In the NFL, June and July usually mean vacation: travel, beaches, fireworks, and a much-needed break from football.
But 2020 is no ordinary year. If the NFL and NFL Players Association want to even think about getting in a season amid a global pandemic, the next five weeks will be jam-packed with work as they hammer out all of the necessary details that have yet to be completed.
Two weeks ago, the NFL revealed the social distancing guidelines that will need to take place at team facilities this fall, plans that include spacing out lockers and meeting area, ending buffet meals, and limiting the size of workouts.
But social distancing is just one part of the complicated equation. Here is a look at what else the NFL and NFLPA need to figure out before training camps start in late July:
▪ How often everyone will be tested. This is obviously a big one, as the only way the NFL will be able to pull off a season is with frequent testing and quarantining. Find the positive cases and isolate them quickly before they have a chance to spread the virus to others. And testing would include every employee in the building, not just players.
There is no consensus in the medical world yet as to the appropriate amount of testing needed. Some experts believe daily is needed, others believe once a week could be enough. The German Bundesliga is testing its players twice per week. NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer mentioned this past week that the NFL may test its players three times per week.
They also need to determine when the tests would happen. Will players be tested on game day, and do they need to pass a test in order to play?
Plus, there’s a major wild card — the possibility that the country isn’t producing enough daily tests. Mayer said the NFL wouldn’t consume an undue share of tests.
“While the information we currently have indicates it will not be an issue in the near future, we all agree that ethically, we cannot as a non-essential business, take resources away from our fellow Americans,” Mayer said in a statement.
▪ What happens when a player tests positive. To ensure uniformity across the league, the NFL needs to create a protocol that determines how long a player, coach, or employee must sit out after he or she tests positive. Will it be a minimum of 10 days or two weeks? Will it be based on two negative tests? A combination of both?
And what about people who were in close contact with those who test positive — will they have to be quarantined for the same amount of time, or tested more often?
This past week, one Tampa Bay assistant coach tested positive and two other coaches went into quarantine. A league source said they have to stay away from the team facility based on public health guidelines and the doctor’s care. But the NFL will probably need something more uniform than that once the season starts.
▪ New roster rules. As commissioner Roger Goodell and others have stated, positive tests are going to happen this fall. The NFL will likely need to increase its roster sizes and create a special roster designation to account for the number of players who are likely to miss time.
As of now, the NFL will allow teams to bring back three players off injured reserve in 2020, and the league could simply increase that number. But since players must be out at least eight weeks to return from IR, a separate designation just for COVID-19, in which a player could potentially return to the active roster after two weeks, makes more sense.
And the NFL needs to increase practice squads to give teams a larger reserve of players. NFL Network reported this past week that the league is talking about increasing practice squads from 12 to 16 players, but that doesn’t sound like enough. I’d increase practice squads to 20 or 25 players, to also account for the fact that practice squad players could get sick. It’s not like the NFL can’t afford it — each additional practice squad spot costs the owners just $142,800 in salary.
▪ What to do with helmets. The NFL already has determined that players won’t be required to wear masks when they are exerting physical effort (workouts, practices, and games). But they still may get extra protection on their helmets.
Mayer and the NFLPA held a conference call with several hundred agents this past week, and one participant passed along that the league is working with Oakley on developing some sort of face shield. It certainly won’t completely prevent the spread of germs, but it could help catch some of the big droplets.
▪ What to do with fans. For now, the NFL is going full-ahead with plans to play all 16 games, on time, in front of full stadiums. The Patriots reiterated as such in a letter to season ticket-holders this past week.
But that’s just a placeholder. Realistically, the number of fans allowed in a stadium won’t be determined until closer to kickoff in September. The NFL is creating contingencies for all scenarios — full stadiums, socially distanced stadiums, and empty stadiums.
And it’s certainly not as simple as just opening the doors and letting fans in. Will fans be forced to sit 6 feet apart, or will fans sit in pods? Will they sit in all parts of the stadium? How will lining up for the bathroom and concessions work? Will extra screening be needed at the gates?
The NFL may ultimately decide it’s easier to just shut out the fans. One league source said this past week that each team has a number of fans needed to attend a game in order to turn a profit, and it may be more than the number of fans allowed with social distancing. The NFLPA estimated on the agent call that no fans in the stands would cost the NFL about $3 billion in revenue.
▪ How practices will be structured. Training camps are supposed to start in five weeks, and teams still don’t have guidance on how they can conduct practices. We know that players cannot share towels and water bottles. But will teams be forced to do more individual periods and fewer team periods? Will they try to enforce at least 6 feet of distance between teammates during drills and in the huddle? Will they ask players to hit the locker rooms and showers at different times to avoid crowds?
These distancing protocols for practice will be important. Several experts agree that players are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 from a teammate than from an opponent.
▪ What to do with players who don’t want to play. This doesn’t seem likely, as pretty much everyone in the NFL wants to get paid this season, and doesn’t want to lose a year of his career. But no one will force a player or coach to work this year if they don’t want to. The NFL needs to come up with a unique designation for such players, which could result in a player sitting out the year, not getting paid, and having his contract toll a year.
▪ The media policy. Certainly, media access will be limited, and presumably the locker room will be closed to the media for the season. But will the NFL still have news conferences during the week and after games? How many reporters will be allowed in the building? Will media have to get tested as often as players and coaches? Or will everything get shut down and all media interaction take place on Zoom for the next year? Hopefully, it’s not the latter, because it will be important to have journalists present at practices and games to chronicle this unique season.
TALK IS CHEAP
Action needed on Kaepernick
One story this past week revolved around the seemingly growing momentum for Colin Kaepernick to get signed by a team this season. Coach Anthony Lynn said that Kaepernick fits the Chargers’ offensive system and that “it would be crazy not to have him on your workout list.” And Raiders owner Mark Davis told ESPN that “since 2017, I’ve told the coaches and general managers that if they want to hire Colin Kaepernick, they have my blessing.”
Both are good sentiments, but basically amount to a whole bunch of nothing. If the Chargers wanted Kaepernick, they’d sign him — or at least work him out. Same with the Raiders. But nothing is in the works. The Chargers are sticking with Tyrod Taylor, Justin Herbert, and Easton Stick for now, while the Raiders are going with Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, and Nathan Peterman.
“I haven’t spoken with Colin, not sure where he’s at as far as in his career, what he wants to do,” Lynn acknowledged. “I’m very confident and happy with the three quarterbacks that I have, but you can never have too many people waiting on the runway.”
Sorry, Chargers, but you don’t get credit for being the first team to look at Kaepernick since he was blackballed out of the league following the 2016 season. Not until you schedule an actual workout or bring him in for a real visit.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty is one person who believes the NFL needs Kaepernick back in the league.
“Last year I was one of the guys when he had that workout, I thought it was bogus. I didn’t think it was a real opportunity for him,” McCourty said this past week on ESPN. “But I think he needs to be heard now even more than back in 2016. You know, we all kind of cut him off and didn’t really embrace him the way we should have.
“I think it’s time now to bring him into the fold. If the NFL really wants to be involved in this, they need to make sure they elevate his platform and let him speak and let him do the work he’s been doing.”
The NFL is shut down for now, but Kaepernick deserves legitimate workouts with teams once training camps begin.
Injuries starting to crop up
The pandemic has created a nightmare scenario for coaches, with players spending the last four months living and training on their own and not under team supervision. Sure enough, players are starting to get hurt.
The 49ers’ receiving corps took a hit when two players suffered injuries. Deebo Samuel, who had 802 yards and three touchdowns last year as a rookie, announced that he broke his foot while working out in Nashville. The injury typically has a 12-16-week recovery time, but Samuel said he hopes to be back in 10 weeks, which could get him back on the field before the regular season. And Richie James broke his wrist while working out and should be out for two months, according to NFL Network.
The Eagles lost Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks for the season to a torn Achilles’ tendon. It’s possible the Eagles will call the Patriots to inquire about Joe Thuney, but it probably makes more sense for them to patch up the position with low-cost options for a year instead of trading for Thuney, who will make $14.781 million this year and isn’t under contract past 2020.
Those are just the injuries we heard about. The first few days of training camp will likely be filled with stories of guys showing up with injuries.
And then there’s NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, who was seen tumbling over a parked jet ski on a beach in Florida. Jackson was fine, but the fact that he was playing beach football probably caused a few minor heart attacks at Ravens headquarters, given the infamous story of Patriots running back Robert Edwards blowing out his knee on the beach 21 years ago. Nothing in Jackson’s contract prevents him from playing beach football, but he should probably cut it out.
Long overdue move in Washington
Two weeks ago, it was the Jerry Richardson statue coming down outside of the Panthers’ stadium. This past week, it was the plaque and memorial honoring former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall to come down outside the old RFK Stadium in Washington, which was long overdue.
Marshall was no man to celebrate. As the owner of the Boston and Washington Redskins from 1932 until his death in 1969, Marshall was the last NFL owner to integrate his team, waiting until 1962 to do so, a shameful 15 years after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. And Marshall only made the move, trading for Bobby Mitchell, under threat from then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
But while bringing down the Marshall memorial was long overdue, there is still the overriding issue of the team’s shameful nickname. The team can support player protests and Black Lives Matter and honor Juneteenth, but it all rings hollow until the name is changed.
I get the feeling that the NFL was none too pleased with Dr. Anthony Fauci’s comments to CNN this past week that cast doubt on the NFL being able to pull off a season. A source inside the league office relayed that the NFL has been working diligently on its plans with experts from the CDC, Duke University, and several others, but that Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “hasn’t engaged at all” with the NFL and hasn’t offered any help or guidance. The statements from the NFL and NFLPA in response to Fauci make it clear they don’t want to get into a public spat with him, but I would venture that the NFL wants Fauci to talk a little less, and help the league out a little more … Jets safety Jamal Adams requested a trade and had his agent leak it to the media, but I don’t see Adams going anywhere. He’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player under contract for two more years and only $13.4 million, which is great value … Hue Jackson has the ultimate mark of shame for a football coach — an 0-16 record in 2017 — on his résumé. But that goose egg might help put some money in his pocket, as Jackson revealed a couple of weeks ago that he is writing a book. Jackson’s book will likely center around his three years with the Browns (2016-18), in which he went 3-36-1 and drafted Baker Mayfield. Without the 0-16 season, Jackson probably doesn’t get a book deal.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.