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Sunday football notes

What the NFL’s grand football experiment has taught us about COVID-19

The NFL's chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said the league has not had one case of COVID-19 transmitted from one player to another on the opposing team during a game.
The NFL's chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said the league has not had one case of COVID-19 transmitted from one player to another on the opposing team during a game.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The last time the NFL tried conducting a science experiment, its leaders forgot about the Ideal Gas Law, forgot to record all of the data, and turned in a final paper that lacked in substantive evidence.

But the NFL, in partnership with the NFL Players Association, has been conducting a fascinating and much more professional science experiment throughout the 2020 season. Between Aug. 1 and Dec. 5, the NFL ran approximately 757,100 tests for COVID-19, and has had approximately 8,000 people wearing KINEXON contact tracing devices every day. This has provided new information on the virus that has been valuable not only for the NFL in getting through this season, but for the medical community in helping to understand how the virus spreads.

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“I would say we’re learning a great deal from the lack of news, if you will, about outbreaks in the NFL,” said Dr. Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “What it’s showing us is just how narrow the window for transmissibility is, when people are really at risk of transmitting to other people.”

For instance, the NFL has learned through the use of the tracking devices that, even though football is the ultimate contact sport, players haven’t spread the virus to opponents during games. The NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said the highest-risk activities are “meeting, eating, and greeting,” and that the NFL has not had one case of COVID-19 transmitted from one player to another on the opposing team during a game. The Titans played a game in late September in which more than a dozen players were carrying the virus, yet no one on the Vikings got sick.

“During the course of an NFL game there are a number of very brief interactions, that still when summed together actually turn out to be a very short period of time,” Sills said. “That’s an observation we have been able to make that we would not have otherwise had if not for KINEXON.”

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The NFL also has learned that the protocols it has devised are fairly effective in stopping the spread of the virus — and also how quickly things can spiral out of control when the protocols aren’t followed.

The Raiders had a COVID-19 issue because they didn’t wear masks. The Ravens had an outbreak that nearly derailed their season because a trainer didn’t report symptoms or wear a mask. Several teams have been fined six-figure amounts, and the Raiders and Saints have been stripped of late-round draft picks.

“We’ve had those instances where people haven’t complied with the protocols, and that literally leads to problems,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said. “I think the league has been aggressive in holding people accountable, but anything less than 100 percent is a failure model for us because we know how quickly the virus spreads.”

The quick spread is something the NFL has learned, as well as the incubation period. Following outbreaks with the Titans and Patriots in October, the NFL modified its protocols so that anyone deemed a “high risk close contact” of someone who tests positive must sit out for five days. It resulted in a situation two weeks ago where the Broncos were forced to sit all four of their quarterbacks for a game.

The NFL also has consistently tightened travel protocols, to the point that players are barely allowed to leave their hotel rooms on a trip. And the league has developed “intensive protocols” for teams that may be experiencing an outbreak, which include limited crowds in the locker room and gym, and moving all meetings to a virtual setting.

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On Nov. 21, in anticipation of Thanksgiving and a massive uptick in the pandemic, the NFL required all 32 teams to adopt the “intensive protocols” for the rest of the season, which includes closing facilities on Monday and Tuesday (except for medical needs). The NFL and NFLPA reported that the league saw 47.7 percent fewer cases of COVID-19 week over week once the new protocols were implemented, and saw the league’s lowest numbers since October.

The positivity rate this past week was .11 percent and the incidence rate was .74 percent. Out of 8,000 (or more) players, coaches, and staffers, only 470 (5.9 percent) have tested positive since Aug. 1 despite living in the community and gathering to play football several days per week.

“Our numbers are probably something that most public officials would dream of in this pandemic,” Smith said.

It’s why the NFL and NFLPA are “completely aligned” in resisting the idea of moving to a “bubble” for the end of the season, Sills said, even though the pandemic is raging and the bubble format worked for the NBA and NHL. A bubble will remain an option, but “everything that we’re going to do is going to be data-driven,” said NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, a center for the Browns.

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A hard bubble, like what the other two leagues did, is likely not realistic, even for the playoffs. Football teams are too big to pull it off logistically, and the on-boarding process — ensuring that hundreds of people are all clean of the virus — would be too challenging.

A soft bubble, in which teams isolate at a local hotel for a few weeks similar to training camp, is a possibility. But the NFL and NFLPA are wary of separating players and coaches from their families for an extended period.

“It’s been a tough year from a mental health perspective for our players,” Tretter said. “The feeling of isolation, of not being able to see people, to see their friends and family, further asking guys to stay away from their young children and their family potentially for six weeks, that’s a big ask, and that has ramifications outside of the game of football.”

A true bubble also comes with risk — if the virus gets inside, it wrecks the entire bubble swiftly. So in any bubble scenario, the players and coaches would still have to wear masks, keep their distance, and so on.

“Let’s be clear, COVID-19 does not fear a bubble,” Sills said. “The vulnerability inside a bubble is the same, which is full compliance with the protocols at all time — mask wearing, avoidance of sick individuals, rapid reporting of symptoms, good hand hygiene, physical distance, and avoiding high-risk exposures.”

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The NFL certainly is not in the clear. There are 63 regular-season and 13 postseason games to be played. But the NFL has learned a lot about COVID-19 since August.

“We’re very cautiously optimistic with the progress we’ve made and particularly the impact of the intensive protocol for everyone,” Sills said.

DIFFICULT LOSS

Belichick, Parcells will miss Perkins

Former Patriots offensive coordinator Ray Perkins died on Wednesday at the age of 79.
Former Patriots offensive coordinator Ray Perkins died on Wednesday at the age of 79.Davis, Jim Globe Staff

Many younger Patriots fans probably don’t recognize the name Ray Perkins, who died suddenly Wednesday at 79. But Perkins is a crucial piece of the Patriots’ history who is responsible not only for developing Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, but for implementing the offense that has been a franchise staple for several decades and helped Tom Brady win six Super Bowls.

“He had a big impact on my life and my career,” Belichick said Friday. “Very loyal person that I have a ton of respect for. It’s very sad news that we got two days ago.”

Perkins’s first coaching job was as the Patriots’ wide receivers coach from 1974-77 under Chuck Fairbanks. Perkins helped the Patriots win their first NFL playoff game in 1976, and along with offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt,designed the “Erhardt-Perkins offense” that Perkins brought to the Giants in the 1980s and back to the Patriots in the mid-1990s when he was Parcells’s offensive coordinator.

When Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, Charlie Weis implemented the Erhardt-Perkins offense, and Josh McDaniels uses many of the same principles today.

“Certainly the terminology and a lot of the fundamentals of our offensive system, the foundation is still in that offense from Ray and Ron back in the late ’70s under Coach Fairbanks,” Belichick said.

The Patriots and Giants will also forever be indebted to Perkins for introducing those franchises to Belichick and Parcells. Perkins went just 23-34 in four years as the Giants’ head coach, from 1979-82, but he turned around the culture and built the team that would win two Super Bowls under Parcells. Perkins hired Parcells from the college ranks in 1979 to be the Giants’ linebackers coach.

“He was the one that took a chance on hiring me from college to pro football,” Parcells said by telephone. “I was always indebted to him for that, and he is the singular guy that helped me get started in professional football.”

And in 1979, Perkins also hired Belichick from the Broncos to be special teams coordinator.

“That was a life-changing moment for me,” Belichick said. “I’ve always been deeply appreciative of that opportunity, and have a ton of respect for Ray.”

Perkins starred as a player at Alabama and with the Baltimore Colts, was the head coach of two NFL teams and Alabama, and finished his career as the head coach at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College in 2012-13.

“I went down to Jones and got on the bus and we went over and played the Southwest Mississippi Bears,” Parcells said. “That’s one of the best times I ever had in my life.”

Perkins’s sudden death hit Belichick and Parcells hard.

“Without him I probably wouldn’t — I know I wouldn’t have had the opportunities,” Parcells said. “He was a good, close friend. I don’t have that many of those.”

ETC.

Do fans really make difference?

Heinz Field in Pittsburgh has not allowed fans all season, but the Steelers are still 6-1 at home.
Heinz Field in Pittsburgh has not allowed fans all season, but the Steelers are still 6-1 at home.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

There is a lot of talk about how home-field advantage has been eliminated because of a lack of fans in the stands. And it’s true, home teams are only 97-95-1 this season (.505), which would be the lowest home winning percentage in at least two decades.

But a closer look reveals that the teams that historically are good at winning at home are still doing so. The Chiefs and Seahawks may not have the loudest stadiums in the NFL this year, but each is 5-1 at home. The Steelers are 6-1, the Packers and Saints are 5-1, and the Colts and even the Patriots are 4-2.

A few teams that are normally stout at home are underperforming — the Broncos are 2-4, Vikings 3-4, Eagles 2-3-1, and Ravens 2-3. But perhaps the league’s subpar home record is just a statistical anomaly, not a reflection of the value of fans.

Fresh faces on Sunday nights

Micah Hyde and the Bills have an upcoming reward for their 9-3 record: an appearance on Sunday Night Football.
Micah Hyde and the Bills have an upcoming reward for their 9-3 record: an appearance on Sunday Night Football.Christian Petersen/Getty

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football’' became the NFL’s featured game of the week in 2006, and will have some fresh faces the next couple of weeks.

The 9-3 Bills are making just their third appearance in 15 years this week, against the Steelers. And the 9-3 Browns will get just their third-ever appearance next week when they play the Giants. This game replaces Cowboys-49ers, marking the first time that the all-powerful Cowboys got flexed out of “Sunday Night Football.”

The Cowboys lead the NFL with 47 appearances on “SNF,’' averaging more than three per season. The Eagles and Patriots are next with 33, followed by the Packers, Steelers, and Giants with 31.

On the other end, the Jaguars have played on “SNF” just once, a 2008 loss to the Steelers. The Dolphins have appeared only twice, while the Buccaneers and Titans join the Browns and Bills with three.

The Saints are the best “SNF” team with a 13-3 record, followed by the Patriots (20-13) and Steelers (18-13). The Bengals are 0-8, Lions 1-6, Bears 10-16, and Giants 12-19.

Extra points

The Patriots’ loss to the Rams on Thursday ensured they won’t win 10 games for the first time since 2002. In the 18 seasons since (including this year), the Patriots are an NFL-best 218-67 (.765), 34 wins better than the next-best team, the Steelers (184-99-1). The Patriots have 127 more wins than the Browns (89-194-1) … Cam Newton had another pass batted down at the line of scrimmage on Thursday, and the 6-foot-5-inch quarterback leads the NFL with 4.2 percent of his passes batted down. But he’s not the only tall quarterback with that problem. Also in the top five: Ben Roethlisberger (6-5), Philip Rivers (6-5), and Joe Flacco (6-6). Kyler Murray, listed at 5-10, is second behind Newton … The NFL is allowing players and coaches to honor a charity or cause on their cleats as part of the My Cause My Cleats campaign, and the shoes are auctioned off on the NFL’s website with proceeds going to charity. There is still about a month left, but so far, the shoes that have the highest bid across the entire NFL belong to Patriots chief of staff Berj Najarian, Bill Belichick’s right-hand man, who is supporting the Armenia Fund. As of Friday afternoon, the shoes had received 40 bids with the current one at $8,100. Tom Brady’s shoes have the next-highest bid at $5,600, followed by Belichick’s shoes at $2,850 … The Chiefs on Sunday play in Miami, which will always hold a dear spot in Andy Reid’s heart. Not only did the Chiefs win the Super Bowl in Miami in February, but the Dolphins beat the Patriots last year in Week 17 to give the Chiefs the No. 1 playoff seed. Reid said this past week that he sent Dolphins coach Brian Flores a big shipment of barbecue as a thank you. “I thought I’d just send him a little thought from Kansas City, you know,” Reid said … Bruce Arians this past week on Brady: “He’s a joy to coach and he’s a fantastic competitor. I love that about him. He’s been there and done it and he’s helped so many of our guys who haven’t [been there] believe that they can. That’s a huge part of it and I couldn’t ask any more out of him. I don’t see any drop at all. I’ve had some veteran guys that needed Wednesdays off and he’s not one of those guys. He’s amazing that way and how he takes care of himself. He’s helped a lot of young players learn about taking care of themselves also.” Translation: “Please don’t fire me, Tom.” … Big Ben Roethlisberger has become Checkdown Ben. He is completing 66.9 percent of passes this season, the third-best rate of his career, but his 6.4 yards per attempt are nearly a full yard lower than any other season in his career … Carolina and Denver play this week, having gone 75 regular-season games since their last matchup. The Super Bowl 50 participants played in Week 1 in 2016, and not again until Week 14 of 2020 ... Did you know: Since the 1970 merger, the Patriots, Cowboys, Jaguars, and Texans are the only teams not to have tied a game. The Packers have 10 ties, the Eagles nine, and the Cardinals eight.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.