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Sunday football notes

NFL’s medical community were the real MVPs this extraordinary season

The virus “did not cross the line of scrimmage,” Dr. Allen Sills said, referring to viral transmission in outdoor settings.
The virus “did not cross the line of scrimmage,” Dr. Allen Sills said, referring to viral transmission in outdoor settings.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The Tampa air was a breezy 63 degrees at kickoff for Super Bowl LV, but Dr. Christina Mack, an epidemiologist who led the NFL’s COVID-19 contact tracing efforts this season, needed a heavier jacket.

“I had chills when I saw [the] kickoff,” said Mack, an adviser to the NFL for the past decade and the vice president of epidemiology and clinical evidence at IQVIA.

The Super Bowl was the culmination of an extraordinary effort from the NFL’s medical community throughout the 2020 season. Aaron Rodgers may have been the NFL’s MVP, but the league’s medical personnel were the real stars this season.

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The NFL pulled off an impressive accomplishment, becoming the first American pro sports league to play its entire season through the pandemic, and without the benefit of a “bubble.” The league did it by becoming a leader in the health and safety field — implementing an extensive system of daily testing, tracing, and social distancing that led to new information about COVID-19 that helped the league play its season and should help society at large.

“This is why I became an epidemiologist, to put public health into action in this way,” said Mack, also an adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina. “It was some of the most cohesive interdisciplinary team effort that I’ve ever been involved with. It was a really incredible scientific and medical exercise.”

The NFL conducted about 1 million COVID tests this season, compiled contact tracing data from every participant, and gathered information from 32 different communities across the country. Many of its findings were recently published in a paper by the CDC. Among them:

▪ Masks work really well.

“What we did see in the data was when there was an exposure to a positive individual, if others were wearing masks, there was not transmission,” Mack said. “When we saw direct transmission, in the majority there was some kind of partial, incorrect, or lack of mask use.”

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▪ Traveling on airplanes was much safer than on buses or cars.

“We did have some individuals infected on an airplane ride that we found out about later, but we didn’t see transmission from them,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.

Airplanes have hospital-grade air filtration and ceiling-to-ground airflow, while buses and cars do not. The NFL did not see any virus transmission this year on airplanes — thanks in part to each person getting their own row — but had at least one case of infection where two players spent just five minutes together in a car.

The NFL stopped allowing people to eat on buses, and staggered meals on planes so everyone wasn’t eating at the same time.

▪ The NFL saw little-to-no viral transmission in outdoor settings. The virus “did not cross the line of scrimmage,” Sills said, meaning that the NFL didn’t have any cases of one team passing it to another team. Practices and sidelines also were safe, but that may have been because the NFL still required everyone to wear masks.

“We have a lot of data and medical backing to think that there was not transmission during game play,” Sills said. “But when you start talking about the sideline, you’re talking about individuals standing or sitting next to each other for an extended period of time. It made sense to us that masks were an important risk reduction measure that we could take.”

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▪ The NFL also pooled its data with the other pro sports leagues and found a low incidence of heart abnormalities, which includes myocarditis. Sills said the leagues have combined to write a paper about their findings that has been accepted for publication and should be out soon.

“What we learned in football is applicable far beyond that,” Mack said. “And not just to my son’s youth soccer league, but also to my kid’s school, to long-term health facilities, to essential workers, to manufacturing facilities.”

The NFL had impressive coordination and leadership from Sills, Mack, executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy Jeff Miller, and NFL Players Association medical director Thom Mayer, among others.

“It really took all of us to get through this,” said NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. “I’m really proud of the partnership we have with the NFL.”

Sills, a neurosurgeon by trade, did an excellent job of communicating, delegating, and providing consistent messaging as the leader and public face of the NFL’s effort. Sills and the NFL remained flexible with the league’s protocols, followed their data, reacted quickly to situations, and developed several key recommendations — such as isolating players and coaches deemed “high risk close contacts” for five days — that saved the season from disaster.

“There was a command structure. It was very clear how to get things done, when to get things done, and who’s going to do them,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, a member of President Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board and an unpaid consultant for the NFL. “Oftentimes I see situations where there isn’t a command structure in place like that. And it takes days, sometimes, to come to a certain point that in this command structure, sometimes, took an hour to happen.”

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Mack led a team of contact tracers who worked long hours and provided invaluable data. When the league’s test results would start coming in overnight, the positive tests were identified, the contact tracing data singled out which people were considered high-risk close contacts, and Mack and her team conducted lengthy interviews to determine the context — were masks used, was it outdoors or well-ventilated, and so on. Mack said that 37 people identified as close contacts later turned positive — cases that otherwise could have gone undetected.

“Their work was absolutely foundational for us to be able to respond in real time, and I think that was one of the key factors in our ability to successfully navigate through the season,” Sills said. “We had the data, we had it in real time and we could act upon it very quickly.”

And the unsung heroes of the season unquestionably were the team athletic trainers and physicians, who were given double duty: Treating injuries and also serving as the point people for the team’s infectious disease response. This involved educating the players about the protocols, enforcing the protocols, and having constant communication with the league office.

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“The athletic trainers and team physicians deserve a lot of kudos, because this was basically a second full-time job for them, beyond the normal medical team care,” said Dr. David Chao, who was the Chargers’ team doctor from 1997-2013.

The 2020 season will go down as one of the NFL’s greatest successes. It played all 269 games on time, kept everyone relatively safe, and provided valuable information about COVID-19.

“It was an incredible, exciting experience from a professional standpoint,” Sills said. “This has been a complete team effort, and it has never been more true than the season that we just completed. We were able to really see direct implications of what we were learning that could have a direct impact on the public health sector and society’s response to the pandemic.”

MOVING ON

Eagles cut their losses in dealing away Wentz

The Eagles traded Carson Wentz to the Colts on Thursday.
The Eagles traded Carson Wentz to the Colts on Thursday.Christian Petersen/Getty

Backed up deep and with no good options facing them, the Eagles punted away last week, trading Carson Wentz to the Colts for a third-round pick this year and a second-round pick next year that could become a late first-rounder.

The Eagles already fired coach Doug Pederson, but that wasn’t enough to salvage a deteriorated relationship with Wentz. So the Eagles took whatever they could get and moved on, despite sinking massive resources of draft picks and cash into Wentz over the last five seasons.

The trade represents a significant failure for Eagles GM Howie Roseman. Not only did his franchise quarterback go in the tank, but the Eagles wasted a lot of money by signing Wentz to a contract extension before the 2019 season, when he still had two years left on his rookie deal. Had the Eagles let Wentz play out his original five-year contract, they would have paid him $49.473 million. Instead, the Eagles paid Wentz more than $79 million.

Now the Eagles are saddled with a $33.82 million dead salary cap number for Wentz, which is the highest in NFL history by $12 million. Wentz will eat up about 17 percent of the Eagles’ salary cap this year, and won’t play a snap for them.

But give the Eagles credit for knowing when to cut their losses. They have to take their medicine in 2021, but they freed up over $31 million in cap space for 2022 and got out from Wentz’s onerous contract. If Jalen Hurts works out, they’ll have a low-cost quarterback for the next three seasons. If he doesn’t, they can always strike big in the QB market next year.

As for the Colts, they believe they have a roster ready to win a Super Bowl, and just need a veteran quarterback to replace the retired Philip Rivers. Coach Frank Reich was Wentz’s offensive coordinator for two seasons in Philly, and believes he can recreate the same magic in Indianapolis.

Wentz is also reasonably priced for the Colts — he is fully guaranteed for two seasons, but for a total of $47.4 million, which is in the lower range for a starting quarterback (assuming he’s good). If Wentz doesn’t improve, the Colts can move on easily after 2022.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

No guarantees with top-drafted quarterbacks

Saints quarterback Jameis Winston, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft, has a 28-42 record in 70 games as a starter.
Saints quarterback Jameis Winston, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft, has a 28-42 record in 70 games as a starter.Butch Dill/Associated Press

Just because a quarterback is drafted in the first round doesn’t mean he’s any good, as we have seen with the 2015 and 2016 drafts. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, and Jared Goff and Wentz were drafted 1-2 in each of those years, and none made it past five years with his original team.

In 2016, late-first rounder Paxton Lynch and second-rounder Christian Hackenberg also were total busts. The only quarterbacks to make an impact from those years were third-rounder Jacoby Brissett and fourth-rounder Dak Prescott, who is by far the best of the bunch. Of the 14 QBs drafted in the top four rounds in 2015-16, Prescott remains the only one starting for his original team (and FIRST he is a free agent this offseason).

FRANCHISE QB?

Steelers may be better off if Roethlisberger retires

The 2021 NFL season will be Ben Roethlisberger's 18th.
The 2021 NFL season will be Ben Roethlisberger's 18th.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The Steelers have an important decision coming up with Ben Roethlisberger, who has a $15 million roster bonus due on the third day of the league year (March 20). Roethlisberger wants to play, and the Steelers don’t have any good options behind him, but they’re in a bit of a pickle.

They are currently projected to be about $30 million over the salary cap, and are beginning the process of shedding veterans and starting over. Already center Maurkice Pouncey has retired, more veterans likely will be purged, and they may not be able to re-sign free agents such as Bud Dupree and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

The Steelers have said they want Roethlisberger back as long as they can rework his contract to create cap space. But there’s not a lot of room to move, since Roethlisberger is making $19 million this year, which is about as low as you can get for a starting quarterback. The only real move is to sign Roethlisberger to a new deal that has void years, which would push some of his cap money into the future.

The other option is for Big Ben to retire, which would save the Steelers $19 million in cap space. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert sounded like someone who is hoping Roethlisberger will take the hint.

“As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Colbert said last week. “He reiterated to us that he wants to continue to play. We told him we have to look at this current situation.”

IN GOOD POSITION

Will Jets hang on to Darnold and trade No. 2 pick for a haul?

Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is slated to make $920,000 in 2021 and the team may keep him under center.
Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is slated to make $920,000 in 2021 and the team may keep him under center.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The Jets have been NFL bottom-feeders for several years now, but GM Joe Douglas has them in an envious position this offseason. The Jets have a projected $70 million in cap space, second-most in the NFL. They also have pick Nos. 2, 23, 34, 66, and 87, having picked up an extra first-round pick by trading Jamal Adams to Seattle.

The Jets are in the driver’s seat with the No. 2 pick. Although they won’t get Trevor Lawrence, they can have their pick of any other quarterback prospect, including BYU’s Zach Wilson, whose stock is skyrocketing.

But there is increasing buzz the Jets are going to roll with Sam Darnold and his $920,000 salary this year, and build up the pieces around him instead of drafting a QB. Considering how many teams are hot for the top quarterback prospects, Douglas might be able to get a haul for No. 2 to add to his collection of draft picks. For a Jets team that is rebuilding from scratch, that scenario has to be very tempting.

Extra points

The franchise tag window runs from Feb. 23 to March 9, and the numbers have decreased this year because of the decrease in the salary cap from the pandemic. For example, the number for Patriots guard Joe Thuney was $14.781 million last year, and the number for offensive linemen this year is projected to be approximately $13.6 million. It would cost the Patriots $17.74 million to tag Thuney again because a second franchise tag is worth 120 percent of the previous year’s salary. The same holds true for Prescott, who would get $37.69 million if the Cowboys tag him again … Although Matthew Stafford and Wentz were able to force trades, I sense a growing frustration from Deshaun Watson’s camp that they haven’t been able to do the same with the Texans. “What’s the criteria for a quarterback asking to get traded, then actually getting traded? Asking for a friend,” Watson’s private QB coach, Quincy Avery, tweeted last week. Watson may have to throw a bigger temper tantrum if he wants to get out of Houston. On a related note, a league source said the Texans told Watson he could be involved in the head coaching search, but not in the GM search that eventually landed Nick CaserioTaylor Heinicke was a nice story, turning a surprisingly solid playoff performance for Washington into a two-year contract that was reported to be $8.5 million. But NFLPA records show that Heinicke has a base value of $4.75 million over two years, with a modest guarantee of $1.5 million (all in 2021). That’s standard backup QB money, and doesn’t even fully guarantee him a roster spot this year … Tim Tebow, 33, retired from baseball last week, but didn’t say what he will do next. The answer is obvious — backup quarterback for the Jaguars. Tebow hasn’t suited up since the 2015 preseason for the Eagles, but if Taysom Hill can be effective in spurts for the Saints, why can’t Tebow do the same for the Jaguars? Come on, Urban Meyer. Do it.


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