It has taken a lot of mental preparation to get ready for the NFL season — about double the usual amount.
There was the normal research you do every year — following free agency and the draft, figuring out which teams will be competing for the Lombardi Trophy and which players you need to draft in fantasy football.
But there has also been the added preparation of learning all of the new rules the NFL put in place because of COVID-19. It has certainly been a lot, and not easy to follow. The NFL finalized its entire COVID-19 protocol a little more than a week ago, and the document is 71 pages long.
So as we kick off the 2020 season, here is what I hope will be an easy-to-read recap of how everything is going to work with COVID-19 and the NFL:
How often is everyone tested?
For the foreseeable future, and possibly for the entire season, everyone will get tested six days per week — every day except game day. That’s players, coaches, staffers, locker room attendants, and anyone else in direct contact with the team.
The first thing you do when arriving at the team facility is take a COVID-19 test and temperature screen. The test results are often available that day but can take up to 24 hours.
However, if you have had a confirmed case of COVID-19, you are exempt from having to take any test for 90 days.
What happens when a player tests positive?
Anyone who tests positive is immediately removed from the team environment and given two more tests to confirm whether they have a new case of COVID-19 or had a false positive. The NFL had 77 false positives on one day last month, which highlighted the importance of taking two confirmatory tests.
A player who has a confirmed positive case goes on the COVID-IR list and must stay on it until he can produce multiple negative tests, or is no longer showing symptoms over a 5-10-day period. Another player takes his roster spot, but the COVID-19 player still makes his full salary and can come back to the roster once he is cleared.
Players can also go on the COVID-IR list if the team believes they have been in close contact with someone who has a confirmed case. Everyone wears a tracking device all day at the facility to help with contact tracing.
They’re not testing players and coaches on game day?
Correct. The NFL and NFL Players Association decided against testing anyone on game day.
The reason is because of false positives — if a player has a positive test on a Sunday morning, there would be no way to let him play in the game that day. And a false positive could significantly affect the competitiveness of a game, a division, or even an entire season.
For Sunday, 1 p.m. games, the player’s last COVID-19 test will come at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday. For 4 p.m. games and night games, the test happens by 10 a.m. the day before kickoff.
If a player or coach comes back with a positive test, he will have up until two hours before kickoff on game day to test negative on his confirmatory tests. If he can produce negative tests, he can play in the game.
To account for the lack of testing on Sunday, all players and even the coaches will be prohibited from entering the team facility on Monday, unless it’s a short week, or unless they require medical care. However, everyone still has to come to the facility to take their COVID-19 tests on Monday.
How is travel going to work?
Initially, there was talk about teams traveling on the day of games to minimize their time in a different city. But the medical experts landed on the opposite — day-of-game travel is prohibited, and teams must travel at least one day ahead.
But travel will hardly be a vacation. The plane(s) will be limited to essential team personnel — no more free trips for team sponsors. Everything has to get wiped down and disinfected before and after use — team buses, planes, hotel rooms, etc.
Players and coaches will be prohibited from leaving the hotel and will only be able to order food from third-party delivery services. They also can’t use the gym unless it is shut off to the rest of the hotel. They aren’t even supposed to go to the front desk.
These restrictions aren’t just for the road team, either. Home teams will also be required to stay in a hotel the night before a game.
Are masks mandatory?
Coaches and staffers are required to wear a face covering on the sideline — Bill O’Brien wore a mask on Thursday night, while Andy Reid went with a face shield. Players, however, aren’t required to wear a mask on the sideline in 28 of 30 NFL stadiums. Oakley designed a mask that attaches to the helmet, but the NFL has made it optional, and I didn’t see too many players (if any) wearing it in Thursday’s game.
However, in San Francisco and Buffalo, local regulations require that players who are not actively engaged in play — i.e. are standing on the sideline — will have to wear face coverings. The NFL says it will adhere to whatever local conditions are under effect in each city.
Do teams get more roster flexibility to deal with COVID-19?
Absolutely, and the NFL instituted four major changes that give teams far more roster flexibility than they ever had.
The first was expanding practice squads. Each team can now carry 16 players on the taxi squad (up from 10 last year and what was supposed to be 12 this year). Teams now have a larger reserve of players who have been practicing every day, know the system, and can step in at a moment’s notice.
The second change was eliminating restrictions for who could be signed to the practice squad. It used to only be for youngsters, guys with three or fewer years of NFL service. Now any player can join the practice squad, and we had longtime veterans such as kicker Nick Folk and cornerback Brandon Carr signed to practice squads this past week.
The third change is that teams can now more easily call up players from the practice squad to the active roster. Teams are now allowed to have 48 players active on Sunday (up from 46), and two players may be called up from the practice squad until 90 minutes before kickoff. Teams have the option of protecting up to four practice squad players each week that can’t be poached by other teams.
The final change was liberalizing injured reserve. Previously, a player could return from IR only after missing eight games. And teams could only bring back two players from IR all season. Now, a team can bring unlimited players back from IR. And a player only has to miss three games before returning.
These rules could be game-changers in terms of having more top players available to play late in the season.
ON THE PATRIOTS . . .
Gilmore worthy of salary boost
A few thoughts on the Patriots:
▪ The Patriots have been sitting on nearly $40 million in salary-cap space for most of training camp, and finally used it Friday on a well-deserved raise for Stephon Gilmore. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year reportedly had his 2020 salary increased from $10.5 million to $15.5 million, plus another $2 million in the rare event he wins DPOY again.
Gilmore never made it public that he wanted a raise and, unlike other players across the league, appeared to participate fully during camp. But it was obvious that Gilmore would want a raise when top cornerbacks are getting $15 million-$16 million in free agency. I thought there was a chance the Patriots would trade Gilmore for a lot of assets this offseason, but instead they ponied up a nice chunk of money to keep him.
Even at $15.5 million this year, Gilmore ranks as the fourth highest-paid cornerback, behind Jalen Ramsey ($20 million per year), Darius Slay ($16.68 million), and Byron Jones ($16.5 million).
▪ I count nine former Patriots named captains of their respective teams. Kyle Van Noy, Ted Karras, and Elandon Roberts were named captains in their first season with the Dolphins. Tom Brady is a captain in Tampa Bay, and Jimmy Garoppolo is one in San Francisco. Also, Chandler Jones in Arizona, Nate Ebner for Joe Judge’s Giants, and Trey Flowers and Duron Harmon in Detroit.
▪ Teams are allowed to protect up to four players on their practice squad from being poached, but the Patriots were one of eight teams not to use any protections this past week. Why not? “Because we didn’t want to,” coach Bill Belichick said.
More likely, Belichick didn’t want to telegraph to the league which practice squad players he values over the others. If a team wants to poach a player from the Patriots' practice squad, Belichick can always convince the player to stay, with a pay raise or otherwise.
Also, the NFLPA missed out by not negotiating for a bonus or raise for practice squad players who get protected by their teams. It doesn’t seem right that they aren’t compensated for the fact that they can’t be poached by another team, which comes with a playing opportunity and an automatic raise.
▪ Logan Ryan got a one-year deal worth $5 million and incentives that can push it to $7.5 million from the Giants. Considering Ryan’s versatility in the secondary, the modest price tag, and the fact that the Patriots were looking for secondary help with Aqib Talib, I’m surprised the Patriots didn’t seem to be interested in a reunion.
▪ Adrian Hill, a second-year referee from the Washington, D.C. area, is working Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game. The NFL is trying to keep game officials on a more regional schedule to avoid long flights and reduce the chances of getting COVID-19. In addition to Hill, the Patriots will probably draw referees Brad Allen (North Carolina), Jerome Boger (Atlanta), Scott Novak (Miami), Shawn Smith, and Ron Torbert (Michigan) for home games this year.
Brady says he’s ready to adapt
One question that hasn’t gotten a definitive answer so far: Are the Buccaneers running more of Bruce Arians’s offense, or Tom Brady’s offense?
The quarterback is most important, of course, and he has to be comfortable with the system and terminology. And Brady can teach a doctorate-level class on the Patriots' offense that he ran for 20 seasons. But the other 24 guys on offense, plus the head coach and coordinator, all have been running Arians’s offense for the last year-plus, with Arians’s terminology.
“I think you’ll see a mixture of both,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said this past week. “When we first met each other I asked [Brady] for one thing — I said, ‘Always speak out loud.’ I told him he will not hurt my feelings, but I wanted to have an understanding so we can truly learn each other and then we can get to the next step.”
But the way Brady talks about the offense makes it seem like he’s doing most of the learning.
“A lot of being a great athlete is not thinking … just reacting and anticipating. We’re working through that,” he said Thursday. “I’m working hard to get up to speed with everything and I think we’re all excited to be able to compete against a real team, [and] understand that nothing’s going to be perfect for a long time. But, we’re going to work our tails off to get it right.”
Jones not giving up
Cornerback and return specialist Cyrus Jones certainly has not had a smooth NFL career since joining the Patriots as a second-round pick in 2016. He had five fumbles as a rookie, was hurt for his entire second season, was released before his third season, and has since bounced between the Ravens, Patriots (again), and Broncos.
But nothing compares to what he was dealt last November. Shortly after joining the Broncos, Jones was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect that required open-heart surgery and obviously ended his season.
But Jones, 26, is back training again and hopes to sign on with a team this year.
“When you go through something like that, it forces you to dig deep and kind of figure out what you’ve really got in you and how much you’re willing to sacrifice to get back out there and chase your dream again,” Jones told the Baltimore Sun. “I found out that I’m even more unbreakable than I thought I was. I’ve been through a lot in my career and having all that thrown on top of it definitely could have been a catastrophic thing. I could have just kind of given up, but that’s never been me.”
Congrats to Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler and Jets receiver Chris Hogan for making it to Week 1. Butler was “supposed” to be released by the Titans after his contract guarantees ran out after two years, but Butler enters his third season with the Titans set to make a cool $11.6 million this year. As for Hogan, he’s making a minimum $1.05 million salary with the Jets, but Patriots receivers don’t usually stick in the NFL for long after the team is done with them. Hogan, now in his ninth year, has found work with the Panthers and Jets … It was great to watch football again Thursday night, and I’m happy for the Chiefs and the 15,895 fans who got to raise a Super Bowl banner and watch their team win. But it’s going to take some getting used to watching a game with a sparse crowd. The fake crowd noise was a nice addition to the broadcast, but seeing the stands 20 percent full still gives the feel of a preseason game, and it’s going to be tough to shake that mental association … Evergreen quote: Texans coach Bill O’Brien saying, “There’s a lot to fix,” after Week 1 … Not to be overly cynical, but it sure feels like Washington is milking the Alex Smith comeback story for every ounce of positive press. Smith’s return certainly is a borderline miracle, and seeing him back on a 53-man roster is worthy of celebration. But Washington owed him $16 million guaranteed this year, so keeping him on the team wasn’t exactly a tough decision. And Smith is just the third-string quarterback, behind Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen. But Washington badly needs good publicity these days, and Smith provides plenty … Former Patriots cornerback Ty Law’s latest business venture is a partnership with V-One Vodka, which Law wants to market to football fans this fall as they tailgate at home instead of at the stadium … 2020 season predictions: Super Bowl — Chiefs over Seahawks; MVP — Russell Wilson; Defensive Player of the Year — Joey Bosa; Offensive Rookie of the Year — Clyde Edwards-Helaire; Defensive Rookie of the Year — Patrick Queen; Patriots record — 9-7, AFC East champs; Buccaneers record — 10-6, NFC wild card.