A lot of people around the NFL aren’t sure that the only major professional league trying to play an entire season in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is going to be able to do that -- or should even be trying to do that, given its inability to create a 24-hour controlled environment for participants.
Fletcher Cox is not one of those people.
Cox, the Eagles’ five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, told reporters via Zoom on Wednesday that he has confidence in his safety at the NovaCare Complex, and that he feels players will be responsible about risk when they are on their own at night.
“I feel safe – there are protocols you have to go through before you even go into the building. … I feel really safe. When you go home, you just have to do the right thing, just stay in the house, making sure you stay on top of things,” Cox said. “You got to make sure we take care of our coaches, especially our older coaches, making sure we’re not bringing anything in the building that will affect our coaches.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson, 52, currently is isolating at home in Moorestown, N.J., after twice testing positive for coronavirus, apparently as a result of contact outside the practice facility. Pederson has said he is asymptomatic.
The NFL Network reported Tuesday that 90 players have been placed on the COVID-19 reserve list; 35 have subsequently returned. Pederson and the New Orleans Saints’ Sean Payton are the only head coaches known to have tested positive.
Pederson continues to coach remotely, and assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley supervises activities at NovaCare.
“Doug’s doing a really good job of leading this team virtually. Duce is doing a really good job of handling [the daily work at the facility.] … Everything is going really smoothly,” Cox said.
The Eagles have placed right tackle Lane Johnson, linebacker Nate Gerry, and backup offensive lineman Jordan Mailata on the COVID list. Johnson has acknowledged testing positive, but a player also can go on the list if he has been exposed to someone who has tested positive.
All this has led to considerable speculation about the viability of the upcoming season, which is scheduled to begin next month without preseason games.
“I feel really good about the season. I think there’ll be a season,” Cox said. “There will be ups and downs. … There’s just some things we have to adapt to. There’ll be changes here and there, but we can’t let that distract us from our main goal, and that’s starting the season and finishing it.”
Cox said the toughest adaptation for him has been wearing a mask.
“Having the mask on at the moment you walk into the building, and having to keep that mask on during meetings. … Talking to your teammates, keeping that mask on, just walking around the halls,” he said.
About 60 players across the league have opted out of playing in 2020, including Eagles receiver Marquise Goodwin. Cox, who will turn 30 on Dec. 13, indicated this was not a serious question to him.
“I knew I was playing,” he said. “I love this game so much. … Just feeling safe was the biggest thing. Here, I feel safe.”
Cox looks forward to something he was promised last season but did not get to experience – a deep D-tackle rotation, including a formidable presence next to him who can make it harder to double-team Cox, the Eagles’ all-time sack leader among interior linemen, with 48 in eight seasons.
Malik Jackson, a 2019 free-agent acquisition who suffered a Lisfranc injury in the season opener last year, is healthy now, and the Eagles signed Javon Hargrave to a three-year, $39 million free-agent deal. Backups Anthony Rush and Bruce Hector return.
“I think it’s a really good group, a solid group,” Cox said. “It’ll be a really good rotation, whatever we decide to do.”
Cox hosted the defensive linemen at his Shady Trell Ranch in Jacksboro, Texas, a few months back. He tried to straddle being responsible virus-wise with being a team leader, taking responsibility for helping prepare the group, which got no official spring work because of the pandemic.
“We didn’t know if there was going to be [offseason workouts]. I had a place to get all the guys down, you know, my place in Texas,” Cox said. “So I reached out to all the guys, I told guys, ‘Hey, if you feel safe coming down, let’s all get together as a group, as a D-line unit, and try and knock some things out.’ … That way we’re not away from each other so long that at training camp, nobody’s seen anyone.
“Everybody had fun, to say the least. A bunch of guys doing some stuff they’d never done before, and so I was very happy to present that to those guys.
“A couple of guys like Derek [Barnett] and Bruce, they never rode a horse before. I think the funniest thing was, obviously, it’s a ranch, and I’ve got cows and stuff, a bunch of wildlife. Malik wasn’t really – he didn’t like the mosquitoes. He’s a Cali kid, so, the mosquitoes and flies, he kind of stayed inside.
“We shot some skeet; everybody [stunk] at first, until, about 20 minutes into it, everybody started catching on to it.”
Cox had never gathered teammates before. He said undertaking it this year was less about moving into an expanded leadership role and more about the fact that, “I had a place to house all those guys.”
Cox said he had two employees charged with cleaning the living quarters while the players were out and about.