If you do happen to attend an NFL game this year, you’ll probably want to take a picture at the stadium, and keep your digital ticket stub. Only a small, select group of people will get to partake in the game-day experience in 2020.
The kickoff game in Kansas City is less than two weeks away, and nearly 75 percent of the NFL has already ruled out hosting fans at its home opener. Put another way, only three teams — the Cowboys, Chiefs, and Dolphins — have promised to have fans in the seats for their first game of the season. Another six teams are hopeful to have fans but don’t yet know if local authorities will approve their plans.
Even with fans in attendance, it won’t be a normal game-day experience. The Chiefs will only have 20 percent attendance (about 16,000 fans) for their first three home games, which includes an Oct. 4 visit from the Patriots. The Dolphins will allow 13,000 fans through the gates on Sept. 20 to see the Bills, with no tailgating allowed, and entry times listed on a fan’s ticket, among many other restrictions. All fans will be required to wear masks at any game this year, as well.
The Cowboys don’t have a concrete plan yet, other than owner Jerry Jones’s guarantee that they will have fans at games.
“We all know the importance of leading the way,” Jones said this past week on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. “We’re very unique in our stadium relative to just space, and we’re going to take advantage of it.”
So far, the NFL’s 32 teams can be split into four groups:
1. Will definitely have fans (until told otherwise): Cowboys, Chiefs, Dolphins.
2. Hopeful to have fans for the opener: Cardinals, Panthers, Browns, Colts, Jaguars, Buccaneers.
3. Have already ruled out fans for the entire season: Raiders and Washington.
4. Will not have fans for the home opener/September/until further notice: 21 teams, including the Patriots.
For now, a few teams, including the Titans and Rams, are allowing fans to pay for their photo to appear on a cardboard cutout sitting in the end zone, with proceeds going to the team’s charitable foundation.
Bills coach Sean McDermott said this past week that “it’s honestly ridiculous” that some games will be played with fans and others won’t, citing competitive balance. As it stands, the Patriots would only have two of 16 games in front of fans — at Kansas City in Week 4 and at Miami in Week 15.
Of course, with only 20 percent capacity, crowd noise won’t be much of an issue. The Patriots catch a break this year in playing road games at what are usually the two loudest road venues in the NFL — Seattle and Kansas City. An NFL spokesman said Friday that the league is finalizing its plans for artificial crowd noise — who controls it, how loud it can get, whether it can be used in games where there are fans in attendance, and so on.
But there will be unique issues to playing in empty or near-empty stadiums. Josh McDaniels said earlier in training camp that he will have to be careful about speaking too loudly and getting picked up by cameras. Bill Belichick said that it will be tougher for players to bring energy to a game, without the raucous home crowd or hostile road crowd factoring in.
“If there isn’t much energy in the stadium, which we’re not expecting, then obviously it’s up to us to not count on the fans to give us that energy boost,” Belichick said. “Now, we’d have to obviously bring our own energy at home.”
While Washington and Las Vegas have ruled out fans, most teams are taking a wait-and-see approach. The collective bargaining agreement requires teams to seek ways to maximize revenue, and every dollar earned is extra revenue for teams and extra salary-cap money for the players.
But for many teams, the economics of bringing a small percentage of fans through the gates don’t add up. When factoring the costs associated with staging a game — security, food vendors, repurposing spaces, and more — teams are barely turning a profit when they’re only allowing 15,000 fans through the gates.
Chiefs president Mark Donovan said this past week that bringing fans to early home games was more about the experience than the revenue. The Chiefs are raising their Super Bowl banner on Sept. 10.
“The numbers don’t pencil out,” Donovan said Wednesday via ESPN. “So this isn’t about that. This is about creating an experience and continuing the experience at Arrowhead, giving our fans the opportunity to be there for some really special moments. To some it may sound a little bit contrived, but honestly, we’re raising a banner on Sept. 10. We want our fans to be a part of that. We’re really struggling with the fact only 16,000 are going to be a part of that live and in person. That’s a lifelong memory.”
All eyes will be on Kansas City early in the season, to see if it is feasible to have fans in the stadium, and if allowing more is possible.
“We take the responsibility very seriously,” Donovan said. “We know that other teams and other leagues are going to be looking at us. What makes us comfortable is our plan. It’s critical that everybody follow protocols. If they do, we feel pretty confident that we can do this.”
HE’S A BELIEVER
Harper: Newton not to be doubted
Former NFL safety Roman Harper didn’t much care for Cam Newton when they were NFC South rivals from 2011-13 — Harper with the Saints and Newton with the Panthers. Then Harper joined the Panthers in 2014 and was Newton’s teammate for two seasons, which included a trip to the Super Bowl.
“I had an opinion about Cam in that I thought he was selfish, I thought he was a ‘me’ guy — the same things you probably heard,” Harper, now an analyst for the SEC Network, said in a recent conversation. “But when I actually became his teammate I couldn’t have been more wrong. He’s really all about everybody else around him. He loves being around his teammates in the locker room, he loves having a great time, and I couldn’t have been more wrong about him.”
One takeaway from Patriots training camp is how seamlessly Newton appears to be fitting in with his new teammates. He has only been in Foxborough for a month, but he already has a unique handshake with most of his offensive teammates, and is constantly screaming for and encouraging his teammates.
Newton’s situation in New England is far different than what he was used to in Carolina. There, he was the franchise quarterback from the day he was drafted and was always known as The Man. In New England, Newton is playing on a minimum salary and has to compete for the starting job.
But Harper believes that Newton has the temperament to handle his new situation well. Newton’s career included a stop at junior college after he essentially got booted from the team at the University of Florida.
“I think he’s already been humbled by the fact that he’s not in Carolina anymore,” Harper said. “I mean, junior college alone is humbling for anyone that has to go through that path. He worked his way through it, he won the starting job at Auburn, became the No. 1 overall pick, and he earned his way to being the quarterback that he is now.”
Newton won national championships at junior college and at Auburn, was an NFL MVP, and led the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance. Harper believes Newton will have a good season in New England.
“I think he’s healthy for the first time, and I think he’s hungry,” Harper said. “And I personally would never doubt somebody that’s been successful at every turn of their life.”
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Drama for Jets, Giants, Bills
The last few weeks of training camp have been a little weird for the three New York teams (OK, the Jets and Giants are technically in New Jersey).
For the Giants, new coach Joe Judge seems to be making a new headline each day with unusual tactics. This past week, he had players practicing with tennis balls taped to their hands to teach them not to hold. Judge, the former Patriots special teams coach, also said he wants second-year quarterback Daniel Jones to practice without a red, noncontact jersey, so he gets used to taking a hit before the season opener.
The idea makes sense but is risky and unusual for the NFL.
“I have the strength staff downstairs right now putting bars of soap in socks and we’re just going to take him out back and just wale on him for a while,’' Judge cracked. “I don’t think we’re going to throw him into any royal rumbles or anything like that. We’ll pop his pads a little bit in a controlled environment.”
The Jets, meanwhile, are dealing with a spat between the coach and a star player that has spilled into the public (what else is new?). Coach Adam Gase has been cautious with running back Le’Veon Bell, limiting his practice reps and pulling Bell from a recent scrimmage because of hamstring tightness.
But Bell took to social media Wednesday to say, “Ain’t nothing wrong with my hamstrings,” and complained about his lack of practice time.
“I need to PRACTICE to be great in GAMES!!! Duh,” Bell tweeted. “It’s tough to stay loose when you do a bunch of standing around … & I’m used to GOINGGG.”
And out in Western New York, the Bills reportedly suspended its in-house multimedia reporter and radio host for violating the NFL’s media rules for training camp, according to The Athletic.
Teams have been cracking down on the rules this training camp since fans have not been allowed into camps, and several reporters have been admonished by team PR departments this year. But a team suspending its in-house reporter for breaking the rules is a new one to me.
Bethel-Thompson chasing the dream
One headline this past week that you probably missed: Toronto Argonauts quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson opted out of his contract with the CFL and is now a free agent for any NFL team looking to sign him.
But this headline made me do a double-take. Four years ago, I wrote about Bethel-Thompson’s journey, using him as an example of how tough it can be to stick around in the NFL. At the time, he had transferred from UCLA to Sacramento State, had been released by an NFL team nine times, had been through about 20 tryouts, and played for two leagues that are now defunct.
Bethel-Thompson has since joined the practice squad of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, played in The Spring League, signed on as the Toronto Argonauts’ fourth quarterback, and worked his way up the depth chart to start 21 games for the Argos the past two seasons. In 2019, he threw for 4,024 yards and 26 touchdowns for a 105.4 rating. He also has been working toward a master’s degree in education.
Bethel-Thompson, 32, hasn’t gotten another chance with an NFL team yet. But he’s still chasing the dream.
Snyder still doesn’t get it
Daniel Snyder may have hired a new female broadcaster and the first minority team president in recent weeks, but he still doesn’t get it. When the Washington Post released another report this past week detailing several more examples of sexual harassment and toxic culture inside the team facility, Snyder released a statement calling the article a “hit job.”
A few hours later, the football team released a different statement, slightly different in tone and, per the Post, without Snyder’s input:
“We are deeply distressed by these terrible allegations and are committed to investigating them fully. Our priority is creating a culture where our employees — on and off the field — are respected and empowered.”
Not only does the new report increase the number of employees who accused the football team of sexual harassment from 15 to 40, it also directly implicates Snyder, who has squandered the team’s brand and fan base in his two disastrous decades as owner.
The team hired attorney Beth Wilkinson last month to conduct an investigation, with the NFL’s blessing. Even with the recent report, the NFL is still allowing Washington to hire its own investigator.
But commissioner Roger Goodell has to step in immediately and order a truly independent investigation, as attorneys for the sexual harassment victims are demanding. And if Goodell and the NFL owners are smart, they’ll find a way to get rid of Snyder once and for all.
The NFL doesn’t know how soon prior to kickoff players will get tested for COVID-19, as it is still being debated by the owners, the players’ union, and medical experts. The issue last weekend, when 77 coaches and players had false positives because of a lab error, shined a light on the reality that some players and coaches may have to miss a game because of a false positive. Once anybody has a positive test, he has to undergo two other tests to confirm the positive or rule it out, and, “It does take time to confirm some of these test results,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer … Marcus Cannon wasn’t the only Patriots player to be considered a “high-risk” opt-out. According to NFLPA records, running back Brandon Bolden is also considered “high risk,” entitling him to a $350,000 stipend for the season … Strange Training Camp Injury of the Year: Seahawks safety Jamal Adams practiced Tuesday with a big wrap on his left hand after nearly slicing his finger off while cutting strawberries. The cut required stitches, but Adams is fine … Of course Bill Belichick knew off the top of his head on Friday that there are more than 60 differences in the rule book between the NFL and college football. “I think the more that we can make it consistent for players and coaches in all leagues and the fans, as well, that that’s a good thing,” he said … An average of 179,000 people watched the third episode of “Hard Knocks,” making it the least-watched episode in series history, per Sports Business Journal. The concept of going behind the scenes of a football team just isn’t as compelling as it used to be. And it doesn’t help that the two teams they picked, the Rams and Chargers, are a little bland.
Quote of the week
“I thought it was one of the Colts’ old tapes that they used to pump all that sound in the RCA Dome. I was telling Coach Clyde [Christensen] he must have pulled that one out of his basement for today’s practice.”
— Tom Brady, on the artificial crowd noise at the Buccaneers’ scrimmage on Friday. Christensen, now Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks coach, was a Colts coach from 2002-15.