In most years, NFL teams look forward to taking an extended road trip. It breaks up the monotony, the players and coaches bond, and they get to experience a new locale.
But the Patriots’ weeklong trip to Los Angeles is going to be dreadful, by all indications. Same with the 49ers’ extended visit to Arizona, where they are setting up shop for the next three weeks because of new COVID-19 restrictions in their home county.
The NFL’s travel protocols are so restrictive and isolating that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is just as worried about the mental health of his players as he is beating the Bills on Monday.
“I just try to tell everyone, no matter what, when someone has a problem, whatever it is, there’s no problem too big or too small,” Shanahan said Thursday. “I met with a bunch of the players and I grabbed about 20 of them last night and just told them to look out for that stuff and make sure that whether they come to me, a position coach, we have lots of people here who aren’t coaches or players who can help.”
The 49ers are living at a hotel near State Farm Stadium until Dec. 21, with everyone leaving their families behind in California. The Patriots, who got to LA on Friday afternoon, are staying in a hotel on the UCLA campus and will hold walkthrough practices at the university in between their Sunday game against the Chargers and Thursday game against the Rams.
In normal years, the Patriots would be able to roam around Westwood and Beverly Hills, go out for nice meals, and enjoy the beautiful weather. But the NFL’s travel rules this year mean everyone — players, coaches, and staffers — will be confined to their hotel rooms, practice field, and the UCLA weight room.
“This is probably a ‘finding yourself’ type trip,” Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said. “You’re going to spend a lot of time in isolation, whenever we’re not doing something football-related.”
Patriots players and coaches aren’t allowed to go out for meals, or see friends or relatives, or do much of anything outside of the hotel. All meetings will still be done virtually, and meals will be grab-and-go, so players won’t have many chances to spend time together. Since UCLA’s football season is ongoing, the Patriots won’t use their locker room (their hotel is a stone’s throw from the athletic facility).
“The Patriots will have no interaction with the UCLA football team or any UCLA affiliates other than designated hospitality and athletics staff,” the school said in a statement to the Globe. “The Patriots have provided assurance that the team’s traveling group will follow all required NFL protocols. UCLA has taken vigorous steps to ensure the safety of the campus community during this visit, including requiring that the visit aligns with local public health orders specific to professional sports.”
These are the same travel rules the Patriots have dealt with all season, but usually it’s just for one or two nights. The 49ers will be on the road for three weeks, and are worried about how the players will deal with all of the alone time.
“You read about the NBA players in the bubble and all the mental issues they went through and stuff,” Shanahan said. “Those guys were at least allowed to hang with each other. We’re not, so we’re basically just in rooms here. Haven’t seen the guys except when we Zoom meet them and then when we go out to the field for walkthrough.”
The Patriots’ trip is not much different than other travel this season. But for this trip, the Patriots had to submit to the league and the NFL Players Association an IDER plan — short for Infectious Disease Emergency Response — which outlines the team’s response for testing, isolating, handling an outbreak, and so forth.
The Patriots will bring their entire BioReference testing facility with them, including the four or five employees, and re-create the testing setup at the team hotel. The Patriots and all teams have been doing this since mid-October when the NFL started requiring game-day testing.
The Patriots also will bring most of their 16-player practice squad to LA. While they won’t have full-speed practices, the Patriots will be able to call up at least two practice squad players to play in each game. A team spokesman said the Patriots are taking two planes on this trip to allow for more spacing.
“We can certainly bring enough people to take care of our responsibilities and needs,” coach Bill Belichick said.
The Patriots’ trip to LA won’t be any fun, but at least know they will be back in their homes by Friday morning. The 49ers have to deal with at least three weeks of isolation and family separation while also trying to play their best football.
“The worst thing you could be in these situations is feel kind of alone on an island,” Shanahan said. “And we’ve got a big group going through it, so we can rally together and make sure we help each other through it.”
League takes notice of recent outbreaks
The NFL’s COVID-19 situation has gotten ugly the past few weeks, with the Ravens having a full-blown outbreak, the Broncos playing a game without a quarterback, and 156 new positive cases popping up between Nov. 15-28. The number of cases back in September was in the single digits per week.
A few notes on the latest with the virus:
▪ Roger Goodell made clear that the only reason the Ravens’ game was postponed was because of concern that the virus was not yet contained. The Broncos didn’t have an uncontained virus situation, just several quarterbacks who had to be quarantined because they didn’t wear their masks.
“As we discussed at the fall meeting in October, we will not postpone or reschedule games due to COVID issues affecting multiple players even within a position group because we feel comfortable that the rest of the team is not at risk,” he said. “This is exactly the case in Denver.”
▪ The NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, gave a tongue lashing to players and coaches about following the rules. The Ravens and Broncos situations were both a result of people not wearing masks.
“Let me be very clear — our protocols aren’t failing. Our compliance is an area where we can continue to improve,” Sills said. “Any protocol is only as good as the compliance you have, and 90 percent is a failing grade here. We have to have 100 percent compliance.”
▪ The Ravens put 23 players and an unknown number of coaches on the COVID-19 list in between their games on Nov. 22 and Dec. 2, and reportedly the root cause was Steve Saunders, the head strength and conditioning coach. According to the Baltimore Sun and NFL Network, Saunders “routinely” did not wear his proximity tracker or mask and did not report having COVID symptoms when working with players.
The Ravens have suspended Saunders, now in his fifth year with the team, but he should be fired. If the NFL wants compliance, there have to be serious consequences for irresponsible behavior.
▪ The NFL is hopeful, however, that the recent edict requiring all teams as of last week to adopt the “intensive protocols” (all virtual meetings, limited time in the team facility, etc.) will curb any future outbreaks. Sills noted that the Ravens’ outbreak happened before the switch, and that this past week, the NFL only had five new infections on Monday (two players), four on Tuesday (one player), and one on Wednesday (a player). That’s out of about 8,000 players, coaches, and staffers.
▪ It doesn’t sound like the NFL is seriously considering a centralized bubble for the playoffs like the NBA and NHL did. But the NFL could require teams to live in a hotel for a few weeks to end the season, similar to training camp.
“I don’t see us doing a bubble in the sense that I think a lot of the media focuses on it,” Goodell said. “We expect to reduce the number of people that come into contact with players and coaches and team facilities.”
▪ The Broncos’ situation was a stark reminder for teams that they should be keeping a quarterback separated from the others in case of an emergency.
Josh McCown spent most of the season in Texas while he was the Eagles’ practice squad quarterback. The Titans kept Trevor Siemian away from their other quarterbacks in meetings and practices, and now are doing it with DeShone Kizer. Seattle is doing it with Danny Etling, Buffalo with Jake Fromm, Washington with Taylor Heinicke, Denver with Blake Bortles, and the Chargers with Easton Stick.
“Easton Stick is normally separated from the rest of the pack in meetings and in practice,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “But after what happened to the Broncos maybe we should do it even more now.”
Patriots’ offense eyes faster starts
Now a few Patriots-Chargers related notes:
▪ Receiver Damiere Byrd noted on Thursday that in recent practices, the Patriots have been “doing offense vs. defense periods right off the bat, as soon as we get through warm-ups.” It’s Bill Belichick’s way of trying to get his team to get off to better starts.
The Patriots have only scored 21 points in the first quarter all season, the fewest in the NFL, and one was a pick-six. That means in 11 games, the Patriots have just two offensive touchdowns and no field goals in the first quarter. Their minus-35 point differential ranks 29th, and the Patriots have trailed at halftime in seven of their last eight.
“We work on it literally every day,” Belichick said this past week. “Honestly, if I had the answer, I would have done it 10 weeks ago.”
▪ The Patriots certainly got a little lucky in their win over the Cardinals last week, and not just because of the 15-yard penalty that put them in position for the winning field goal. Analytics outfit EdjSports listed Kliff Kingsbury’s decision to kick a 45-yard field goal on fourth and 1 with 1:52 left in the game as the single-worst coaching decision of Week 12, decreasing the Cardinals’ chances of winning by 20 percent. Even if the Cardinals had made the field goal, it left the Patriots with plenty of time to tie or win.
▪ Belichick was waxing poetic about the Chargers’ defense this past week, but the Patriots have never had much trouble facing defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. They are 3-1 against him as a defensive coordinator or head coach, with a loss in 2012 to Seattle, a 2015 win over Jacksonville, and two wins over the Chargers, including one in the 2019 playoffs.
Bradley has never held the Patriots to fewer than 400 yards of offense, and the numbers aren’t pretty: 1,858 yards (464.5 per game), 14 TDs, 2 turnovers, average score 34-20. Of course, this will be the Patriots’ first game without Tom Brady.
▪ Patriots kicker Nick Folk, who went to high school in Sherman Oaks, Calif., has a unique connection to the Rams.
“My grandfather for a long time was Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Rams, his personal physician,” Folk said. “So my mom got to go to games growing up all the time. So hearing those stories was a lot of fun. But they all moved pretty early when I was growing up.”
Jonathan Kraft sees better days ahead
Patriots president Jonathan Kraft shared a few interesting opinions this past week on a podcast with Kraft Analytics CEO Jessica Gelman and 76ers executive Daryl Morey.
Kraft said he has attended one non-Patriots sporting event this year, and it made him optimistic that live crowds can return relatively soon.
“I think life is going to be back to normal quicker than people think it will be,” he said. “I went to an SEC football game a few weeks ago with 20,000 people present, and it felt reasonably normal, other than people being more polite about not bouncing into each other and wearing masks.”
But Kraft said teams, especially in the Northeast, are worried about retaining season ticket-holders after the pandemic because they have gotten so used to the in-home experience.
“Such a large percentage of our season-ticket base skews older in population,” he said. “I think the biggest challenge that teams are going to face is how to keep those season-ticket members engaged and excited about coming back. Some turnover is good, but I think you don’t want to lose a whole generation of people.”
On the football field, Kraft is a fan of putting an RFID chip in the football to help determine down and distance and scoring plays. He used the Patriots’ goal-line stop against the Cardinals last week as an example.
“Thankfully, the refs ruled no touchdown,” Kraft said. “But they went to replay and there’s a big mass of bodies but you can’t see the ball and you can’t see the player … The more subjectivity we can take out the better.”
And Kraft didn’t dismiss an idea to make 50-yard field goals worth 4 points, or make short field goals only worth 2 points to encourage more teams to go for it on fourth down.
“That’s an interesting concept,” Kraft said.
Hope Tom Brady uses the bye week to rest his arm. The 43-year-old quarterback leads the NFL in pass attempts (474), is third in attempts per game (39.5), and is on pace for 632 passes this season, which would be the second-most of his career (637 in 2012). It’s probably not a coincidence that Brady has cracked 600 pass attempts six times in his career, yet has never won a Super Bowl or an MVP in those seasons … According to Sports Business Journal, the NFL recently hired former World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper to head its efforts in the U.K. and Europe. Among Gosper’s initiatives will be bringing a game to Germany, the second-largest NFL market in Europe … Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor has opted against filing a grievance against the team doctor that accidentally punctured his lung minutes before kickoff in Week 2. “He’s a class act,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “That’s why he was voted captain by everyone on this football team.” … The Dolphins essentially admitted this past week that Tua Tagovailoa did not earn the starting job last month because he outperformed Ryan Fitzpatrick. “Tua hasn’t been in the offense six games yet,” offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said. “Is he where Fitz is? No, he’s not.” Tagovailoa has an injured thumb now, giving the Dolphins cover to stick with Fitzpatrick. At 7-4, the Dolphins are a dangerous playoff team and would be wasting a great opportunity if they don’t play their best quarterback.