- Joined ESPN in 2011
- New Jersey native and author of two published novels
We spent weeks — months, even — reporting on the coronavirus protocols that the NFL and its players’ union negotiated for 2020 training camps. It has been more than three weeks now since those camps opened, and a few days since players started practicing in full pads. So it’s fair to wonder: How’s it going so far?
I spent a good chunk of my week asking that question of players, coaches and other officials around the league, and here are four things I found out:
It seems to be going pretty well.
As of Thursday evening, there were only five players left on the league’s COVID-19 reserve list, which is not just for players who have tested positive but also those who have exhibited symptoms or come into contact with people who have tested positive or exhibited symptoms.
The players to whom I spoke said they feel safe at their team facilities and that they believe their teammates, coaches and other members of their organizations are taking the protocols seriously. Daily testing is an understandable annoyance, but it’s one they understand is necessary if they want to go to work. And while it makes some of them squeamish, there haven’t been any major issues regarding cooperation with testing or the contact-tracing devices the players and other team personnel have to wear while in the facilities.
The National Football League Players Association officials to whom I spoke said this matches the feedback they’ve been getting, and they believe having convinced the league to test daily is a big part of the comfort level. They’ve already extended the daily-testing window to Sept. 5 — it was originally supposed to last just the first two weeks of training camp unless positive test rates were over 5% — and multiple sources told me to expect the NFLPA to push for daily testing to be extended into the regular season as well.
The league and union will continue to monitor developments in the science around the virus, and there are a few who believe testing advancements such as the newly approved Yale saliva test could help make the league’s testing procedures even smoother and more effective. League officials said Wednesday that their emphasis would be on testing accuracy and efficiency, and as for the new saliva test itself, they will evaluate to see whether it can help, and likely implement it or something like it if it can.
Don’t expect to see many players wearing coronavirus-protection mouth shields.
Obviously I haven’t surveyed every player in the league or even close to that. But it doesn’t sound to me as though the veteran players are interested in wearing the Oakley mouth shields the league has provided for use with its helmets. Players were dubious about these back in June and July when they first came up, citing concerns about their potential effects on visibility and breathing, and the sense I get is that players aren’t keen on giving them a shot in practice.
One veteran player I asked about the mouth shields texted me, “Some of the rookies are using them lol.” Another said flatly, “Guys aren’t going to wear those things.” Players don’t generally take kindly to these kinds of changes. Remember a few years back, when the league tried to mandate hip and thigh pads and players got upset about those?
Even Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, admitted on a conference call Wednesday that the mouth shields haven’t been embraced to the extent that the league hoped. Sills said Oakley has gathered player feedback and is in the process of designing a version 2.0 of the mouth shields based on that feedback. But with no league-imposed mandate to wear them and a belief that the testing protocols are ensuring that all the players on the field are virus-free anyway, it’s unlikely they’ll gain popularity any time soon.
There’s a high level of confidence that the regular season will, at the very least, start on time.
Yes, this whole thing is potentially one individual’s bad decision away from unraveling. And yes, of course, the league is watching to see whether the positive test rate drifts upward now that players are actually on the field and practicing together. But the testing protocols allow teams to be certain that the players on the field don’t have the virus. And the first three to four weeks of training camp have convinced the league and its teams that they’re capable of reacting effectively to signs of COVID-19 and preventing it from spreading in their own facilities.
So, barring some sort of major outbreak or a significant worsening of conditions in the states and municipalities in which the NFL’s teams play, there’s optimism that the Thursday night opener between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs 20 days from now will be played as scheduled, with the rest of the league kicking off three and four days later. The question, of course, is what happens after that.
The regular season will offer new challenges.
While some teams have been able to maintain their own “bubbles,” the regular season will require them to travel to other cities to play games. And as extensive as the league’s travel protocols were that went out to teams Wednesday — with rules governing everything from seating layouts on buses and airplanes to procedures for entering and leaving the stadium on game day to how to order hotel room service — the movement of teams in and out of their protocol-protected bubbles will increase the risk of infection and transmission.
One of the great unanswered questions at this point is what happens if a team has some kind of outbreak on game day. The league is putting together an outside committee to advise commissioner Roger Goodell on issues such as when to cancel or postpone a game, but there’s no hard-and-fast guideline that says, “X number of positive tests on Saturday and/or Sunday means that team can’t play,” and there isn’t likely to be one.
The NFL is closely watching the way Major League Baseball is adjusting its schedule following positive tests. To this point, positive tests on the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets have forced postponements of games. Baseball is able to make up a lot of those games with seven-inning doubleheaders, which won’t be an available option for the NFL. But it’s entirely possible that, on a given Sunday, one or more NFL games won’t be able to be played for COVID-19-related reasons. If that happens, those games would need to be postponed to later in the week, or moved back in the season to mutual bye weeks. If it happens enough, large chunks of the NFL schedule might need to be altered on the fly or even canceled. The possibility of some games ending the season having played more games than others isn’t completely farfetched.
The league is going to have to be flexible. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton brought up in a recent competition committee call the possibility of playing in an NBA-style “bubble” once the playoffs start, but it’s unclear at this point whether that’s possible, and the people I asked about it Wednesday and Thursday all said some variation of, “That’s too far away to even worry about right now.”
Bottom line: Things have gone well so far. Maybe even better than many expected. Compared to MLB, the NFL believes its system of daily testing and rapid isolation of positive or symptomatic personnel is so far protecting it from major disruption. Compared to college football, the NFL and NFLPA believe they’ve shown a level of leadership and collaboration that gives them a chance to actually pull this off. The season seems more likely than ever to start on time.
But no one is interested in taking a victory lap. Getting through the season and actually completing it remains the goal, and there’s not going to be any way for the NFL to know whether it can do that until it actually has.
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