The NFL hasn’t gotten everything right when it comes to playing through the COVID-19 pandemic. The lag time between when a player or coach takes a test and gets his result is problematic. The decision to send the Patriots to Kansas City two days after a portion of the team got exposed to the virus was questionable.
But one aspect that the NFL has undoubtedly done well — its willingness to constantly evaluate and improve its COVID-19 protocols when situations arise and more is learned about the virus.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, and his team have modified and strengthened the protocols several times since training camp began in late July.
“We’ve said all along we expect to have isolated cases,” Sills said last week. “But if we can employ the appropriate mitigation strategies we can keep those cases isolated.”
Let’s take a look at some of the most recent updates to the protocol, plus other news and notes:
▪ This is going to wreak havoc on fantasy football and possibly the games on the field, but get used to seeing players pulled from practices and games at a moment’s notice.
As a result of the Patriots' issues, the NFL will now review all contact tracing and potentially deem some players a “high-risk” close contact, which will take them off the field for five days even if they don’t produce a positive test.
And any player who shows illness symptoms — a cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, etc. — will be removed from activities until tests are run. With cold and flu season arriving shortly, the NFL says it will first assume that any sick player has COVID. Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. fell into this category, as he was kept away from his team last week despite testing negative for COVID-19.
“In today’s time with the situation we’re in, we always have to stop COVID first,” Sills said. “If we’re going to make a mistake, we’d rather make the mistake on the side of being cautious.”
▪ The NFL’s biggest takeaways from the Titans and Patriots' situation of the past two weeks?
“I think mask use at all times, and avoidance of all in person meetings, are a very important lesson,” Sills said.
It would not be surprising to see all NFL teams eventually cut back on in-person meetings and other activities that can be done virtually. But so far, the virus has not been spread from team-to-team during games. The Vikings never got sick two weeks ago, even though the Titans had 24 people test positive.
“We still see no evidence of on-field transmission for football related activities, and I think that’s important,” Sills said.
▪ The NFL has closed up one flaw by including game-day testing in the protocols, meaning all players and staff now get tested seven days a week instead of six. But another significant hole still remains and may not have an easy solution — the lag time between the test and results.
A player or coach takes a test first thing in the morning, but doesn’t get his result back until late that night or early the next day. It led to Cam Newton being exposed to his teammates all day before knowing he was positive, and the same with Titans linebacker coach Shane Bowen.
Sills said that the NFL would rather use the most accurate tests than the one that produces the fastest results.
“We feel like the PCR tests we are using are the most accurate, they’re the most sensitive and specific, they have the ability to detect infection at the earliest possible stage, and they do that better than any other test that’s out there,” Sills said. “The downside is they take a little bit of time to run, they’re not immediately as available. But we feel comfortable and confident that they are the best available for us right now, and by using them on an everyday basis we do have the ability to track over time and to hopefully identify the infections at the earliest possible stage.”
The lesson, as articulated by Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill two weeks ago — you just have to assume that everyone has COVID-19, and act accordingly.
“No test is perfect, and as we’ve said over and over again, we can’t build our program around testing only,” Sills said. “The testing is essentially a report card on how we’re doing on all our other strategies, and we have to always keep that in mind, especially the use of PPE, hand washing. Those are the cornerstone measures to keep them safe.”
▪ One phrase you have probably seen a few times this week is the NFL’s “intensive protocols.” The NFL recently developed a more stringent set of rules for teams that are at risk of having an outbreak. The Patriots were in the intensive protocols over the past week as they returned to work, and continued to be in the intensive protocol Saturday after James Ferentz tested positive. Sills said that about 10 teams have used the additional protocols this season, including Carolina, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville in the past week.
Additional measures include: Making all meetings virtual, or outdoors in a large area; requiring masks to be worn in the weight room and throughout the facility, and at practice; reducing the number of people allowed in the weight room to 10 players at a time; limiting locker room time to 15 minutes per person; requiring double PPE (mask and face shield) for both the player and doctor/trainer during medical visits; and serving all meals in grab-and-go fashion.
“It’s meant to do all that we can to block any spread within the team environment,” Sills said.
▪ Newton and Stephon Gilmore may actually be grateful that they got the virus when they did. Per the NFL’s protocols with guidance from the CDC, Newton and Gilmore now don’t have to go through testing for 90 days, and likely won’t get the virus again in the next three months, eliminating the possibility that they come down with it during the stretch run.
▪ The NFL’s number of positive COVID tests per week, between mid-August and mid-October: 6, 10, 8, 7, 5, 6, 26, and 15.
So that means 42 positive cases in 46 days (Aug. 12 to Sept. 26), and 41 cases in 14 days (Sept. 27 to Oct. 10). The NFL knows it has a big challenge ahead as the weather gets worse and the virus becomes more prevalent.
Penalties plague Brady’s Buccaneers
Tom Brady is not used to his team sabotaging itself with penalties. In 326 games with the Patriots (including postseason), only 17 times did the Patriots have more than 100 yards in penalties (12-5 record). Conversely, they had 20 games with 10 or fewer penalty yards, including five games with zero (most recently the 2018 regular-season win over the Chiefs).
But Brady is now seeing what it’s like to play for a team whose coach doesn’t have meticulous attention to detail. The Buccaneers lead the NFL with 49 flags thrown this year, and are second with 410 penalty yards. Twice already they have gone over 100 penalty yards, and Brady went ballistic in last Thursday’s loss to the Bears when the Bucs committed five penalties on one drive.
Last year, the Patriots finished 30th in penalties and 26th in penalty yardage. And they have ranked 25th or lower in penalties in eight of the last 10 years. (Interestingly, the Patriots had one poor year of penalties — 2014, when they finished eighth in penalties and third in yards, yet also won the Super Bowl).
The Patriots continue to play with discipline and good technique this year. While Brady’s Bucs lead the league in penalties, the Patriots have committed the fewest in the NFL (14), for the least amount of yardage (135). The Rams have the next-fewest penalties (22), and the Texans are next in yardage (148).
HIGH PRICE TO PAY
Falcons can’t afford to get rid of Ryan
Falcons owner Arthur Blank made an eyebrow-raising comment last week when he declined to commit to Matt Ryan, 35, as his quarterback after this season.
“I hope he’s going to be part of our plans going forward,” Blank said in a news conference following the firing of coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. “But that will be a decision that I won’t make.”
The implication is that Falcons' new coach — whether it is interim coach Raheem Morris or someone else — will make that decision. Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, wants to play until he’s 40, but he has not made the playoffs in each of the last two years and has seen his numbers slip each season.
But it would be a major surprise if Ryan isn’t the quarterback next season. The Falcons would have to wreck their salary cap to move on from him.
Ryan is under contract through 2023, and just restructured his deal this past March to give the Falcons cap flexibility this season. Ryan is due $23 million in salary next season with a cap number of $40.91 million. If the Falcons cut him before June 1, his 2021 cap number increases to $49.94 million. If they trade him before June 1, his 2021 cap number increases to $44.44 million.
Moving on from Ryan after June 1 makes a little more sense, since it allows the Falcons to split Ryan’s dead money over two seasons. If the Falcons cut Ryan after June 1, they have to take dead-money cap hits of $23.4 million in 2021 and $26.52 million in 2022. If they trade him after June 1, it’s dead-cap hits of $17.91 million in 2021 and $26.52 million in 2022.
But it doesn’t seem realistic, especially since the Falcons would first have to draft or sign a quarterback, then get rid of Ryan after June 1, which could hurt their trade leverage. So expect Ryan to still be flying with the Falcons in 2021.
Effects of virus continue to ripple
A few nuggets about the NFL and COVID-19:
▪ A good point made by former NFL executive Jim Steeg in an interview last week about the league’s contingency plans: If the NFL does have to create an extra week to play postponed games, it makes more sense to put the postponed games in Week 17 and move the current Week 17 games to Week 18. That way, No. 1 seeds don’t have to sit idle for two straight weeks before playing their first playoff game.
▪ Super Bowl Week might be a shell of its usual self. One contingency being discussed is having the two teams practice all week at their home facilities, then fly to Tampa for the game. Usually the teams arrive a full week before the Super Bowl.
▪ It doesn’t seem fair that the Jaguars, Chargers, and Jets all had their schedules blown up because of positive tests on another team. And the Broncos weren’t pleased with having to use their bye week because of positive tests on their opponent. But the league office knew these disruptions would happen, and set the expectations this summer.
“This is a year everybody just has to suck it up, and do the best they can," said Marc Ganis, a sports business consultant who works with several teams. "That point was made very clearly back in the summer at an owners meeting. And every single person on the call supported it. There was a unanimity that, ‘We’re going to work together and get through this this year, even if my team is disadvantaged.’ ”
Not under her roof
Fifteen teams are now allowing fans into the stadium for games, but not the Saints. The Saints want to allow as many as 20,000 fans into the Superdome, but the city of New Orleans still isn’t permitting it, citing the closed roof.
The Saints have threatened to take their remaining five home games to LSU and its open-air field, perhaps as soon as their Oct. 25 game against the Panthers.
New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell essentially called the team’s bluff.
“I think that could be a great place temporarily,” she said, via Nola.com. “Right now, there is no way, given the current conditions, to allow 20,000 fans in the Superdome — an indoor stadium — when no one else is doing it in the United States of America, because it’s the right thing to do at this time.”
The Texans have yet to record an interception through five games, prompting defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver to fashion a “turnover belt” for any player who comes up with a pick. The Texans are just the eighth team in NFL history to not record an interception through the first five games, but four of them happened in recent years (Arizona in 2019, Oakland and Chicago in 2017) as passing offenses have gotten shorter and safer. The 2017 Raiders' own the record for most games to start a season without an interception (10). And the 2018 49ers own the record for fewest INTs in a season (two) … Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones is done for the season after suffering a torn biceps in last Sunday’s win over the Jets. Jones has been buried in obscurity for the past five seasons, but he blossomed into an elite defender since leaving the Patriots. Since the start of 2016, Jones leads the NFL with 61 sacks, and is second in QB hits (105) and third in tackles for loss (68). Aaron Donald and Cameron Jordan are the only other defenders producing similar numbers … The Dolphins are favored by 9 points over the Jets, the first time they are favored in 22 games under coach Brian Flores. The last time the Dolphins were favored was Week 16 in 2018, which was a 17-7 loss to the Jaguars … The Steelers have beaten the Browns 16 straight times in Pittsburgh. The quarterbacks for the last Browns win in 2003: Tim Couch and Tommy Maddox … It’s never a bad idea to add more talent, and Le’Veon Bell should be a solid addition for the Chiefs. But he doesn’t fix their issues on the offensive or defensive lines … The Patriots will get CBS’s No. 1 crew of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo for the fourth time in seven weeks when they face the 49ers next week at Foxborough … Rest in peace, Vaughn McClure, the former Falcons reporter for ESPN who died unexpectedly at 48 last week. Vaughn was a warm soul and a terrific reporter, and he will be missed.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.