The Patriots kick off their season Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium against the Miami Dolphins, but things aren’t going to be the same as in years past.
For one thing, no fans will be in attendance.
“I rehabbed throughout the offseason here,” said cornerback Jason McCourty. “I’d go running in the stadium and look up and be like, ‘Man, is this kind of what games are going to be like? Just us out here playing?’ ”
Patriots officials initially explored the possibility of hosting 20 percent of the stadium’s total capacity, which would allow for approximately 13,000 people to sit in socially distanced groups of no more than 10. As a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, Governor Charlie Baker vetoed the proposition for at least the month of September.
Both the season opener and New England’s Week 3 matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders will be played in front of vacant seats.
Tailgaters won’t be allowed, either. Although some restaurants and businesses at Patriot Place will be open, fans will not be permitted to use the stadium’s parking lots.
Team officials, along with the Massachusetts Reopening Advisory Board, will continue to evaluate the situation as the season goes on, with hopes of hosting fans at some point.
“The health and safety of our players, coaches, staff, fans, and surrounding community has and will continue to lead our efforts,” the team said in a statement.
In the meantime, the Patriots are not planning on utilizing cardboard or computer-generated fans.
Teams have the option of displaying a live video feed, akin to the virtual fans at NBA games. This “fan mosaic” shows a collection of people watching the game from inside their own homes, and can be displayed on the Jumbotron or other video screens.
According to Microsoft, the company responsible for the technology, teams are encouraged to install screens near each end zone, so players can virtually interact with fans — in real time — after scoring a touchdown.
The Patriots did not say whether they plan to use a “fan mosaic” in Week 1.
Despite the empty stands, the stadium certainly will not be quiet.
Teams have been provided with a recorded track of artificial crowd noise to be filtered throughout the stadium via the public address system. The noise can be adjusted to account for different game situations, though it can never exceed 75 decibels. (For context, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City set a world record when crowd noise there reached 142.2 decibels during the Chiefs' 41-14 trouncing of the Patriots in September 2014.)
A league representative will be in attendance to monitor the sound level.
As for what viewers will hear on TV?
Networks have been supplied with a compilation of team-specific audio from NFL Films, which means Sunday’s contest should sound like a typical Patriots game. CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, who will be on the call with color commentator Tony Romo, noted that the audio will be curated throughout the broadcast.
“They’re trying to put together every single scenario,” Nantz said on a recent conference call. “If there’s a kick return for a touchdown, if there’s a fumble, if the home team has thrown an interception.
"I really admire the guy that’s running that board and quickly, on the fly, trying to change the emotion that we’re going to be hearing.”
As for what viewers will see?
The Patriots will have tarps covering the first seven rows in the stands, which will help limit the number of empty seats shown on the broadcast. The CBS sideline reporter is expected to sit in the first open row of the stands, where TV hits and interviews will be conducted.
On the sidelines, all coaches and team personnel are required to wear face masks. The same goes for officials, who also will wear gloves and have the option to use electronic, push-button whistles to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets.
Among the other changes: Say goodbye to Pat Patriot, because mascots and cheerleaders won’t be allowed on the field. All renditions of the national anthem will be either remote or recorded. And only one player from each team will be allowed to participate in the pregame coin toss, with all involved wearing face masks.
Given the new circumstances, players aren’t exactly sure what to expect.
“It will be different,” said Patriots cocaptain Matthew Slater. “I don’t know what that different is going to be like. But it certainly will be different.
"I think it’s important for us as a football team, though, to have supreme focus on just doing our job.”
The uncertainty can generate some butterflies, too.
“It’s kind of that unknown of excitement,” McCourty said.