The NFL will look mostly normal in 2021. Stadiums will be full again. Players and coaches (mostly) won’t have to wear masks on the sideline. Opponents can hug each other and exchange jerseys.
But just when it looked like the NFL had put COVID-19 behind it, the Delta variant reared its ugly head this past week and offered a stark reminder: The pandemic is still raging in many parts of the country, and it will continue to cause problems for the NFL throughout the 2021 season.
Already this training camp we have seen the Minnesota Vikings have to go five days without any of their top three quarterbacks because one contracted COVID and the other two weren’t vaccinated. Then this past week the NFL dealt with several tricky situations.
In New England, presumed starting quarterback Cam Newton had to miss three days of practice due to protocols for unvaccinated players who miss one of their daily COVID tests.
Three teams are dealing with COVID clusters that have knocked several players out. Over the past week, the Titans put seven players and two coaches (including head coach Mike Vrabel and starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill) on the COVID reserve list. The Cowboys placed six players on the COVID list. The Bills placed four unvaccinated players on the COVID list for being close contacts.
Vaccinated players who test positive can return after two negative tests taken 24 hours apart. Unvaccinated players who test positive have to sit out a minimum of 10 days, and a minimum of five days if they are a close contact.
It was a glaring reminder that players and coaches — even vaccinated ones — are still very much at risk of getting pulled from the lineup at any time.
“We will see positive tests in vaccinated people,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said. “But I don’t consider that a failure … While we do see positive cases in vaccinated people, they are having very mild illness, not a high burden of symptoms, and also shorter duration of illness.”
Some important facts about the NFL’s COVID protocols and testing data:
▪ Sills and the NFL remain big believers in the effectiveness of vaccines. Between Aug. 1-21, Sills said the incidence rate among the NFL’s unvaccinated players was seven times higher than that of vaccinated personnel (2.2 percent to 0.3 percent). Sills said that fully vaccinated players have only had mild COVID symptoms, and in his day job as a physician in Nashville, he says that 95 percent of those who are hospitalized for COVID are unvaccinated.
“Very clear evidence of the protective effect of vaccines,” Sills said.
▪ Sills said the situations in Tennessee, Buffalo, and Dallas are “clusters,” not “outbreaks,” because the virus isn’t spreading uncontrolled in team facilities. In these situations, the NFL implements its “enhanced mitigation protocols” — requiring daily testing, masks indoors, virtual meetings, and many of the protocols that were in place last year before vaccines were introduced.
The league also believes that the high rate of vaccinations has prevented outbreaks. As of Thursday, the NFL said 93 percent of its players and more than 99 percent of its coaches are fully vaccinated.
“If we had those kind of vaccination rates in society right now, we would be in a far, far different place with regard to where this pandemic currently is,” Sills said.
▪ Because the NFL believes so strongly in vaccines and does not want any interruption to the 2021 season, the league continues to make life miserable for players who choose not to get vaccinated.
The only way a vaccinated player or coach gets pulled from the team is if he tests positive. But with unvaccinated players, it could be a positive test (10-day minimum absence), or being a close contact of someone infected (five days), or simply missing one day of testing like Newton did (five days).
Of the 22 players who went on COVID-IR between Monday and Thursday, 13 tested positive, and nine were unvaccinated players who were considered “close contacts.”
Simply put: Any player who doesn’t get vaccinated is playing roulette with his availability, every day. Teams that are lagging in vaccinations, such as the Bills, Vikings, Colts, and Washington, are more at risk of having their games upended by COVID.
▪ Since the start of training camp, vaccinated players have to get tested once every two weeks, while unvaccinated players are required to take one every day (including all off days and bye weeks). But the NFL proposed changing the cadence to require vaccinated players to test once every seven days, which the NFL Players Association is mulling. The NFLPA wants daily testing for everyone, which the NFL believes is unnecessary.
Changing the testing cadence to once every seven days will probably result in more positive cases for vaccinated players, and more players getting pulled from the lineup.
▪ Larry Ferrazani, the NFL’s deputy general counsel of labor, said the league wished it could impose a vaccine mandate for all players like it did for its coaches and executives, but the NFLPA balked. Most likely, the NFLPA wants too much in return.
“We would still love to see that mandate go into effect tomorrow,” Ferrazani said.
▪ Instead, the NFL will continue to strong-arm the 7 percent of vaccine holdouts into getting their shots. Not only do unvaccinated players have to do daily testing, wear masks, can’t leave town on bye weeks, and have their playing status continuously at risk, they are also being monitored by Big Brother.
Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie on Thursday posted to Twitter a letter he received from the NFL detailing his violations of the mask protocols and announcing a fine of $14,650.
“For players who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, like you, your conduct is expressly prohibited by the protocols,” the NFL wrote.
The NFL detailed that McKenzie wasn’t wearing his mask at 2:15 p.m. and 4:35 p.m. on Aug. 25 — coincidentally, just a short time after the NFL gave a presentation to all Bills players about COVID protocols and the mask-wearing requirement. McKenzie had previously been issued a verbal warning by the NFL.
The NFL isn’t going to mandate vaccines. But it is not going to let unvaccinated players get away with breaking the COVID protocols, either.
Some pictures becoming clearer
While Patriots coach Bill Belichick won’t reveal anything about the competition between Cam Newton and Mac Jones, several teams brought clarity to their quarterback depth charts:
▪ In New Orleans, the Saints are spending more money on Taysom Hill this year, and Hill went 3-1 as a starter last year, but Jameis Winston’s training camp performance was too much for coach Sean Payton to ignore. On Friday, Payton made the decision to go with Winston, choosing the classic pocket passer over the run-pass dual threat.
Hill will make $12.1 million this year but is likely to return to his Swiss Army knife role of tight end, special teams, and sub-package quarterback. Winston will make $5.5 million this year and can earn another $6.5 million in performance and team-based incentives.
Winston, a former No. 1 overall pick, is only 27 years old. He was an interception machine in his five years with the Buccaneers but could be dangerous now in his second season under Payton. Winston and the Saints come to Foxborough in Week 3.
▪ The Broncos officially named Teddy Bridgewater the Week 1 starter, with Drew Lock backing up. In 13 starts last year, Lock threw 16 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, and completed just 57.3 percent of his passes as the Broncos finished 5-11. The fact that the Broncos are paying Bridgewater $4.4 million and Lock just $1.14 million this year tilted the field in Bridgewater’s favor.
Bridgewater was great for the Saints in 2019, going 5-0 in Drew Brees’s absence with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions. But he was dreadful for the Panthers last year, going 4-11 with just 15 touchdowns and 11 picks. He reunites in Denver with general manager George Paton, who was a Vikings executive when Bridgewater was a first-round pick in 2014.
Bridgewater becomes the fifth quarterback to start in Week 1 for the Broncos since Peyton Manning retired after 2015. It’s not a pretty list: Trevor Siemian (2016-17), Case Keenum (2018), Joe Flacco (2019), and Lock (2020).
▪ In Jacksonville, Urban Meyer named No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence the starter, which normally wouldn’t qualify as news. But the Jaguars’ offensive line has been shaky this training camp, and there was some thought given to starting the season with Gardner Minshew, who was traded on Saturday to the Eagles for a conditional 2022 pick, to keep Lawrence out of harm’s way.
Instead, Lawrence will learn on the fly, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has to make sure he protects the team’s investment.
▪ In Chicago, Bears coach Matt Nagy reaffirmed that Andy Dalton will start in Week 1. But Justin Fields has been so tantalizing during the preseason that it seems only a matter of weeks before he overtakes Dalton.
▪ In San Francisco, coach Kyle Shanahan isn’t announcing anything, but Jimmy Garoppolo may have given away that the 49ers plan to use rookie Trey Lance in a change-of-pace role. Garoppolo told reporters this past week that he recently spoke to Brees about how he handled being taken out of the game for Hill on a handful of snaps.
“We talked about the situation for a little bit and how him and Taysom did it,” Garoppolo said. “And it’s a thing that I wasn’t really used to, I guess you could say. Just the in and out part of it. So, I was trying to pick his brain, how he handled that.”
Michel had an interesting journey
A few notes on Sony Michel’s tenure with the Patriots:
▪ The Patriots chose him with the 31st pick in 2018 because they whiffed on free agent Mike Gillislee the year before. Michel entered the NFL with knee problems and was supposed to be the backup to veteran Jeremy Hill, but Hill tore his ACL in Week 1, pressing Michel into starting duties earlier than expected, and into a between-the-tackles role that he wasn’t best suited for.
▪ Michel produced decent numbers in three seasons, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and cracking 900 yards in each of his first two years. He also rushed for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three games during the Patriots’ 2018 postseason run.
▪ Michel clearly wasn’t the player the Patriots were hoping for when they drafted him in the first round. A home run threat in college who averaged 7.9 yards per carry his final year at Georgia, Michel didn’t break many big ones in the NFL, nor was he effective in short yardage. He also didn’t contribute much in the passing game or on special teams.
▪ Of 38 qualifying running backs from 2018-20, Michel ranked 20th in rushes of 10-plus yards (11.2 percent), and 26th in yards per carry (4.28). A first-round pick should be more than just average. The running back most observers thought the Patriots should draft, Michel’s Georgia teammate Nick Chubb, ranked third (14.9 percent) and first (5.23) in those categories.
▪ Michel also was stuffed on four of his 12 attempts on third/fourth and 1 in 2019. Last year, the Patriots only gave Michel the ball twice in those situations, while Cam Newton had 17 (and converted 16) and Rex Burkhead had four.
▪ As to Michel’s big numbers in the 2018 postseason run, which included the only touchdown in the Super Bowl win over the Rams, I credit the offensive line and play-calling as much as Michel.
▪ It became apparent that the Patriots weren’t thrilled with Michel when they spent a third-round pick on Damien Harris a year after drafting Michel in the first round. Once the Patriots drafted Rhamondre Stevenson in the fourth round this year, only an injury was probably going to keep Michel on the roster.
▪ The Patriots got a fourth and a sixth for Michel, then traded a fifth and a seventh (which they got for tight end Ryan Izzo) to the Ravens for defensive back Shaun Wade. So the Patriots got a fourth, a sixth, and Wade for Michel, Izzo, and a fifth. Not a bad return for two players the Patriots were going to have to release.
Giants had to tackle the hill
Even though the Giants had two physical, demanding practices in 100-degree heat, coach Joe Judge made sure that his players ran sprints on the infamous hill at the back of the Patriots’ practice field.
“It’s a great way to condition your players, but it’s a great way to push your players safely,” he said before Thursday’s practice. “The incline actually protects the lower extremities with the soft tissue injuries. So it’s an ability to really push your guys when they’re tired, and training them and building that conditioning, without really exposing them to something dangerous.”
The NFL made if official on Thursday when it announced that Perry Fewell and Walt Anderson will be replacing recently departed Al Riveron as the league’s chief decision makers on instant replays. Anderson, the referee for the infamous Deflategate playoff game, was an NFL official from 1996-2019 who refereed two Super Bowls. Fewell joined the league office last year after a two-decade run as a defensive coach, serving as defensive coordinator for the Giants in 2011 when they beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The NFL is also implementing the Hawk-Eye instant replay system (the same used in professional tennis) and gives the replay judges instant access to all broadcast angles simultaneously … The Jets are losing pass rushers left and right. First they lost Carl Lawson, their big-ticket free agent signing in March, for the season to a torn Achilles’. Then this past week they lost veteran Vinny Curry for the season because of complications from a rare blood disorder. The Jets are scouring the other 31 teams for help on the edge, with John Franklin-Myers (five sacks in two seasons) and Bryce Huff (two sacks in one season) penciled in as starters … It’s one step forward, one step back for the cursed Colts. Carson Wentz is back at practice, and it looks like that scary-looking foot injury from a few weeks back won’t keep him out for Week 1. But just days after All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson returned from the same injury, Nelson and starting left tackle Eric Fisher were placed on the COVID list on Thursday … Dawn Aponte, NFL chief football administrative officer, defended the league’s crackdown on taunting for 2021, saying it is “a focus on setting an example for good sportsmanship and respect for opponents.” She noted that the NFL’s competition committee, coaches’ subcommittee, and NFLPA supported the crackdown, and that the NCAA will make taunting a similar point of emphasis … The NFL said that season-ticket renewals equaled a five-year high this year, and that both of its London games this year were almost all sold out in less than 24 hours. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand,” NFL executive Peter O’Reilly said.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.