Bill Belichick abhors the concept of “individualism” in football. You’ll remember that for the Patriots’ first Super Bowl championship in the 2001 season, the players ran out of the tunnel as a team instead of being introduced individually.
“Football is the ultimate team sport,” Belichick said a few years ago. “We compete as a team, we win as a team, we lose as a team.”
But the NFL in 2020 is going to be unnaturally individual, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the NFL to play this fall, the league, in coordination with the NFL Players Association, had to institute strict social distancing protocols at team facilities, which were distributed to teams this past week.
And while teams will be together for three hours on Sundays, the players and coaches will largely be on their own throughout the week.
“I think it’s going to be challenging for everybody, not just the younger guys,” Patriots running back James White said. “We usually have 2½ months of working together and forming that camaraderie, forming those relationships. At the snap of a finger you’ll be playing a game, so it will be challenging for everybody across the league and we’ll see who can face that adversity.”
Instead of 53 players beating in unison all day, teams this fall will have 53 individual contractors, all operating on their own schedules. Players, coaches, staffers, and employees will be divided into tiers and given various levels of access to the team facility based on job function. Separate entrances must be created for football staff and non-football staff.
And from there, a player’s interaction with the rest of his team will be quite limited. The NFL’s protocol requires that the team facilities be reconfigured to allow at least 6 feet of spacing at all times. That means rearranging or moving furniture, modifying common areas, establishing one-way traffic in the hallways, and spacing out lockers at least 6 feet apart.
Quarterbacks won’t be allowed to bring a receiver into his locker stall to discuss the intricacies of route running. Rookies won’t bond over sharing lockers during training camp. There will be signs posted around the facility discouraging handshakes, hand bumps, and other forms of contact. Players won’t be able to share water bottles or towels.
It also means staggering appointments and meetings throughout the day, or holding them virtually. Instead of players coming in on Monday and Tuesday for film sessions with their position coaches and teammates, the protocol essentially recommends that players do them from home. “Meetings must be conducted virtually to the extent possible,” the protocol states. “Any administrative, playbook, and advanced work should be conducted on a personal electronic device.”
Teams also have to make sure their players stagger appointments with training and medical staff. Injured players likely won’t be able to work out and rehab together, which could make it tougher for players to motivate.
And the days of building camaraderie with full-team activities are over for now.
That means no more full-team weightlifting periods. Instead, workouts must be limited to groups of no more than 15, which means they likely will be done in shifts, possibly by position.
Full-team meetings likely won’t happen in person anymore unless they are done outside. Forget about team-building activities during training camp like paintball or “rookie skit night.”
Full-team meals are gone for now, too. Teams are expected to stagger player meal times, and serve premade meals “in takeout form.” Buffet-style or self-serve food spreads are prohibited (even coffee bars and fueling stations).
And players might not even see many of their teammates throughout the day. With meetings and workouts now staggered, the full team may only be together for just a couple of hours at practice every day. Even then, the full-team periods may be limited to 20-30 minutes. And players may have to leave practice at different times to manage the crowd in the locker room and showers.
These are major reforms for a sport that is often slow to embrace change. And the NFL hasn’t even released its protocol yet spelling out what will happen when a player or coach tests positive for COVID-19.
“To be quite honest with you, it’s impossible what they’re asking us to do. Humanly impossible,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Thursday on Baltimore’s 105.7 The Fan. “We’re going to space, we’re going to have masks. But, you know, it’s a communication sport. So if we want to get out there and have any idea what we’re going to be able to do, we have to communicate with each other in person. We have to practice.”
Of course, as one longtime NFL source reminded me, there are the rules, and there are “the rules.” The NFL said it is going to conduct spot checks to ensure teams are complying with distancing rules, but realistically, the league probably won’t be able to force everyone to obey the protocol to the letter of the law.
“I’m pretty sure the huddle is not going to be 6 feet spaced,” Harbaugh said. “Are guys going to shower one at a time all day? Are guys going to lift weights one at a time all day? These are things the league and the [Players Association] needs to get a handle on and needs to get agreed with some common sense so we can operate in a 13-hour day in training camp.
“Now maybe we’ll know more in two months and they’ll be able to be a little more realistic and practical in what they’re asking. But the way I’m reading these memos right now, you throw your hands up and you go, ‘What the heck? There’s no way this can be right.’ ”
Football may be the ultimate team sport. But in 2020, the NFL is going to be every man for himself.
IN NEED OF AN UPGRADE
Kaepernick could help
Though Roger Goodell admitted the NFL was “wrong” in how it handled player protests the last few years, and the NFL has been an active participant in community rallies the past two weeks, there’s still the matter of Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment.
Kaepernick, 32, may not be the same dynamic player that led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012. But he proved at a workout last fall that he still has plenty of zip on his fastball and is deserving of an NFL job as one of the best 80 or so quarterbacks in the country.
I count at least 11 teams in which Kaepernick would be a great scheme fit, and/or an upgrade over their current backup. Here they are, ranked by those with the greatest need:
1. Jaguars: Kaepernick might be better than every quarterback on their roster (Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon, Josh Dobbs, Jake Luton).
2. Bears: Same as the Jaguars (Mitchell Trubisky, Nick Foles, Tyler Bray).
3. Titans: Kaepernick would be a great scheme fit behind Ryan Tannehill, and possibly an upgrade to current backups Logan Woodside and Cole McDonald.
4. Cardinals: Kaepernick would be a good fit behind Kyler Murray, and would probably be an upgrade over Brett Hundley.
5. Panthers: Kaepernick might be better than backups Will Grier and P.J. Walker, plus David Tepper is building a reputation as one of the league’s most progressive owners.
6. Ravens: Kaepernick would be a perfect scheme fit behind Lamar Jackson, and he may be better than the current backup, Robert Griffin III. Ravens fans would love Kaepernick, too.
7. Texans: Kaepernick seems to make much more sense as a backup to Deshaun Watson than does A.J. McCarron.
8. Patriots: He would give Josh McDaniels a unique weapon and better depth at quarterback, and could be great on the scout team to help prepare the defense for scrambling QBs.
9. Bills: Kaepernick is much more similar to the playing style of Josh Allen than are current backups Matt Barkley and Jake Fromm.
10. Falcons: He’s not the best fit behind Matt Ryan, but Kaepernick would be insanely popular in Atlanta and would be a more functional backup than Matt Schaub, Kurt Benkert, or Danny Etling.
11. Seahawks: Kaepernick is a good fit behind Russell Wilson, may be better than Geno Smith and Anthony Gordon, and has a fan in coach Pete Carroll.
Will owners offer support?
A question still lingers over the season: Will the NFL support players who kneel or otherwise peacefully protest during the national anthem? As I wrote this past week, it’s nice that Roger Goodell has spoken up, but it is far more important to hear from the 32 owners whether they will embrace any protests in the name of social justice.
So far, one owner has spoken up unequivocally: the Titans’ Amy Adams Strunk.
“I support our players using peaceful protests and their platforms to advance us as a nation,” Adams Strunk said as part of a larger statement.
And two head coaches have stated that they will allow protests this fall, ostensibly with the support of their owner. One is Washington coach Ron Rivera.
“I support it because it's in the Constitution,” Rivera said. “We should be supportive of people's rights, their right of free speech."
And the other is the Texans’ Bill O’Brien, who told the Houston Chronicle he may join his players in kneeling.
“The players have a right to protest, a right to be heard, and a right to be who they are,” O’Brien said. “They’re not taking a knee because they’re against our flag. They’re taking a knee because they haven’t been treated equally in this country for over 400 years.”
Otherwise, the owners have been noticeably quiet on the issue, choosing instead to hide behind statements from Goodell and their teams.
“It’s not pulling them like it is the rest of the country,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told reporters this past week. “Because if it was, then they’d speak. Jerry Jones, especially, has no problem speaking up any other time about anything else. But when it’s such a serious issue, and he could really make a huge impact on it with a few words, his silence speaks volumes.”
Goodell stated this past week that the NFL does "encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.” And on Thursday, the NFL announced it was committing $250 million over 10 years toward initiatives that help combat racism, with an unnamed person quoted as saying the NFL would be willing to work with Colin Kaepernick with off-field work.
But if the owners were serious about social change, they would do more than throw money at the problem. Not only is Kaepernick still not employed by an NFL team, but Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s most vocal supporter who last season continued to kneel for the anthem, also is currently unemployed despite starting all 16 games for the Panthers and leading all defensive backs with 130 tackles.
If the NFL really is going to team up with Kaepernick on social justice interviews, Goodell or someone needs to say so on the record. Having an unnamed executive slipping it to an NFL.com reporter doesn’t cut it.
Until more owners state unequivocally that they support peaceful protests, and until Kaepernick and Reid are given legitimate chances at employment, the NFL’s support of social justice initiatives will ring hollow.
Pioli calls out voter suppression
While the owners sit quietly, almost everyone else in the NFL has done a tremendous job of connecting with communities and using their platforms to protest social injustices. Never before have we seen entire teams participate in peaceful protests, or executives marching to state capitols, or teams donating to so many different social causes.
There are too many examples of positive community outreach to list, and highlighting one is not meant to elevate it over others. But a tweet from former Patriots, Chiefs, and Falcons executive Scott Pioli calling out voter suppression in Georgia stuck out to me as something that would not have happened in the NFL of just a few weeks ago.
“I registered for an absentee ballot w/ Fulton Co. months ago,” Pioli tweeted. “It arrived less than week prior to election. I’m absent, I needed it sent to me so I can complete & send back in time. I was unable to vote in GA because THEY delayed. My vote will not count. #VoterSuppressionInGeorgia.”
Panthers owner David Tepper found a loophole to get rid of the Jerry Richardson statue outside of Bank of America Stadium, and swiftly brought it down on Wednesday. Richardson, the team’s founding owner, was forced to sell the Panthers in 2017 following a long list of allegations over sexual misconduct and racial hostility. The terms of Tepper’s purchase required him to keep the Richardson statue at the stadium, but the team was allowed to take it down this past week over safety concerns that protestors might attack it. Bringing down this statue was long overdue … The Steelers have been training at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., every year since 1966, but that streak will end this year because of the pandemic. The Steelers’ training facility isn’t big enough to adhere to distancing guidelines during training camp, so instead the team will hold camp at Heinz Field, utilizing the home and visitors’ locker rooms … July 15 is an important date for Dak Prescott, Joe Thuney, and the 12 other players given the franchise tag this season. If they can’t get long-term extensions by then, they can only play the 2020 season under the terms of their franchise tag … Sign of the times: The Packers are sending out team-branded masks to their season ticket-holders this summer, as posted by a fan on Twitter … Per OverTheCap.com, only 22 percent of draft picks had signed their contracts as of early this past week, compared with 85 percent last year … The Pro Football Hall of Fame says the 2020 enshrinement ceremony is still set for early August, with hopes of having full attendance (around 10,000). “Give us the green light, and we’ll show folks how it can be done safely for fans, safely for participants, and safely for the employees here,” Rich Desrosiers, vice president of communications for the Hall, told CBSSports.com … If a player gets sick this fall, he may have to miss at least two weeks before returning, and players who came in close contact with him may have to sit out, too. Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians quipped on Chris Long’s podcast that he may have to keep a quarterback in isolation. “I might have to quarantine a quarterback just in case,” he said.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.