It has been suggested that there is no playbook for coaching through a pandemic, and, in a figurative sense, this is true. The NFL is a pretty literal league, though, and so of course there is such a document in professional football. And this is what coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers organization followed when they put tight end Vance McDonald on the team plane for a weekend visit to Dallas.
“Those aren’t decisions that are made by us. It’s really cut and dry,” Tomlin said during his weekly Tuesday news conference. “It’s all in the procedural policy of COVID established in New York by the NFL. As long as he is negative and not showing signs of COVID, he is able to travel. And he was, and we did, and we don’t overanalyze it in that way.”
This is a defensible defense for the decision to include McDonald against the Cowboys.
That does not mean it was the right choice.
Multiple news sources have reported that McDonald learned Monday of a positive coronavirus test. He was placed on the league’s COVID reserve list. The Steelers announced Tuesday that they had added four players, including star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, to that list, although Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that he had not tested positive . Roethlisberger will not be permitted to practice this week and cannot rejoin the team until Saturday, at the earliest.
Tomlin emphasized that the organization is “working extremely hard” to cope with the challenges presented by COVID. Although Tomlin said he is “not overly concerned” about possibly facing a division rival with Roethlisberger having minimal preparation time, it certainly is not ideal.
The words “abundance of caution” do not get much attention in the NFL, and this is fathomable in ordinary times. Football is a violent sport. The game’s principals have endeavored for the past decade to make the game safer, with good reason, but guys still get hit hard.
These are not ordinary times, though.
Since early March, since Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA suspended operations for a period that wound up lasting more than four months, we have seen the coronavirus exact its toll on the world of sports. It began with the postponement of the MLB, NHL, MLS and NWSL seasons and continued through the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and Wimbledon.
The NFL was fortunate in that its season was not scheduled to begin until many other sports found ways to resume competition — the PGA Tour, NASCAR and soccer leagues around the world. That did not mean that it would encounter no challenges. It did mean that it had every opportunity to learn from those circumstances others were required to evade or conquer.
And still we see situations in which problems arise that were easily avoidable.
McDonald practiced with the Steelers last Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, he showed up on the injury report as DNP — did not practice — with “illness” presented as the reason for his absence. His status for Sunday’s game against the Cowboys was listed as “questionable.”
Honestly, at that point it ought to have been questionable whether he was invited to join the other Steelers on the team plane to Dallas.
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It was only a week earlier that cornerback Marlon Humphrey showed up on Baltimore’s injury report with an illness, returned to practice and then played on Sunday — against the Steelers, no less — before a positive test was revealed.
The NFL told Sporting News that the PCR tests given on game days are a “24-hour (sometimes less) result return.”
It’s understandable Baltimore felt comfortable playing Humphrey given that he’d tested negative multiple times subsequent to his day missed to illness, and it’s somewhat understandable that the Ravens would be motivated to include him against their biggest rival and competitor for the AFC North title.
McDonald, though, faced much less time between his apparent illness and the decision to take him on the road trip. And he is a less essential player. And the Steelers had seen first-hand what occurred with Humphrey.
The worst-case scenario for the Steelers in making the decision they did? He would play a limited role in the game (only 20 snaps, including one 2-yard reception), then test positive for the virus, with contact tracing leading to Roethlisberger being placed on the COVID reserve list.
Which is where we are.
“We all have these tracking devices, these GPS devices that track our contact and close contact — the extent of it, the length of it, etc. When someone tests positive for COVID, the analysis of these devices is a critical component,” Tomlin said. “The interviews are conducted by the NFL officials, and they determine the concern regarding potential exposure of people. And they lead the charge in terms of putting people in categories, whether or not they end up on COVID lists.”
That means the Steelers’ best-case scenario at this point is Roethlisberger continuing to produce negative tests and joining the team for Saturday’s walk-through and a late Sunday afternoon kickoff.
It will be a long week for Pittsburghers.
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