The craziest and most unique NFL season is now two weeks old. Everyone is getting tested daily for COVID-19, wearing masks, staying socially distant when possible, and large group sizes are limited at the team facilities.
Bill Belichick has been a fan of the new setup.
“Right now I think it’s a good working environment,” he said Friday. “We’re getting a lot done, and the organization has taken a lot of steps to ensure everyone’s safety and opportunity to do their job, and do it safely and do it productively.”
Let’s take a closer look at how everything went with opt-outs and testing over the first two weeks:
▪ The opt-out window closed Thursday at 4 p.m., with 67 players officially taking the NFL up on its opt-out provisions. Not surprisingly, 34 of the 67 players are “trench” guys – 21 offensive linemen, nine defensive tackles and four defensive ends. Wide receiver had the second-most opt-outs at 11, but it’s also one of the largest position groups in the NFL. No quarterbacks or specialists took the offer.
It is unclear how many of the 67 are considered high-risk and how many are voluntary — the NFL did not announce which players fell into which categories, likely for privacy reasons.
▪ All things considered, 67 players out of about 2,600 is not a significant number of opt outs (about 2.6 percent). Only a handful of players are truly impactful — Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Nate Solder, C.J. Mosley, Marcus Cannon, Lawrence Duvernay-Tardif and Ja’Wuan James. Other than a few starting nose tackles, most other opt-outs were backups and borderline players.
Players overwhelmingly want to play football, even amid a pandemic. Careers are short, and the money is too good.
▪ Frankly, the NFL is lucky that most star players didn’t use their leverage and opt out of the season, as I wrote last week. If you’re wondering why the NFL owners were so adamant about moving up the opt-out deadline, this is why — they didn’t want to give the star players much time to realize how much money they had at risk this season if games get canceled. But the star players had plenty of leverage last week, and should have asked for a restructured contract with most of the 2020 pay up front.
Bills receiver Stefon Diggs noticeably got a pay increase last week. Let’s see if Dak Prescott or Aaron Rodgers, who could potentially lose millions this year if games get canceled, get restructured deals with most of the money up front at the end of camp.
▪ Twenty-nine of 32 teams had at least one player opt out, with the Steelers, Falcons and Chargers avoiding it. The Patriots led all teams with eight, followed by the Browns with five.
▪ The opt-out decision is binding and irrevocable, and no one will be able to opt out of the season now unless a family member becomes hospitalized or if someone develops high-risk symptoms. But players had to make their decisions before they even had a chance to put on their shoulder pads and go through one practice. As the realities of the season start to set in, players may decide they don’t want to go through with it anymore, but will have no choice.
“We didn’t have much time,” Lions linebacker Jamie Collins said Thursday. “We don’t know how close it’s going to hit home and we don’t know the impact it’s going to have when it do hit home, if it do.”
Expect players to put a lot of public pressure on the owners later in the season to allow guys to opt out.
▪ Now the COVID testing. The NFL has not released statistics about testing, as the league is still sorting through the data of the approximately 75,000 tests it has run over the first two weeks. But on Thursday the NFL Players Association stated that 56 players had tested positive since the start of training camp July 26. Assuming about 2,600 players, that’s a positivity rate of about 2.2 percent. The NFL could not confirm that number.
The agreement between the owners and players stated that COVID testing would switch to every other day if the positivity rate is below 5 percent through the first two weeks of camp. But NFLPA president JC Tretter said that the players will still push to continue daily testing.
“We will continue to learn from our errors, other leagues’ errors, and I think that’s something [daily testing] we need to look at and something we need to push,” he said Thursday.
▪ As of Friday, 103 players had been placed on COVID-IR in 13 days of testing. But that doesn’t mean 103 players had tested positive. According to the NFLPA’s numbers, as many as one-third of the players went on COVID-IR simply for having close contact with someone who tested positive. The Dolphins, for example, placed six players on COVID-IR Thursday, but reportedly did not have an outbreak and were simply being cautious.
▪ Some teams certainly seemed to be more cautious than others about putting guys on COVID-IR. As of Friday, Miami led the league with 14 players, followed by Jacksonville with 12 (many have since come off the list). But the league average is about three per team, and six teams still have not had a player go on COVID-IR: Arizona, Carolina, Houston, LA Chargers, New England and Seattle.
▪ The NFL is in a tough spot with the COVID-IR list, as highlighted by the Matthew Stafford situation last week. Stafford tested negative his first two days of camp, and positive the third day. The Lions, per the NFL’s protocols, immediately placed Stafford on the COVID-IR list.
The NFL does not announce whether a player tests positive or simply is a close contact, out of privacy and respect for the player. But the NFL does have to announce when a player goes on COVID-IR, for transparency’s sake (particularly for gambling). And the public at large doesn’t understand that you can go on the COVID-IR list even if you’re not positive.
Stafford’s wife, Kelly, wrote in an Instagram post that she and her children got harassed at a grocery store and a playground the next day, and that their childrens’ school wouldn’t accept them. Stafford subsequently tested negative, and it was determined that he had generated a false positive test.
“Maybe we should be absolutely positive a person has covid before releasing that info to the world,” Kelly Stafford wrote on Instagram.
Friday, the NFL announced that it had tweaked its testing protocols in response to false positives, though it may not directly solve the Stafford problem. Now if any player or coach tests positive for the first time, and he is asymptomatic, the NFL will give that person two additional confirmatory tests within the next 24 hours to ensure that he is positive. But the player will still go on COVID-IR when he has a positive test and is awaiting his other results.
The situation also exposes how false positives may significantly impact the season. If a player gets a positive test on a Saturday or Sunday, he likely will have to miss his team’s game while awaiting the results of his confirmatory test.
It is an unfortunate side effect of playing through a pandemic.
“We’re going to have to accept that players may be out of the team environment for a day or two while we do these confirmatory tests,” NFL medical director Dr. Allen Sills said Friday. “If we’re going to make a mistake, we want to make a mistake being cautious and not in the other direction.”
Belichick sees value in Zoom meetings
▪ Bill Belichick said Friday he and his coaching staff learned pretty quickly this spring that virtual meetings can be long and boring. So they tried to limit large team Zooms in favor of sessions with four or five people. And they also came up with various competitions among among the small groups to keep the players engaged.
Belichick said the virtual meetings worked well enough that he may continue to use them in future years.
“I talked to a number of college coaches — they were in a lot of cases ahead of us on this because of spring ball,” Belichick said. “Collectively, I thought things went better than I thought they were going to go, to tell you the truth. Going forward, it might be something that I probably would have never even considered a year ago. Now having a pretty significant amount of experience with it, I could see where there might be a place for it in the future.”
▪ NFL games will be played in front of few, if any, fans this year, which will make it a lot quieter inside the stadiums. Josh McDaniels said it will be more important this year to watch copies of TV games to make sure he’s not giving away any secrets.
“You can’t change your language,” McDaniels said. “You probably will self-scout yourself a little bit more with the television copy, because they have mics all over the place. I think right now I’d go into the season and just say we’ll be smart and do what we do, and if there’s a pattern that develops or a tendency that’s showing up, then we’ve got to figure out how to adjust that and protect that.”
▪ New Patriots quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch said he got professionally acquainted with Belichick in 2011 when Fisch was the offensive coordinator at the University of Miami. But Fisch said he met Belichick about 30 years prior, when Belichick was a Giants coach.
“In 1983 when I was 7 years old, Bill came and spoke at a special teams clinic at West Essex High School in New Jersey,” said Fisch, 44.
▪ The Patriots received $4 million in cap space last month from settling a grievance with receiver Antonio Brown, and $2.55 million in a settlement with Aaron Hernandez’s camp. The Patriots agreed to let Brown keep his $5 million signing bonus payment (not bad for one game), but Brown agreed to waive the $4 million payment that was due on Jan. 15.
As for the late Hernandez, the cap credit is smaller than the expected $3.25 million (the final installment of his signing bonus that the Patriots didn’t sign). Hernandez’s camp sought $6 million in a 2013 grievance, and the settlement entitled him to $3.45 million and $2.55 million for the Patriots, though it is unclear how those numbers were reached.
Home away from home
Ex-Patriot Martin wants Hall to be year-round destination
Curtis Martin was a running back by trade, and knows how to keep his feet churning even when his momentum has been slowed. He’s taking the same approach now as a board member of Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Company, which is trying to bring “Disney World” to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio amid a global pandemic.
Despite the downturn, Martin and the company are continuing with plans for the Hall of Fame Village — a massive complex surrounding the Hall of Fame, with retail, dining, hotels, health care, office buildings and a water park they plan to open in 2022. The company already has built out the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium and the National Youth Football and Sports Complex, and now wants to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame a major year-round destination.
“As ‘gold jackets,’ we feel that the Hall of Fame is like our second home. That’s the place we say you can’t even die from that group,” Martin, 47, said last week. “So the entire [company] is doing something we’re really proud of. They’re not just making a better experience for football fans, but they’re also creating a better experience for us.”
Martin, a five-time Pro Bowler with the Patriots and Jets who last played in 2005, said he jokes with his wife that he could still rush for 800 to 1,000 yards. But he is happy spending his time with his business pursuits and the Curtis Martin Job Foundation, which he established during his playing career to help single mothers.
“I’m really enjoying my post football career,” he said. “My story was that football wasn’t my first love, but I also saw football as the vehicle to position me to do a lot of the things that I actually love, like serving other people and creating businesses.”
“I put 12-15 percent of every check I ever received in the NFL toward my foundation. Now with all my other businesses, I put between 20-25 percent. So football has been a tremendous blessing for me, and it has helped me realize some of the things that I always wanted to do outside of the game. I’m busier now than when I was playing.”
Whatever kept Vic Beasley away from Titans camp for 10 days, hopefully it was worth it. The veteran pass rusher signed a one-year deal worth up to $12 million this offseason, but Beasley didn’t report on Day 1. It’s possible he was considering an opt-out, but he never told his coaches, and he never communicated anything to the Titans, who put him on the Did Not Report list. Beasley’s 10-day holdout cost him $500,000 in fines, per the collective bargaining agreement. And the Titans can’t even waive the fines if they want to, as the fines are mandatory per the CBA. Beasley was the only holdout this year, proving again that one of the biggest wins for the owners in the last two CBA negotiations was getting hard-line rules that heavily punish holdouts The Saints, who as of Friday had just two players go on COVID-IR, have been staying healthy by reverting to an old training camp trick — renting out a hotel. With New Orleans hotels struggling, the Saints rented out four floors of the Loews Hotel in the French Quarter and are encouraging everyone on the football staff — coaches and executives in addition to players — to stay there as much as possible. NFL rules state that teams can’t force players to live in hotels, but the Saints are trying to create their own mini-bubble. “We are certainly trying to be smart and limit our outside contact,” Sean Payton told reporters …Pretty sure we have seen the last of DeAndre Baker in an NFL uniform for a while, if not forever. Baker, the 30th overall pick in 2019, was officially charged with four counts of robbery with a firearm in Broward County, Fla., on Friday, accused of stealing cash and watches from four men at a house party in May. Baker is looking at a minimum of 10 years in prison, and even if he is exonerated, he is likely facing NFL discipline. Seahawks cornerback Quinton Dunbar, also implicated in the case, was far luckier than Baker. Dunbar did not have charges filed against him because of insufficient evidence … Adrian Peterson told NFL Network he has two more goals: Catching Emmitt Smith for the all-time rushing title, and winning a Super Bowl. Peterson, 35, is 4,139 yards behind Smith, and plays for the Washington Football Team. Good luck with both of that.