make reopening very, very challenging.”


Goodell and the NFL are going to listen to the medical community when it comes to returning to the field, and won’t go rogue. But they’re doing everything in their power to get a season in.

The first pillar of the NFL’s plan is to keep the blinders on and continue forward as if everything is normal. During the league’s schedule release Thursday night, any acknowledgment of postponed or canceled games this season was drowned out by a flood of excitement over a 16-game schedule.


“The plan is to move forward as normal, to play a full season, until the medical community tells us otherwise,” NFL senior vice president Troy Vincent said.

The NFL has certainly created contingency plans for this fall, and all 32 teams have told fans that tickets will be refunded or credited to next season if games are canceled or held without fans. But Goodell doesn’t want anyone in the league publicly discussing anything but a full 16-game season.

“It is impossible to project what the next few months will bring,” Goodell wrote to all 32 owners and executives Wednesday night. “Uninformed commentary that speculates on how individual clubs or the league will address a range of hypothetical contingencies serves no constructive purpose and instead confuses our fans and business partners, complicates the operations of other clubs, and distracts from the careful planning that is needed right now.”

Part of that careful planning went into the schedule. In most years, the NFL is happy to allow Howard Katz and the schedule-makers to explain how the league divvied up its schedule. But this year, with perhaps the most complicated and fascinating schedule ever, the NFL did not grant any interviews. The league does not want to publicize the second pillar of its plan to play this fall — all of the hidden contingency plans built into the schedule that provide flexibility to moves games.

For instance, in the first four weeks of the season, every team has two home and two road games, which makes it equitable if the NFL has to move or cancel the first quarter of the season. Also, all Week 2 matchups feature teams that have the same bye week. There are no division games in Weeks 3 and 4, which makes those weeks easier to cancel. And according to a Sports Business Journal Report, the NFL also has a contingency plan to push the Super Bowl back from Feb. 7 to Feb. 28.


Travel is also going to be difficult this fall, so the NFL minimized it as much as possible. All international games were canceled, and eight teams were granted requests to play back-to-back games on the opposite coast. For example, the Patriots have consecutive games against the Los Angeles teams, the Rams play at Philadelphia and Buffalo, and the Cardinals play at the Panthers and Jets.

And the third, and most important, pillar of the NFL’s return plan is keeping team facilities clean. A few teams took the initiative on their own — the Texans are hiring a “facility hygiene coordinator” to swiftly implement new protocols, while the Dolphins want Hard Rock Stadium to be the first sports venue to receive “STAR” accreditation from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council.

But this past week, Goodell announced a comprehensive protocol, developed in part with Duke University and the CDC, that all 32 teams must undertake by May 15 in order to best combat the virus at their facilities.

Once local and state governments consent to reopening, teams will be allowed to have up to 75 non-player employees (coaches, training, front office, business, etc.) in the building at one time, so long as they wear masks in hallways and common areas and adhere to distancing guidelines. Only players who are rehabbing at the team facilities may be present, though the NFL is working with the union to figure out return-to-work rules for the players.


Employees will be encouraged to take their temperature often at home, and will be required to get their temperature taken every time they enter the team facility. Anyone who has a fever higher than 100.4, or who has been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, will be sent home immediately.

Teams will also be required to create an infection response team (consisting of the head physician, head trainer, HR director, chief of security, etc.), which is responsible for contact tracing inside the team facility and for creating a written plan for dealing with new infections. Teams also must designate an infection control officer (most likely the head trainer) to serve as the first point of contact for any employee who shows symptoms. The ICO will help identify local resources for testing and oversee the cleaning and disinfecting of the facilities.

Much of the COVID-19 pandemic is out of the NFL’s control, and if the virus is still raging this fall, the league may have no choice but to reduce or cancel the season. But the NFL is certainly undergoing significant measures now to ensure it is ready to play football this fall should conditions improve.



Belichick, Shula used to get along

Bill Belichick's relationship with Don Shula deteriorated after Spygate.Jim Davis

Bill Belichick may not have the warmest and fuzziest feelings for Don Shula, who died Monday at 90. In 2007, Shula said the Spygate incident “diminished” the Patriots’ accomplishments and compared the team to Barry Bonds, and in 2015 Shula called the coach “Beli-cheat.”

Perhaps there was an issue between the two behind the scenes that we don’t know about. But Belichick may also have been blindsided by Shula’s criticism.

Upton Bell, Shula’s personnel man with the Colts in the late 1960s, passed along a story of Belichick and Shula having a great night together about 15 years ago at the opening of a Shula’s Steakhouse in Providence.

“Shula had made sure that he and Belichick were sitting together,” Bell said this past week. “We’re there for two hours and these guys were going back and forth laughing, having a great time, and I’m saying to myself, ‘The only people missing are Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi.’ ”

Shula was also a hero of sorts for Belichick, who was a teenager and avid Baltimore Colts fan when Shula was their successful young head coach.

“That was really a dream for me to be able to just wear the horseshoe helmet on my shirt when I worked for the Colts,” Belichick said in 2016. “You think back to the way things were in the ’60s when I grew up, and you had Coach Shula and [Johnny] Unitas and [Raymond] Berry and all those guys. I could give you a starting lineup on both sides of the ball, all of those guys. I mean, what great teams, great stadium, great environment.”

Bell said that Belichick’s father, longtime Navy coach Steve Belichick, was friends with Shula and often visited Colts training camp.

“I’m not so sure that Bill didn’t come once as a kid with his father,” Bell said. “Shula used to say to me, ‘Steve is coming today, make sure he’s taken care of.’ ”

But Shula turned on Belichick after Spygate and Deflategate, the first of which coincided with the Patriots in 2007 taking aim at the Dolphins’ perfect season.

Bell said that Shula, who refused to cut corners, would have turned on any cheater.

“From my experience with Shula, I don’t think it was personal in turning on Bill,” Bell said. “If it had been anybody that he felt was cheating on the rules in any way, he would’ve said that.”


A closer look at the schedule

The Patriots open the season against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.Matthew J. Lee

▪ Not only do the Patriots have the NFL’s toughest strength of schedule (.537), they will have to face all of the NFL’s best scramblers. On the Patriots’ schedule this fall are Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, and possibly Tyrod Taylor. Patrick Mahomes is a pretty good scrambler, too.

▪ The Patriots are one of eight teams to get five national TV games, joining the Cowboys, Ravens, Packers, Chiefs, Rams, 49ers, and Buccaneers, who were a late addition to the club after Tom Brady joined them in March. The Brady-less Patriots got two more national TV games than the Titans (three), the team that eliminated them in the playoffs and reached the conference championship game.

▪ The schedule-makers were not impressed by the Dolphins’ late-season run. The Fins got just one national TV game, and it’s a Thursday nighter in Week 2 against the Jaguars, who also will be playing in their only national TV game of the season. And it’s only on NFL Network, not one of the broadcast networks.

▪ The Dolphins seemed like an afterthought in more ways than one. The Dolphins will play the Jets in consecutive games in Week 10 and 12, with a bye week in between (same for the Jets). The back-to-back matchup happens every so often in Week 17 and the first round of the playoffs, but is virtually unheard of in the regular season.

▪ Texans coach Bill O’Brien is going to have an easy time setting his weekly schedule. After opening the season with the Chiefs in the kickoff game and playing a Sunday afternoon national game against the Ravens in Week 2, the Texans will play their next eight games at 1 p.m. Eastern. The streak is actually 11 games if you count the Thanksgiving game that starts at 12:30 p.m.

▪ The Ravens travel just 6,310 miles this season, the fewest for any team in the last four years, thanks to road games in New England, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. Their longest trips are Indianapolis and Houston.

▪ CBS has only three games on Nov. 15, all scheduled at 4:05 p.m., to coincide with the final round of the Masters set for that Sunday.

Many rookie deals are on hold

The Patriots still haven't signed second-round pick Kyle Dugger.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

As of Friday, two weeks after the draft, only about 20 of 255 draft picks had signed their rookie contracts, even though there isn’t much to negotiate. In most years, dozens of draft picks would be signed by now.

The holdup, of course, is the inability of teams to bring the rookies in and conduct physicals. One agent said that the only players signing are those that are healthy, and that teams feel confident executing the contract based on the player’s physical from the NFL Combine or other medical records. Of the 20 players signed, seven belong to the Patriots, suggesting that they drafted a lot of healthy players.

But most draft picks won’t be seeing their six- or seven-figure signing bonus until the teams can find a way to conduct an adequate physical, which may not happen for weeks or months. The agent said the NFL Players Association is encouraging rookies to not sign and agree to defer signing bonus payments upon completion of a physical, as was common in free agency.

And most undrafted rookies who signed contracts immediately after the draft aren’t getting paid their five-figure signing bonuses yet, either. Those players, who had significantly less leverage, had to take whatever deals they could get, and won’t get paid until they pass their physicals.

“Most teams are hesitant to give guys money because they don’t think they’re going to get it back,” the agent said.

Extra points

Ted Ginn signed a one-year deal with the Bears this past week to extend his career to 14 seasons, which is mind-blowing. For a Patriots comparison, imagine Aaron Dobson having a long, productive career after flaming out in New England. Ginn, the No. 9 pick in 2007 with world-class speed, was a bust for the Dolphins, the symbol of everything that had gone wrong for the franchise. He lasted three years in Miami and three years in San Francisco, and had this incredible stat line in 2012: 13 games, 2 catches, 1 yard. But Ginn finally hit his stride in 2013, and for most of the last seven seasons has been a reliable deep threat for the Panthers and Saints. “I can still run,” Ginn, 35, told Bears media. “I can run, I can catch, I can jump. Don’t let the age and the years fool you.” . . . Speaking of remarkable signings, running back Frank Gore is back for one more run at age 37, signing a one-year deal with the Jets. He is slowly checking off each team in the old AFC East. In the last four years, he has played for the Colts, Dolphins, Bills, and now Jets. All that’s left is playing for the Patriots in 2021 . . . Dak Prescott and the Cowboys may be at an impasse over his contract negotiations, but he doesn’t have to be worried about Andy Dalton taking his job. Dalton, making $3 million for one year, is simply a cheap insurance policy in case Prescott holds out, or gets hurt. And he’s an upgrade over the previous backup, Cooper Rush. The Cowboys are talented enough that Dalton could keep their Super Bowl hopes afloat should they need him . . . Updating an item from last week, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa announced that he will go with jersey No. 1 instead of 13, which was his number in college and is Dan Marino’s retired number with the Dolphins. The only other active quarterbacks to wear No. 1 are Kyler Murray and Cowboys undrafted rookie Ben DiNucci. Free agent Cam Newton wears No. 1, as well.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.