Once Jason McCourty decided he would play football this season, he and his wife, Melissa, devised a plan should Jason be exposed to someone with COVID-19. Though they hoped it wouldn’t be needed, reality told them it likely would. So when Jason moved into a hotel last week after Patriots friend and position-mate Stephon Gilmore tested positive, neither was much surprised.
What has been harder for the McCourtys to accept is why their own protocols seem to be working better than those put in place by the NFL and NFLPA. On Saturday, after his team returned to the practice field for the first time in a week because of their coronavirus quarantine, the 12-year veteran was asked this pointed question: Why did the Patriots fly to Kansas City to play last Monday night, only days after quarterback Cam Newton had been ruled out with COVID-19, in the process ignoring an incubation period that can last up to five days after exposure?
In light of Gilmore’s subsequent test, McCourty responded with a pointed question of his own.
“If you get a chance to talk to the NFL or the NFLPA, I’d greatly appreciate you bringing up that point and letting them know,” he said. "That’s something we talk about, and we are dealing with it. We’re moving forward and it’s obviously in the back of our mind. That’s why we’re just trying to do everything we can … to stay as safe as possible.
“But without a doubt, that’s a thought, the same way you guys are sitting there thinking about it, like, ‘Hey, they’re getting on a plane on Monday, well, those days don’t really add up with the incubation period.’ That was the same question we were asking our union before we headed out there.”
The end point to that line of thought is not fun, a “realization,” McCourty said, “that it’s not a league-wide thing.”
“It’s kind of a team thing,” he said. "For us in this locker room, between the players and coaches, administration, the staff, it’s up to us to kind of take care of one another to make sure physically, we’re all set. Make sure mentally, too, because I think outside of here the people that don’t have to walk in our building, whether it’s the league office, or whether it’s the NFLPA, they don’t care.
“I mean, we’re trying to get games played and we’re trying to get the season going. For them it’s not about what’s in our best interest, our health and safety. It’s about, ‘What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good, looks good? How can we go out there and play games?’ I think that’s what I learned personally throughout this situation, that’s it’s going to be up to us as the individuals in this building to just really take care of one another.”
If trust in the process erodes among players, this season gets exponentially more difficult to complete for the decision-makers of the NFL. For the Patriots, however, the confidence to continue playing lies in the trust players have in their coach. Bill Belichick made his own quiet statement about league-wide protocols when he opted to keep the team facility closed Friday even after personnel had completed enough consecutive days of negative tests to re-open.
Belichick knew he was forfeiting another slice of competitive advantage to the Broncos, and that’s a decision it seems impossible to imagine the uber-competitive coach ever making under normal circumstances. But unlike national leaders who seem unable, or unwilling, to model the behavior scientists continue to tell us is the best way to contain the spread of the virus and thus get us closer to returning to those normal times, Belichick put action behind his words. With empathy as his guide, he can’t go wrong.
“I feel like Bill did a good job of looking after the players and making sure we had the best opportunity to stay safe with our families,” Lawrence Guy said. “By him closing down the facility he’s just trying to protect us. That’s the best thing we can have, a head coach who makes sure his players are healthy. That’s what you expect from a head coach who cares about his team.”
The uncertainty of everything left Belichick with little interest in answering specific football questions, such as who might be starting at quarterback Monday against Denver, since it’s possible Newton might be cleared by then. At 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, when his team hadn’t been together since losing in Kansas City, he made it clear, repeatedly, “we’re taking it day by day.”
Check that. “Probably hour by hour would be more accurate,” he said.
He’s right of course, because short-term answers are about all we have in the NFL, given the constant possibility of more outbreaks. But if his short-term answers seem curt, it’s only because he is keeping long-term consequences in mind. Health and safety first. Football second.
“What’s best for our football team is the health and safety of our team. That’s our No. 1 priority. Without that, we don’t have a team,” he said. "We have to maintain the integrity of not only our football team, but also the extended team — our families and the loved ones for every member of our team. That’s got to come first.
“I think everybody recognizes that, feels the same way and we’ll have to work maybe a little bit harder to make up for some of the on-the-field practice time that we’ve missed this week, but we can’t compromise the health, safety and well-being of our football team, including our staff. I don’t think that’s the answer, I don’t think that’s the way to go in the long term, and I think that’s going to be much more detrimental than a short-term adjustment that we have to make in order to maximize everyone’s health and safety.”
Sounds like a good plan.