Everyone circles dates on the NFL calendar.
Coaches, players, and fans — especially fans — earmark games of interest when the league releases schedules in April. Coaches want to start game planning. Players want to start revenge planning. Fans want to start vacation planning.
Perhaps no group looks forward to seeing the slate of games for the first time more than beat reporters — especially Patriots beat reporters.
The mouths of cold-weather scribes water at the thought of getting to taste some Southern barbecue. And when will the annual wings/beef on weck fest happen in Buffalo? Everyone knows the way to a writer’s heart is right through the stomach.
For those lucky enough to cover the Patriots, the entire 2020 away lineup was circled. About three years ago. Imaginations ran wild with thoughts of the possibilities, and it was discussed at least once a week during pre-practice rap sessions.
Three West Coast trips. The possibility of a week in the Los Angeles sunshine if the schedule-making gods would allow. The crowd noise in Seattle. The sojourn to South Florida; would it be a quick winter getaway or a late-summer sweatfest?
But like many things in the NFL — and the world — the travel and entertainment plans for a good chunk of the media were wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.
Gone were the phone calls and group texts about what flights to take, who would call for the Uber, where to stay, and where to meet for meals and the occasional adult beverage.
Though it’s a competitive bunch, the writers who chronicle the ups and downs of the Patriots are a pretty tight group, and a lot of the relationships are formed on the road.
Conversations celebrating good interviews and stories and commiserations about bad ones are commonplace. Compliments and cracks are part of the deal. They were missed.
The scramble of a postgame locker room — particularly on the road, where visiting teams are often shoved in cramped spaces — was missed. No longer could you grab a player for a one-on-one in which a game-related nugget might be gleaned exclusively. Instead, video chats were the new norm, and everybody heard everybody else’s questions and answers.
From the lone Boston journalist to attend every Patriots road game in 2020, here’s a glimpse at what it was like to cover a team during a pandemic.
▪ Sept. 20 at Seattle
Walking through Logan Airport brought on the first of many eerie feelings during the season. No lines. Anywhere. None at the TSA checkpoint, none at Dunkin’ (closed), none at the newsstand.
There was no mad rush to the gate when boarding began. Social distancing was not a problem. There may have been 25 people heading west, and not a single one was in Patriots garb. Every passenger had an entire row to themselves for the six-plus-hour flight.
At CenturyLink Field, traditionally the noisiest of NFL outposts, the silence was scary. Watching perhaps the most exciting Patriots game of the season was akin to watching a silent movie. When Cam Newton was tackled on the final play, securing the Seahawks victory, the only noise was Seattle coach Pete Carroll shouting, “Woooooo!”
▪ Oct. 5 at Kansas City
The text landed during the initial descent into Minneapolis. “Dude, Cam Newton tested positive.” The sender was my brother Howie, a master chop buster, so I was at first skeptical until follow-up messages assured me it was true.
The next three hours were spent in a desolate corner of Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport checking with sources and confirming and writing the story. More details followed, and our first-edition story had a Minneapolis dateline while the final one sported a Kansas City, Mo., dateline.
▪ Nov. 1 at Buffalo
Patriots fans traditionally travel to Western New York in droves. Normally there’s an abundance of flights to choose from for the hour trip. Connections in Washington (to) and Newark (from) turned this into a six-hour journey.
Usually this is the best tailgating scene in the league, though nary a table was crushed by the Bills Mafia on this snowy, rainy, and windy day when Buffalo crushed the Patriots’ spirit. A late-game Newton fumble sealed their fourth straight loss.
▪ Nov. 9 at NY Jets
Hit 95 South to the Wilbur Cross Parkway to the Merritt Parkway for the annual trip to the Meadowlands.
Desolate roads led to a desolate press box but ended in New England’s most exciting win of the season and the first of four victories in five weeks that gave renewed hopes for a playoff berth. Also, first warm press box meal of the season.
▪ Nov. 22 at Houston
Friendly faces! The always cheerful Dan Roche of WBZ-TV and the Providence Journal’s Mark Daniels came to Texas, and suddenly I wasn’t in a Lone Star state of mind in the press box.
One of the finest of a string of fine performances from Deshaun Watson dealt a blow to the Patriots’ postseason hopes. It might have been the last time Watson was seen smiling.
▪ Dec. 6 at LA Chargers
Everything came together for the Patriots in their most complete performance of the season inside the cavernous new SoFi Stadium in the shadow of the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
This may have been the strangest of all the road games, as there were no press box announcements and the fewest amount of media all season. Southern California was experiencing a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. It was like watching a game with the mute button on.
▪ Dec. 10 at LA Rams
Following a few more days of practice on the UCLA campus, a prime-time return trip to SoFi was not so fun. The Patriots fell behind early and fell to 6-7 on the season. Not even a week of gorgeous sunrises and ideal weather could take the sting out of this game.
▪ Dec. 20 at Miami
Another trip to the warm climes couldn’t cure what was ailing the Patriots. The normally cramped and crowded press area at Hard Rock Stadium had plenty of elbow room.
With many spectators in the stands — including lots of Patriots fans — this game felt the most like a “normal” NFL contest.
▪ Jan. 26-28 at Mobile, Ala. (Senior Bowl)
A city that is normally filled to the gills with NFL personnel and reporters was like a ghost town. Gone was the “mini Combine” feel, where connections are made and relationships renewed. The stands were mostly empty, and media and scouts were separated.
▪ Feb. 5-8 at Tampa (Super Bowl)
The Super Bowl decorations were present downtown, and the week ended with Tom Brady holding the Lombardi Trophy — but those were the only normal things about LV.
Traditions like Media Night (it was a Zoom call), Radio Row (looked more like Radio Booth), and corporate parties (there were none), and long airport lines were nonexistent.