The news brought a great deal of relief to football fans July 24, when the NFL and NFL Players Association announced that they had resolved all their issues and agreed to rules for the 2020 season. Training camps could start on time and everyone’s attention could turn to the action on the field, instead of the negotiating table.
Except, as I found out in the last week, the deal is hardly done. The fine print of Roger Goodell’s statement announcing a return to football was that the deal resolves “all outstanding issues relating to the opening of training camps and the start of the 2020 season.”
Some of the key economic terms for the regular season, however, still have not been settled. As the NFLPA wrote in a memo to players last Monday, the owners and players are still finalizing a “side letter” that hammers out many of the important economic details needed for the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is rather astounding that the NFL and players didn’t have every detail ironed out by now, and even more astounding that they went ahead with the start of training camp without having definitive answers to some important questions.
For example, the player opt-outs that hit the NFL last week. The general details have been agreed to: Those that are considered “high-risk” can get a stipend of $350,000 for the season, while earning an accrued season for benefits purposes; those that are “voluntary” opt-outs can get a $150,000 salary advance, which will be taken out of next year’s salary, and don’t receive an accrued season.
But there is still much about the opt-out that is unclear. Such as: Will players be forced to pay back the $150,000 loan next year if they get cut by their teams? One NFL agent said the answer “wasn’t written specifically” into the summary of the agreement provided recently by the NFLPA.
The answer appears to be yes. It is likely why undrafted rookies and players who didn’t earn an accrued season last year are not eligible for the $150,000 advance — i.e. the players probably couldn’t pay it back. Unless a player has a guarantee in his contract, he will probably have to cut the NFL a check next year if he is released and doesn’t play football again. But the players still don’t have definitive guidance on this yet.
Nor do the players know when the deadline is to decide on whether to opt out. This detail is kind of important — the opt-out is supposed to be irrevocable, and some players have millions at stake. The deadline was originally touted as Aug. 3, but it’s really “seven days after the side letter is agreed to.” Every day that the owners and players don’t have a deal pushes the deadline back.
Another issue that remains open: The circumstances under which a team can claim a player acted irresponsibly in contracting COVID-19 and go after his money.
The owners and players agreed that any player who comes down with the virus during the season will have it considered a “football injury,” which entitles the player to his full salary — unless the team could prove that the player contracted it from a “high-risk activity.” As of now, that is defined as attending the following places with more than 15 people: Indoor nightclubs, indoor bars, indoor concerts/entertainment events, and (ironically) sporting events — also an indoor religious service with more than 25 percent capacity. Teams can try to get the player listed as a “non-football injury,” which allows the team to withhold salary. A team may also be able to discipline a player for conduct detrimental for engaging in a high-risk activity.
Yet as the NFLPA wrote in a memo last week, “the issue remains open.” Now that players are passing their initial screening and will be subject to these rules, it’s kind of important that the owners and NFLPA finalize the language.
Another major question that somehow still has no answer: What happens if the NFL has a team with a major COVID-19 outbreak like the Miami Marlins? Would the NFL postpone or cancel games like Major League Baseball did last week?
“We are working on those details with the union,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Thursday.
Surely, the league and the PA have several contingency plans and scenarios that they are weighing. Many terms of the deal that have already been negotiated include scenarios with a canceled season or shortened season. And they still have six weeks before an NFL game is played to figure out the rest. But it seems rather incredible that they didn’t have this scenario settled long ago.
The Marlins situation also conjured another important question that still has no answer: Do the NFL owners have a mechanism to shut down the season before Week 1?
There is a fascinating dynamic at play with the NFL now, in which it’s actually the owners who likely have more concerns over starting the season than the players.
If no games are played this season, no player gets paid a dime and 2020 is a wash. But if even one game is played, every guaranteed salary becomes fully guaranteed — a player would make $8 million whether there is one game or 16. The Marlins situation certainly has to make NFL owners a little nervous that the season will inevitably get shut down, putting them on the hook for potentially hundreds of millions in salary for games that aren’t played.
So if training camp gets messy with players testing positive, can the owners unilaterally shut down the season before Week 1? Will they need consent of the NFLPA or medical experts? The answer, of course, is not known. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement does have a no-strike/lockout provision, but it is not certain whether that applies.
It’s great that the NFL and NFLPA were able to agree to a general framework of a deal and get training camp started on time. But here we are, a week into the start of the camp, and we still don’t know the full rules pertaining to the opt-outs, the full terms of “high-risk activity,” what the NFL will do if a team suffers a COVID-19 outbreak, and if the owners have the power to shut down the season if too many players test positive.
Those are kind of important questions. How were they not settled before training camp began?
A test they all want to pass
Some updates on the first week of training camp, which mostly entailed COVID-19 testing and virtual meetings:
▪ Through Friday, a total of 74 players on 25 teams had been placed on COVID-IR, with five players also coming off the list. Leading the way are the Jaguars and Vikings with eight apiece, followed by the Lions (seven), Bills, Falcons, and Dolphins (five each). The Patriots are one of seven teams that still don’t have a player on COVID-IR.
But we don’t yet know how many tests the NFL has administered, and how many players tested positive. Some players on COVID-IR may be there simply because they had a close contact with an infected person. And Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL‘s chief medical officer, said the NFL has had some cases of “persistent positives,” with some players testing positive last week despite being cleared of the virus for several weeks or months.
In a media call Thursday afternoon, Sills declined to provide the NFL’s early testing data. But he did say the “testing is going very well” and promised “radical transparency” in terms of sharing data with the media and public throughout the year.
▪ Another group that may benefit from the NFL’s data are public health officials around the country. The NFL will be conducting daily or every-other-day testing to approximately 5,000 people of various ages and body sizes, living in different parts of the country.
“We want to make sure we have good, accurate data,” Sills said. “We’re going to have a window into the state of the pandemic in 32 different communities around the country. We recognize that just by virtue of the size of our operation, we’re going to have an enormous amount of very important and instructive medical data in a very short period of time. And we think it’s important to share that to the benefit of everyone.”
▪ Couldn’t help but notice that Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson was placed on COVID-IR last week. Johnson is the same person who brought a few dozen offensive linemen to Dallas a few weeks ago for the OL Masterminds summit and workshop, instead of holding it virtually. While everyone there received a COVID-19 test, videos from the event showed few masks, little social distancing, and even a wing-eating contest. Color me shocked that Johnson arrived to camp and tested positive for COVID-19.
▪ NFL owners and players are at a bit of a crossroads over the Oakley face shield that was designed for this season — players generally hate it, while owners want the players to wear them.
Update on the face shields the NFL developed with Oakley to prevent the spread of Covid: The expectation is they will be recommended but NOT required for players, a source informed of talks between the NFL and NFLPA says. The league had been pushing for them to be worn by all. pic.twitter.com/ikar8AmEF0— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) July 23, 2020
Sills said that the design is not finalized and player feedback will be welcomed.
“We’re trying to find with the face shield that sweet spot where we’ve got something that offers increased protection, but does not hinder performance,” Sills said.
Beasley’s absence crosses fine line
Now for a few updates pertaining to actual football:
▪ Pass rusher Vic Beasley is getting a fresh start in Tennessee after five up-and-down seasons in Atlanta, but it’s not going well. Beasley, who signed a one-year deal in March for $9.5 million fully guaranteed, plus $2.5 million in incentives, didn’t report to Titans camp on time last week, and it wasn’t excused.
“I have been in contact with Vic, he is not here, he understands his absence is unexcused, and he told me he will be reporting to camp in the near future,” Titans GM Jon Robinson said in a statement.
Beasley will incur fines of $40,000 for each day of camp that he missed, and the Titans can’t waive them even if they want to. The fines are mandatory and are written into every player contract.
▪ The Buccaneers’ Twitter account posted a video Wednesday of Tom Brady, in shorts and a T-shirt, throwing balls to a few receivers at the team’s practice facility. It caused a bit of a stir on social media because the training camp calendar lists Aug. 3 as the first day that quarterbacks and receivers can start throwing footballs.
But an NFL spokesman said that the activities were OK because the Bucs’ quarterbacks and rookies reported earlier than other players and had passed the initial testing phase. The video the Bucs posted seemed to have more players than just rookies, but the NFL doesn’t see anything wrong.
▪ Niners coach Kyle Shanahan provided fascinating insight into how he calls offensive plays on the podcast of Chris Simms of NBC Sports. A coordinator’s playbook has hundreds of pages, and a play for every scenario, right? Shanahan said he might only have 30 plays in a game, but endless ways to make them look based on alignments and personnel packages.
“It almost becomes math. There’s all these different ways to do it, and it never stops, and it’s throughout the game,” he said. “You’ve got to find ways that it looks different, but your quarterback is doing the same thing he did the first day you met him — he is taking a hitch and throwing to 1, if he’s not there he’s going to 2, and if someone’s not there he’s checking down to No. 3, and that never changes.”
Have pair been given boot?
NFL training camps have begun, and, for the first time since 1995, Adam Vinatieri isn’t on a roster. For the first time since 2006, Stephen Gostkowski isn’t on one, either.
Colts GM Chris Ballard said last week that the team’s kicking competition will come down to Chase McLaughlin and Rodrigo Blankenship, meaning that Vinatieri, 47, won’t be back for a 15th season in Indy. Vinatieri struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness last year, making a career-low 68 percent of field goals and missing six extra points. Should this be it for Vinatieri after 24 years, he will walk away as the NFL’s all-time leading scorer (2,673 points) and a four-time champion.
Gostkowski, released by the Patriots in March after 14 seasons, also remains unsigned as he returns from hip surgery. Gostkowski’s best bet for a 15th season may be with the Giants, who currently don’t have a kicker and are coached by Joe Judge, Gostkowski’s coach for years in New England. The Titans, coached by Mike Vrabel, also have an uncertain kicking situation.
Now that Antonio Brown’s fate is settled with an eight-game suspension, my hunch is that the certainty leads to him getting one more job, with the Ravens as the favorite (followed by the Seahawks, Saints, and Bucs). Lamar Jackson has been talking him up a lot, and John Harbaugh was the first coach to not rule out signing Brown. The Ravens could bring Brown in for camp, get him acclimated to the system, cross their fingers that he stays out of trouble during his suspension, and hopefully bring him back for Week 10 (which happens to be against the Patriots in Foxborough) . . . Can’t decide which is more ridiculous: Rob Gronkowski getting a “95” rating in the new Madden game after sitting out for a year, or Tom Brady getting ranked as the 14th-best player in the NFL Network’s Top 100 despite Brady finishing last year ranked 19th in passer rating, and 27th in completion percentage and yards per attempt . . . Did you know: Former Patriots and Titans cornerback Logan Ryan, currently a free agent, last year became just the seventh player since the sack became a stat in 1982 to join the 4-4-4 club: sacks, interceptions, and forced fumbles. The others: Wilber Marshall (1986, 1991) Darryl Talley (1991), Rod Woodson (1992), Sam Mills (1995), Adrian Wilson (2006), and Thomas Davis (2015) . . . The NFL announced Friday that Subway is a new sponsor, which probably explains why Bill Belichick was recently in Connecticut filming a commercial. The sandwich chain will be associated with the league’s youth initiatives — the sponsor of the NFL Flag football league and a supporter of its NFL Play 60 campaign. My middle-aged dad take: Couldn’t they have found a healthier sponsor than Subway?
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.