The NFL and its players face a massive challenge in trying to play the 2020 season, as I explored in a story this past week.
The NFL will have to undergo an extensive system of testing and quarantining, and institute widespread cleanliness and social distancing protocols at stadiums and team facilities. Even then, no one knows if the NFL can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 well enough to keep enough players healthy and maintain competitive balance throughout a five-month season.
Life inside the NFL will be much different for one, if not two, years. Here’s a deeper look at some of the most significant changes in the new normal, and what may go away completely:
▪ No more “flu games” ― Michael Jordan famously scored 38 points in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals with the flu. Walter Payton once ran for 275 yards with the flu. Tom Brady battled through the flu to lead the Patriots to a 41-27 win over the Steelers in the 2004 AFC Championship game.
But none of those heroics will happen in 2020, and for who knows how long. Part of the NFL’s plan to open team facilities includes mandatory temperature checks for all employees who enter the building, and those who have a temperature higher than 100.3 will be sent home.
Several experts expect this practice to continue throughout the season.
“I think you’d have to have somebody assigned at the door who asks the typical questions,” said Chris Peduzzi, a former trainer with the Eagles for 19 seasons: “ ‘Are you experiencing any signs or symptoms of being sick? Cough, heavy breathing? Have you been in contact with anyone that you know of that has been sick?' And then you take their temperature.”
So not only will “flu games” not happen, but players won’t be allowed to practice, either, even if their illness has nothing to do with COVID-19. This is one reason why the NFL may need to expand practice squads this year.
▪ Reduced huddling ― If players are getting tested frequently, and they’re smashing up against each other during a play anyway, then banning the huddle may seem a bit overboard. But data and anecdotal evidence suggest it may not be the worst idea for teams to reduce huddling as much as they can.
CDC guidelines for contact tracing state that a “close contact” is when a person is within a 6-foot radius of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Massachusetts guidelines have the time period at 10-15 minutes.
In a three-hour football game, players spend much more time standing in close proximity of teammates than they do with their opponents. A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that only the guards, centers, defensive tackles, and linebackers — the players in the thick of the trenches — were most susceptible to spreading infection. Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, and defensive backs don’t spend much actual time engaged with an opponent.
Meanwhile, players stand next to their teammates all game long, between huddling, lining up before a play, and sitting on the sideline.
“There’s going to be some close contact in blocking, but it’s going to be brief,” said Dr. Davidson Hamer, professor of global health at the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine. “But I do agree that the risk is greatest within a team for transmission.”
So it makes sense for a football team to spread out as much as possible, just in case one player does pick up the virus from a player on another team. And that could mean reducing the huddle as much as possible.
▪ No team get-togethers ― Playing on a football team usually means partaking in team bonding experiences — practices, meetings, workouts, meals, outings, training camp activities, and so forth.
Not anymore. Many NFL teams may not have a room or area big enough to allow 65 players, plus 30-plus staff members, to sit at least 6 feet apart.
“Even the auditorium isn’t big enough for social distancing,” Peduzzi said.
If finding a large enough space isn’t possible, teams may instead have tohold team meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Players will have to eat in shifts in cafeterias, and team-bonding trips are done for now.
Even practices may have minimal full-team work. Full-team stretching doesn’t make much sense, nor does having too many players use the weight room at one time.
“The players at practice are gathered by position 90 percent of the time, and they’re going off into small groups by position,” said Thomas Gill, the Patriots’ team doctor from 1998 to 2014. “Even at halftime, the offense is on one side, the defense on the other. If you have a position coach and you have the players coming to the facility at different times by position, there’s no reason you can’t mitigate the risk.”
▪ More virtual meetings ― It’s not just the full-team meeting that may stay virtual even when the NFL returns. The players’ positional meeting rooms are definitely not big enough for social distancing.
Almost every day in the NFL, players sit in a classroom environment going over film with their teammates and position coaches. But those sessions will have to be moved to larger rooms — perhaps each position will get a shift in the main auditorium throughout the day, or each position could get its own club suite in the stadium — or moved online.
“You don’t all have to be seated around one screen” to do film study, Gill said.
Players shouldn’t expect to spend 8-10 hours per day in the team facility anymore. Each position could have its own schedule, to space the players throughout the day.
▪ Reduced access on Monday and Tuesday ― Monday is either a day for film work and on-field corrections, or an off day for players. Tuesday is always an off day. But players still come to the facilities anyway on those days, for workouts, treatments, and extra film study.
Not in 2020, though. Players will still come to the facility for medical treatment and rehab. Otherwise, visits to the facility will be kept to a minimum. If Brady wants that extra film session or workout with the trainers, he’ll probably be asked to do it at home.
▪ Face coverings on the field ― There are doubts as to whether players can wear any sort of mask during games that could 1) allow them to breathe well, and 2) still work effectively. But “I’d be surprised if the NFL didn’t find a way to make everyone wear a clear shield on the facemask,” said David Chao, formerly the Chargers team doctor for 17 years. “It doesn’t do everything it’s supposed to, but it’s better than nothing.”
And even though everyone will be tested frequently, and most games will be played outdoors where the threat of transmitting the virus is less, coaches should still expect to wear masks on the sidelines during practices and games.
“Bill Belichick’s going to like it, because it gets rid of all the lip readers,” Chao quipped.
Fewer rules proposals on table
The NFL won’t be debating many new rules proposals for the 2020 season. But there are definitely a few interesting ones on the docket for next week.
The NFL didn’t hold its March or May owners’ meetings because of the pandemic, and instead are holding virtual sessions this month to take care of a few important items.
The first meeting came last week, during which the NFL enhanced its minority hiring practices and discussed the latest with COVID-19 and reopening team facilities. On May 28, the owners will hold a second meeting, this time to discuss new rules proposals for the 2020 season. There are only seven this year, down from 15 to 25 in a normal year.
Five proposals came from the teams, including one from the Eagles that could eliminate the onside kick. The Eagles propose that a trailing team have the option to keep the ball after a score with a fourth-and-15 play from the 25-yard line in lieu of an onside kick. Considering a fourth-and-15 play would bring more excitement to the end of games, and would be far safer than an onside kick, this long-discussed proposal could become a reality in 2020.
And even though the NFL’s rule to allow instant replay for pass interference calls was scrapped after one ill-fated season, the Ravens and Chargers are adamant about giving the officiating crews more help with instant replay. Those teams joined forces on two proposals — one to add a “booth umpire” to the officiating crew, and one to add a “senior technology adviser to the referee” to assist the crew. The second has a better chance of getting passed, based on the NFL’s reluctance in the past to add an official to the crew who isn’t on the field.
Two more rules proposals are from the competition committee, which means both should pass. One is expanding defenseless player protection for kickoff and punt returners who don’t have time to ward off an opponent’s contact. The second is closing a loophole in the rules that allowed a team to manipulate the game clock by committing multiple dead-ball fouls while the clock is running.
You’ll remember the Patriots exploited this loophole in the fourth quarter of their Week 3 win over the Jets, and the Titans turned the tables on the Patriots in the fourth quarter of their wild-card win in Foxborough.
The owners are also expected to vote on expanding from two to three the number of players who can return in-season from injured reserve.
Chung, team good partners
A few Patriots-related notes:
▪ In what has become an annual tradition, the Patriots signed Patrick Chung to a new contract this past week that gave him a pay bump for 2020 and also lowered his salary-cap number.
Under Chung’s old deal, he was set to make between $2.9 million and $4 million in 2020, with a cap number of $6.058 million. Under his new deal, he’ll make between $4.1 million and $6.25 million, with a cap number of $5.13 million. Chung is signed through 2023, but the four-year deal was mostly for cap purposes, and he’s likely on a year-to-year plan.
This marks the fifth straight year that the Patriots and Chung have reworked his deal prior to the season, showing the strong relationship and trust between the team and player. Chung gives the Patriots the cap flexibility they need by going year to year, and he probably leaves a little money at the table. But the Patriots have held up their end of the bargain, coming through with a pay increase in each of the last five seasons. And the Patriots have given Chung a long, productive career, now entering its 12th season.
Bill Belichick must still really love Chung, because he’s going to be 33 in August, and is coming off a bit of a down season with injuries. And the Patriots seemingly have several replacements on the roster, between Terrence Brooks and newcomers Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. But Chung is a reliable, physical, and versatile player who does a little bit of everything for the Patriots’ defense, and Belichick wants him back for another run.
▪ Meanwhile, yet another example that the salary cap means nothing: The Patriots entered the NFL Draft with a league-low $1 million in cap space, they drafted 10 players, and all it took to fit all 10 under the salary cap was James Develin retiring and Chung getting a pay raise. Develin’s retirement created about $800,000 in cap space, which allowed the Patriots to fit in everyone but Dugger, the top pick. Chung’s pay raise created about $1 million in space, and later that day the Patriots signed Dugger. As of Friday the Patriots had a little more than $930,000 in cap space, per the NFLPA. More space will be created when players are released in training camp.
▪ For my story about all of the changes and challenges teams will face with COVID-19, David Chao, the former Chargers doctor, posited that “teams that have continuity will have an advantage” in 2020. I agree. With offseason workouts basically canceled, and the severe restrictions going to be put in place at team facilities, it’s going to be much easier for teams with the same players and systems from last year to succeed than it will be for a team such as the Panthers, who have an entirely new coaching staff and new starting quarterback.
It is likely one big reason why the Patriots are sticking with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer for 2020 instead of signing someone such as Cam Newton or taking a quarterback in the draft. Stidham and Hoyer know the Patriots’ system, know their teammates well, and know what is expected of them on a daily basis.
Restructured Rooney Rule
Before agreeing to enhance the Rooney Rule by requiring more minority candidates be interviewed and expanding the types of jobs to which the rules apply, the NFL had a proposal to reward a team with improved draft picks if it hires a minority coach. This proposal upset many people in and out of the league, particularly among minority communities.
“It was offensive, definitely offensive,” former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told the Baltimore Sun. “It was like having Jim Crow laws.”
Lewis was happy with where the NFL ended up, however. The Rooney Rule now applies to coordinator positions and assistant general manager positions, and teams are not allowed to block interviews.
“This will be a plus requiring more than one minority to be interviewed because it will cause [teams] to take a deeper dive,” Lewis said. “This will allow more minorities more opportunities.”
The NFL is turning into a bizarro universe when it comes to contracts. The Cowboys and Dak Prescott are at a stalemate in their negotiations over a long-term contract because the Cowboys want Prescott to sign a five-year deal for cap purposes, while Prescott reportedly refuses to sign anything over four years. In most sports, players fight for the longest contract possible. But as with Kirk Cousins signing a three-year, $84 million, fully guaranteed deal with the Vikings in 2018, NFL players have realized that shorter contracts are the way to go, since long-term contracts give the teams all the control in later years, and are usually just puffed up with non-guaranteed money that the player will never see … Roger Goodell’s icy heart must be melting. Pass rusher Aldon Smith, suspended since the second half of the 2015 season, was reinstated last week and is trying to revive his career with the Cowboys. Fellow Cowboys pass rusher Randy Gregory, suspended for the 2019 season, is working through his reinstatement and hopes to be back. And Josh Gordon, suspended again last year shortly after arriving in Seattle, posted workout pics on Instagram and reportedly hopes to be reinstated for 2020, as well.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.