There is a popular if not cliché phrase that football coaches use to prepare their teams: “Next man up.”
Football is a brutal sport, injuries happen, and backups need to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice and play at a high level.
That phrase will take on new meaning for the 2020 season as the NFL attempts to play its season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The players aren’t the only ones who need backups this year.
If an athletic trainer catches the virus, he has to quarantine away from the team and follow the protocols. Same with an equipment manager. And an offensive coordinator. And the head coach. And the owner.
Everyone directly associated with the football team — split into Tier 1 (players, coaches, trainers, etc.) and Tier 2 (food service, additional coaches and trainers, front office employees) — will be treated the same, as outlined in the protocols negotiated by the owners and NFL Players Association.
If you test positive, you’re out — at least five days if you’re asymptomatic, and at least 10 days if you show symptoms.
It creates the possibility for a strange and unsettling sight — the Patriots playing a game without Bill Belichick on the sideline. Belichick has coached 361 games with the Patriots, and I’m not sure he has ever missed a game in his 46-year NFL coaching career. But if he tests positive for COVID-19 at any point this season, there will be no way around it: He will have to follow the protocols, and he will have to quarantine away from the Patriots until he is ready to return, even if it means missing games.
The same goes for Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, John Harbaugh, Josh McDaniels, and everyone else in the NFL universe — even the owners, assuming they designate themselves as Tier 2 employees.
“No question, you have to have a backup ready for everybody this year,” one AFC executive said. “You kind of have that anyway, but this year is especially important. No one knows how this is going to go.”
And staying away means staying away. No one will be allowed to step foot on the premises until they are cleared by the medical staff. The NFL and NFLPA say they are going to strictly enforce the rules.
Belichick, for example, wouldn’t be allowed to coach a game from a club suite or an isolated booth at Gillette Stadium. Same with McDaniels or any other member of the coaching staff. Belichick or McDaniels could potentially communicate with the coaches in the press box via Zoom or Skype during games, but that is hardly the same as being on the sideline and coaching the team. Losing a head coach becomes doubly challenging when he also calls plays, such as the Eagles’ Doug Pederson or the Rams’ Sean McVay.
A quarantine can be done at home, and coaches will be able to participate in virtual meetings and still be heavily involved in game planning. If a person can’t quarantine in his home because of other family members, the team will be required to provide a hotel room or other housing.
The protocols also call for another bizarre possibility — having to leave somebody on the road. The rules are clear that following a positive test there is no travel permitted. Should anyone test positive for COVID-19 while on a road trip, that person has to be moved immediately to a different part of the hotel, and has to ride out his quarantine in that hotel, possibly for 10 days or more. Imagine the Patriots taking on the Broncos while Belichick or Cam Newton are eating room service in Kansas City.
Obviously, some positions are easier to replace than others. A general manager or front office employee can do much of his job remotely, and position coaches or advance scouts are easier to replace than coordinators or a head coach. But every coach plays an important role, however small it may be — the quality control coach who is in charge of scouting third-down plays, or the wide receivers coach who game plans the red-zone plays, or the defensive line coach who is in charge of substitutions and scheme adjustments during the game.
Teams are going to have to spend the first few weeks of training camp cross-training their coaches to make sure the linebackers coach can take over for the defensive line coach, and the tight ends coach can handle the offensive line, and so on. They’ll need to designate backup kickers, and backups to the backup kickers. They’ll need to plan for the possibility that some of the medical and training staff will get sick and won’t be available.
Normally, the preseason is the perfect time to test the backups and work out these kinks. Even before the pandemic, teams such as the Patriots would often use the fourth preseason game to let other coaches call plays, and to do a dry run of other emergency situations.
But the entire 2020 season will be an emergency situation. And with the owners agreeing to eliminate all preseason games, teams will be forced to jump right into the deep end when the season starts in Week 1.
Good luck, teams. Next man up.
DEAL WITH IT
A closer look at agreement
On Friday night, the NFL and NFLPA wrapped up their four-month negotiation and finalized all of the special rules needed for playing the 2020 season amid a pandemic. Saturday’s column highlighted the major points: a reduced training camp schedule, players get prorated salaries for games played (with any remaining guaranteed salary getting rolled over to 2021), a $175 million salary cap floor in 2021, a two-tiered opt-out for those who are high-risk and those who aren’t, and new roster rules.
Let’s take a look at more of the details:
▪ It looked like a big win for the NFLPA when word came out that COVID-19 will be considered a “football injury” this year. When a player goes on the “non-football injury” list — usually reserved for players who injure themselves playing basketball, working out on their own, etc. — a team can withhold some or all of a player’s salary. But players who contract the virus during the season will simply go on a commissioner’s exempt list, and won’t have to worry about teams coming after their salaries or roster spots.
Except there are major caveats to this in the fine print. If a player tests positive during the initial screening of training camp, it will be considered a non-football injury (a player can come off the NFI list at any time during camp). And during the season, if a team can prove that a player contracted COVID-19 by acting irresponsibly, it can label it a non-football injury and go after a player’s salary. The NFL and NFLPA created a list of high-risk activities, which include things such as going to a crowded bar.
▪ What happens to incentives if the season is cut short? If a player has one based on playing time — say, $500,000 for appearing in 70 percent of a team’s snaps — he will earn the full incentive no matter how many games are played, as long as he reaches 70 percent.
But if a player has a specific stat incentive — for example, a $1 million bonus for reaching 4,000 passing yards — he still has to reach 4,000 yards, whether his team plays 16 games or one.
▪ If the season gets canceled during training camp, every player who earned an accrued season in 2019, plus all rookies, will get a $250,000 stipend. For non-rookies who didn’t play a full 2019 season, it’s a $50,000 stipend.
If the season is canceled in the middle of the season, players on the active roster would get a $300,000 stipend, reduced by whatever amounts were already earned. Practice squad players get $100,000, minus what they have earned.
If no games are played, every player’s contract will toll to 2021. If even one game is played, contracts will not toll.
▪ Any player who decides to opt out will keep his health insurance. And anyone who opts out will have his contract toll. If a player takes an opt-out as a high-risk individual, he gets an accrued season and a credited season for benefits, free agency, and minimum-salary purposes. Those who opt out but aren’t high-risk don’t get an accrued or credited season.
▪ Each team has its benefits reduced by $17 million, but they will get paid back to players in 2023. Other benefits such as the Proven Performance Escalator (which guarantees raises for low-round draft picks who outperform their contract), Performance-Based Pay (similar concept), Pro Bowl pay, playoff bye week pay, and 401k matches won’t be paid out this year, either, and likely not until 2023.
Getting it wrong in Washington
Daniel Snyder officially changed his team’s name to the Washington Football Team for the 2020 season. The previous, racist name came down from the team website and letterhead and the locker room. Yet in classic Snyder fashion, he’s still bungling the process.
First, it should be noted that Snyder didn’t decide to drop the team’s former nickname because he suddenly saw the light. He did it begrudgingly, after getting called out by his top sponsors, getting a talking-to from Roger Goodell, and knowing that an explosive report detailing a culture of sexual harassment inside his organization was about to be released by the Washington Post.
Second, Snyder has shown an embarrassing lack of preparation for having to change the name. Only this past week did he hire a new chief marketing officer to handle the new team name and logo. The ordinary timetable for a major rebranding effort in sports is at least a year, with research, designs, marketing, and so on.
This issue of his team name is hardly new for Snyder, who has been told for at least a decade that he needs to change it. Not only did he staunchly refuse, he apparently didn’t even quietly conduct the process behind the scenes. The fact that he’s starting from scratch is a joke.
Third, Snyder still can’t get out of his own way. In hiring his new chief marketing officer — Terry Bateman, who happens to be a longtime Snyder associate — Snyder may have run afoul of the league’s Rooney Rule, which was expanded this year. Teams are now required to interview minority and/or female candidates not just for head coach and coordinator jobs, but also for every executive position that becomes available on the business side. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which helps police the Rooney Rule, spoke up this past week when Snyder hired his buddy, and the NFL is now looking into the matter.
Snyder did make some progress this past week by hiring women to two key positions: Diana Hymowitz was added as a football operations assistant, and broadcaster Julie Donaldson is now the team’s lead media voice, becoming the first female play-by-play announcer in the NFL.
But Snyder could not be any clumsier or ham-fisted in changing his team’s name and internal culture.
Record on diversity is defended
NFL chief revenue officer Renie Anderson wrote an interesting column this past week for NFL.com in response to the Washington Post report in which 15 employees and two media members alleged the Washington Football Team created an environment of pervasive sexual harassment.
Anderson mentioned her experiences of being demeaned in pro sports, but wrote the piece mainly to defend the NFL’s diversity record. Anderson correctly noted that the NFL has women in at least 15 key executive roles, including chief operating officer, chief security officer, and senior vice president of football operations.
“The list of women in senior roles with a seat at the table on the most important issues is growing and we shouldn’t dismiss this progress or these women,” Anderson wrote.
But it’s also not the whole story. The league office in New York may have a diverse workforce, but the teams mostly do not, as the top team executives are overwhelmingly white males.
The NFL had to expand the Rooney Rule this spring to include all business-side employees because teams weren’t even interviewing female and minority candidates for jobs such as team president and chief financial officer. The league has just three minority GMs and four minority head coaches. And while there are a handful of female high-level executives such as the Bills’ Kim Pegula, the Bengals’ Katie Blackburn, and the Titans’ Amy Adams Strunk, there are no female executives who aren’t married to or related to the team’s owner.
Anderson makes a fair point that the NFL league office has strong female representation. But the teams are still mostly a boys’ club.
Chiefs right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif became the first player to announce he is taking the opt-out and not playing in 2020, and he’s doing it for all the right reasons. Duvernay-Tardif, who would be entering his seventh season, graduated from medical school in May 2018 (though he doesn’t have a specialty yet), and during the pandemic has been assisting at a long-term medical facility in his hometown in Quebec. “Being at the front line during this offseason has given me a different perspective on this pandemic and the stress it puts on individuals and our healthcare system,” he announced Friday night. “I cannot allow myself to potentially transmit the virus in our communities simply to play the sport that I love. If I am to take risks, I will do it caring for patients.” Duvernay-Tardif, 29, was supposed to make a $2.75 million salary and $2 million in incentives this year (his contract will toll to next year). But he will likely keep a $750,000 roster bonus he earned in April … Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians probably has no business coaching football this fall. At 67, he’s already considered high-risk for bad COVID-19 symptoms. Arians is also a three-time cancer survivor — prostate (2007), skin (2013), and kidney (2016). But Arians is willing to risk it, saying he trusts his team to keep a clean environment. Arians also may double up with a mask and shield just to be safe. “I’ve got to be real careful,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “Being in an indoor stadium, that worries me a bit more. And I’m really concerned about the away hotels and away locker rooms. That’s a big point of emphasis. The ventilation in those locker rooms is terrible with guys getting out of the showers and getting treatment.” … The Chiefs sure are getting chatty after winning their first Super Bowl and re-signing Patrick Mahomes and Chris Jones to massive contracts. After Jones promised five Super Bowl titles, a teammate said that wasn’t good enough. “Right now we’re just chasing [Michael] Jordan, so that’s what we do,” Tyreek Hill said via ESPN. “So I’m going over five [Super Bowls], and I’m saying seven.” Tom Brady adroitly chimed in on Twitter. “Totally agree @cheetah. Why not go 7 rings.”