With rookies reporting to training camps this week and quarterbacks and injured players on their heels, the NFL has already started the ball rolling toward professional football being played this autumn amid a pandemic.
But like the oval-shaped sphere at the center of the game, football in America is a long way from an easy and straight trundle to the goal line. While the owners and players have agreed on some important issues confronting the league as employees migrate back to team facilities, there is still no overall deal in place as of Wednesday evening.
That leaves about a week before the bulk of players are slated to return Tuesday. And even if the NFL is to have every team together by next week, there are significant obstacles in the ever-evolving, uncertain world of coronavirus — the most obvious being the congestion of football — to beginning and completing the season.
The league has seemingly bent on the players’ health and safety concerns. It has agreed to daily COVID-19 testing, no preseason games, and that players can opt out of the season over pandemic anxieties.
But the economics of holding a season that will have its constraints and may not be played to its end have yet to be ironed out.
The NFL had an advantage over most other sports leagues in that its season wasn’t interrupted by the nationwide shutdown. It had months to prepare for its start and, if necessary, to learn from how the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS went upon their resumptions.
But after the initial flattening of the curve in the spring, the virus surged in July with case numbers rising dramatically across most of the country, particularly in the South and West.
The spike only reinforced the NFLPA’s resolve on testing, contract tracing, and an extended period of acclimation as players return without the benefit of spring workouts and, in some cases, a level of fitness in which they are normally accustomed.
“Every decision we make this year needs to be made through a medical lens of what’s the safest and healthiest way to move forward,” union president JC Tretter said last week. “The only way we’re going to make it through a full season is if that’s the criteria we’re using to make our decisions.”
The players will be tested every day during the first two weeks of camp. If players, coaches, and certain employees close to the team — individuals in Tiers 1 and 2 — have a positive rate less than 5%, testing decreases to the owners’ original offer of every other day.
Players will need two negative tests — with three days of quarantining in between — before they’ll be allowed in the building for physicals or team activities. On Day 5, tests will be applied every day for the next two weeks.
Eagles rookies and first-year players reported Tuesday, but it could be weeks before coaches get them on the field and in pads. The latest ramp-up proposal by the league, as reported by the NFL Network, had testing and physicals from Days 1-6, strength and conditioning through Day 12, light workouts in helmets through Day 18 and, after an off day, the first practice in pads on Day 20.
The NFLPA has pushed for 21 days of strength and conditioning and then 10 days of non-padded workouts before camp would formally begin. It could be mid-August or later before teams actually practice, but with the preseason canceled, there should be enough time to implement scheme and evaluate players.
What that means for the overall product remains to be seen, but as Tretter and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith made clear last week, the owners own the plant and are seemingly committed to starting the season on time.
There are many other unanswered questions. How will the NFL and NFLPA handle the expected drop in 2020 revenues and its implications on future salary caps? How will the league account for what could be substantial roster turnover based on infections and quarantines? Will it implement regulations for equipment to minimize the spread of the virus?
And, ultimately, what happens if the NFL can’t contain an outbreak that could be fueled by a second wave during flu season potentially more catastrophic than the first?
Here are 10 things we do know about Eagles training camp and the coming season if and when they occur:
1. Camp will be held at the NovaCare Complex with limited team employees and media and without fans. Only a small number of fans previously gained entry to practices at the team facility, but no visitors will be allowed this summer. Teams can hold up to two workouts at stadiums in front of fans if state and local regulations allow it, but the Eagles, who hosted only one open practice a year ago, are unlikely after Philadelphia recently banned large public events through February 2021.
2. When players report, they will be isolated along with football personnel from the remainder of team employees. “Football personnel” includes coaches, medical staffers, equipment managers, and select members of football and scouting operations. They will access the building in a designated entrance. Fields, locker rooms, weight rooms, medical rooms, and meeting rooms will be restricted to Tier 1 (people who need at least 10 minutes of daily access to restricted areas) or Tier 2 (people who need periodic access to restricted areas) individuals.
3. The NovaCare will be reconfigured to account for six feet of physical distancing as much as possible. Locker rooms will be expanded into temporary areas, showers will have fewer accessible showerheads, and hallways will be rearranged to accommodate one-way traffic. Weight-room workouts will be capped at 15 players and in-person meetings will be limited to 20 people. All players and staff must wear masks indoors; however, players aren’t mandated to wear them during workouts.
4. Football personnel will wear digital proximity-tracking devices that monitor who they come in contact with, and for how long. The watch-sized devices will be worn at facilities. Players will also have contact tracers implanted in their equipment. While it’s unlikely that players will be required to don face shields on their helmets, they are expected to have smaller mouth shields that are designed to reduce the spread of the virus.
5. Players or team employees who have symptoms must immediately notify the team and quarantine as soon as possible. A symptomatic person who tests positive must stay away from the NovaCare for at least 10 days, wait at least 72 hours since symptoms last occurred before returning, and be cleared by a team physician. An individual with an asymptomatic positive test must avoid the facility for 10 days, or five days since the initial test and after two negative tests with at least 24 hours in between.
6. Players will have the option to stay at the Eagles’ team-sponsored hotel in the Navy Yard, but there isn’t a requirement. Because the NFL has decided to play games at all their stadiums, there won’t be a “bubble” arrangement like the NBA and NHL have in place for their condensed seasons. Players can return to their homes except on the night before regular-season games.
7. Players could face discipline if they are found to have contracted and spread the coronavirus following reckless behavior outside the facility. There will be unannounced inspections conducted jointly by the NFL and NFLPA and those who knowingly violate the policy could be subject to punishment.
8. Visiting teams will travel the day before games. New rules for traveling will require teams to limit capacity on planes, buses and in hotel rooms. There will be further restrictions in terms of eating out and socialization. Stadium locker rooms must be retrofitted to ensure distancing. Postgame handshakes, gatherings and jersey swaps have been eliminated.
9. The Eagles have yet to make a decision on fans at games, but the NFL will allow teams to determine their own policy. While Philly’s banning of large public events would seem to end the possibility of some fans at Lincoln Financial Field, the city backtracked and said that Eagles games could become an exception. It’s unlikely the Linc will be close to capacity if the Eagles receive clearance from local authorities. But as long as health guidelines are followed, they could conceivably allow entrance to as many as 20,000 fans.
10. Media access will be restricted and limited. Locker rooms will be closed to reporters. Most interviews will be conducted by video conference. And only a select number of media members will be allowed access to practices should they pass screening protocols.