The Eagles have been both lucky and vigilant, with no coronavirus cases at NovaCare since August. Yet, as the team prepares to face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field, it is being affected by virus-related NFL developments beyond its control, a situation that seems likely to get worse.
The 3-0 Steelers are well-rested, having been given an unplanned bye week because of the COVID-19 outbreak among the Tennessee Titans, which postponed last week’s Titans-Steelers game and has pushed this week’s Bills-Titans clash to Tuesday, theoretically, if no further positive tests come out of Nashville.
The Titans, who are under NFL investigation for violating virus-related league rules, including the holding of at least one workout at a high school after the league ordered their facility closed, don’t play the Eagles this season. But they could end up affecting whether the Birds make the playoffs, as could positive tests elsewhere.
This isn’t baseball, where you can play doubleheaders, or easily move games around to any day of the week. Is everyone going to end up playing 16 games, or will playoff berths end up being awarded by winning percentage? Will there be an 18th week of the season, or more, to accommodate rescheduled games?
This is a simmering-on-the-back-burner issue for much of the league. The Arizona Cardinals spent much of Friday wondering if they were going to be flying to play the Jets this weekend after all, in the wake of an initial positive Jets test that needed to be confirmed. But the Cardinals obviously could not make that uncertainty their focus; they needed to concentrate on the Jets, until told otherwise. (And they did take off for the East Coast, ultimately.)
That was part of what Eagles coach Doug Pederson had to say Friday, when asked about other teams who perhaps haven’t been as stringent about mask-wearing and contact-tracing.
“These teams, they are out of our control. We know, and I know, that somewhere this season, it’s going to directly affect us, whether it’s in our building, or it affects a game that we’re going to play,” said Pederson, who tested positive in August. "We just have to be diligent with how we approach each day, the testing protocols, the wearing of the masks.
"You see us at practice, coaches and players are wearing their masks or … those neck gaiters. It’s just a matter of us taking care of us. And we want to see the entire season being played. We know these next couple of weeks around the league, there’s some Tuesday games and games being shifted to Monday, and it’s probably going to eventually affect us somewhere down the line.
“If I worry about that, honestly, my stress level will go through the roof. ... I just want to focus, and make sure, that our guys are doing the right thing.”
The NFL was doing so well out of the gate this season despite not going to 24-hour bubbling like the NBA and the NHL. The league does not seem happy about the turn the season seems to be taking. There were rumors early in the week that if the Titans continued to have problems, this weekend would be a forfeit and not a rescheduling. That possibility doesn’t seem to be on the table, for now.
Last week, the Patriots ended up playing without COVID-19-poistive quarterback Cam Newton and lost to the Chiefs, in a game that was delayed until Monday, as Newton’s teammates were repeatedly tested. The league deemed it safe to proceed. Then, two days after the game, Pats corner Stephon Gilmore tested positive, highlighting the fact that everyone who is infected doesn’t test positive immediately. There is an incubation period.
Friday, the NFL announced a new 15-yard penalty for anyone approaching an official without a mask, and said that fines, suspensions, and forfeiting of draft picks could possibly be invoked.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie talked before the season about what playing in the midst of a pandemic might be like. Lurie talked about embracing unpredictability. He envisioned “that in any given game, there might be one quarterback available, or maybe there will be no tight ends and the wide receiver will have to play tight end, or our defensive end is going to be a defensive tackle, or a cornerback is going to have to be a receiver; our long snapper may not be there.”
But in the wake of games such as Chiefs-Patriots, and Gilmore’s subsequent positive test, it seems unlikely that a team will take the field with multiple players sidelined by the coronavirus; it’s just too hard to ensure that all their teammates are virus-free. More likely are postponements and cancellations.
Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson tested positive in July and spent two weeks quarantined.
“Every day we come to work, and then we see the headlines and we see all this stuff, and there’s not really a whole lot we can control,” Johnson said Friday. He said the Eagles do everything they can within NovaCare to mitigate hazards, “and then usually by the time we leave the building, it’s pretty late, so we go to the house.”
Johnson said he thinks teams are trying to follow the protocols. He said Eagles players have been told they will be fined if they are found to have endangered their teammates and coaches by doing unsafe things away from the practice facility, and he agrees that should be the case. But determining how someone contracted a virus isn’t like reviewing game film to assess a missed block.
“Really, with this virus, nobody really knows how people are getting it,” he said. “While we’re here [at NovaCare] we have the trackers on us, and we try to avoid close contact as much as possible.”
Eagles safety Rodney McLeod showed empathy for the Titans, at least when it came to trying to practice after their facility was closed.
“It’s hard. You get kicked out of the building, and now, as players, you try to, in some form or fashion, do something to ensure you stay in your routine and preparation for the following week,” McLeod said. "I think that’s all their intent was, but obviously, it caused another breakout, unfortunately, and it’s something we all can learn from.
“I think, across the league now, we all have to be a lot more responsible and trust in one another that we’re going to do the right thing when we leave these buildings.”