The NFL sets off into uncharted waters on Tuesday. As training camps kick off around the league, a profound feeling of uncertainty hangs over the upcoming season. The safety of players and staff is at the forefront of everyone’s minds: How will the league, and the individual teams, attempt to keep their players and coaches safe from COVID-19? How often will they be testing players, and if―or far more likely, when―infections happen, how will teams avoid an outbreak?
We’ve got actual football questions, too: What will teams do to adapt to a shortened offseason and a canceled preseason slate? Which teams, and which players, will be most affected by the turmoil created by these unprecedented times? And which training camp battles will have the biggest impact on the league? In light of the extraordinary circumstances, I put together a list of frequently asked questions, along with some answers―at least in the cases where there are answers―around the opening of NFL training camps.
When do players report to training camp?
Following last-minute negotiations, the league and NFLPA agreed on a revised CBA last week that outlined safety protocols, training camp timelines, roster sizes, and salary cap changes for the wholly unique season. As part of that agreement, commissioner Roger Goodell informed all 32 teams that the final report date for training camps would remain unchanged: Tuesday, July 28. (The Chiefs and Texans, who are scheduled to play the season opener three days before the rest of the league kicks things off, were allowed to report early.)
Because of prior cancellations to offseason OTAs and minicamps, though, the schedule for this year’s training camps differs greatly compared to normal seasons. The first two weeks will be spent testing for COVID-19, holding virtual meetings, conducting physicals, holding walkthroughs, and ramping up conditioning in an effort to get players ready to take the field. By Day 16, teams can start practicing, and by Day 21, padded practices can commence. Past that general schedule outline, though, coaches are still largely in the dark as to what exactly those padded practices will look like.
How are teams preparing facilities and testing for COVID-19?
Ahead of the start of camp, all 32 teams submitted infectious disease emergency response (IDER) plans for approval from both NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills and independent experts at Duke University. The NFLPA has approved the plans for 20 clubs.
Each team’s IDER plan lays out protocols around testing, safety upgrades at facilities, and designates a COVID Protocol Coordinator, whose role is to enforce the new rules. The countermeasures clubs are implementing run the gambit from using high-tech thermal scanners that measure players’ body temperature to simple rules around each player using his own water bottle. Among the procedures are a few common threads: Face coverings will be required at all times inside buildings, and players will practice social distancing when possible, with teams separating tables in food service areas, staggering lockers, or even limiting the number of players allowed in the showers or cold tubs at a given time. There’s plenty of other measures in place, from electrostatic sprayers that sterilize surfaces in the Vikings’ training room, to facial recognition devices that open doors in the Texans’ facility.
As for testing, the league will rely on private diagnostics company BioReference Laboratories to execute a uniform procedure for all 32 teams. The company is set up at every facility and will test players daily, at least for the first two weeks of training camp (the testing frequency after two weeks will drop to every other day, unless the rate of positive tests is above 5 percent). Players must register multiple negative tests before being allowed into the facilities, and any player who tests positive will enter the Treatment Response Protocol (which involves isolation, monitoring, and medical care) while the team starts containment processes. To help with this, the league will be implementing contact tracing devices that track the proximity each player has had to his teammates and coaches in order to help clubs prioritize the quarantining and testing of potentially infected personnel.
So is training camp happening in a bubble?
Nope! While the league’s aggressive testing and safety protocols are a promising start, the fact the NFL has, at least so far, opted against constructing a leaguewide bubble (as both the NBA and NHL have done in order to finish their respective seasons) creates a massive vulnerability. With players and club personnel allowed to leave following practices and go out into the world (as opposed to restricting players and staff to a hotel campus, as the NBA has done), a leaguewide honor system of sorts remains the NFL’s first line of defense against COVID-19.
The apparent hope is that educating players on how to limit high-risk behavior―while simultaneously threatening to withhold pay for those who fail to adhere to established guidelines―will create de facto mini bubbles for all 32 teams. Strong leadership, and in some cases peer pressure, will also play a big part in keeping all 100-plus members of each team and staff safe. But lag times in test results (BioReference’s daily tests come with a 24-hour turnaround time, and instant tests aren’t accurate enough at this point to be useful) complicate containment procedures, and it’s not difficult to imagine the NFL encountering a scenario similar to what the Miami Marlins are dealing with this week. As we’ve seen in the MLB, the honor system doesn’t work if players or teams ignore or look to skirt established protocols.
Even well-defined and rigorous safety measures are never 100 percent effective. Not long after giving NBC’s Peter King a tour of the Vikings’ new-look complex, Eric Sugarman―the team’s head trainer and infection control officer―tested positive for the virus. Outside a real bubble, the number of variables each team must deal with (e.g., the number of people its players, coaches, and players’ and coaches’ family members and friends come in contact with each day) approaches astronomical figures; that leaves little doubt that teams will be forced to deal with positive tests throughout training camp and into the season. In fact, the league expects that to happen―the only question will be how quickly and effectively teams will be able to contain the spread of the virus. If an outbreak occurs, that team may be forced to shut down all operations temporarily.
Will players get special COVID-19 gear?
Players will have the option of wearing a newly developed mouth shield from Oakley. The shield connects to the facemask and the NFL says it limits the direct transmission of droplets from both the nose and mouth.
A first look at the Oakley Mouth Shield, which is being shipped out to NFL teams this week in hopes of protecting players from COVID-19. https://t.co/ubrwi6iOfr— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) July 13, 2020
The league pushed to make the shields mandatory, but the players union has been resistant. Texans star J.J. Watt has been vocal in his opposition to the masks, relaying the concern that the device could inhibit breathing. For now, players are expected to test them out in training camp, but some may decide not to use them once the season begins.
Will players be able to opt out of the season?
Some players may simply choose not to play football at all in 2020. Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (who is a medical school graduate) became the first player to announce he is opting out of the season, and Patriots fullback Danny Vitale, Seahawks guard Chance Warmack, Ravens return man De’Anthony Thomas, and Cowboys corner Maurice Canady followed suit on Monday. More may follow.
The deadline for players to opt out is August 1; those who choose that route will have their contract moved back a year (i.e., they don’t accrue a season) and will receive a stipend of $150,000 in pay (which is essentially a forward on their 2021 salary). Players deemed high risk, as defined by the CDC, can opt out and receive a $350,000 stipend while obtaining credit for a season played.
So how will player holdouts work?
Under the language agreed upon by the new CBA (and the reported opt-out provision), players automatically lose an accrued season toward free agency if they don’t report to their team on time. As former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum notes, players like Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, and George Kittle may elect to “hold in,” rather than hold out, as training camp starts up. Essentially, they’d report to camp but refuse to practice in order to gain leverage toward a new deal.
Will teams with more continuity have an edge?
Shifting gears toward real, actual football―the COVID-19 precautions could have real implications for the quality of the league’s on-field product. Teams had already lost valuable practice time to long-canceled OTAs and offseason minicamps, and the revised CBA evaporated all four preseason games. Additionally, the league’s new training camp schedule allows a 20-day ramp-up period before players actually hit the field. That leaves a very short amount of time for clubs to install their offenses and get their players fully up to speed and acclimated to the intricacies therein. With so much to do and so little time to do it, it stands to reason that the teams with greater continuity in their coaching staff and key personnel―particularly at quarterback―could have a distinct advantage early in the season.
For those teams, intangible variables like the chemistry between quarterbacks and receivers or between, say, safeties and cornerbacks, remain intact. For others, like Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, Cam Newton’s Patriots, Philip Rivers’s Colts, or Teddy Bridgewater’s Panthers―all the subtle nonverbal communications and long-developed mind-meld connections between teammates must be cultivated on the fly, and mostly in live game action.
For the teams with less continuity, it’s probably best to expect some ugly football early on. But that could probably be said for the league at large.
Which depth-chart battles matter most?
There’s myriad options to highlight here, but a couple of training camp battles that I’ll be watching closely are those for the starting quarterback position on the Dolphins and Chargers. Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has to not only prove he’s physically ready to hit the field after rehabbing a devastating hip injury, but then must beat out an established, wily veteran in Ryan Fitzpatrick. Justin Herbert, meanwhile, should have a strong chance of unseating Tyrod Taylor for the starting duties in Week 1. Cancelled OTAs and minicamps certainly don’t help either rookie’s chances, though.
The upcoming quarterback battle between Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky for the Bears’ starting job is another competition worth watching. As for non-quarterback positions to monitor, I’ll be excited to see how the Eagles receiving corps shakes out and how the Ravens replace the recently retired Marshal Yanda. A trio of running back competitions are definitely worth watching for as well: Will Jonathan Taylor beat out Marlon Mack for starting duties in Indianapolis? Will D’Andre Swift or Kerryon Johnson emerge as the lead back in Detroit? And will Clyde Edwards-Helaire be able to supplant Super Bowl hero Damien Williams without the benefit of a preseason slate?
How will teams evaluate young or inexperienced players?
The dramatically truncated offseason and training camp periods hurt young and inexperienced players the most. The amended CBA has already cut preseason roster sizes from 90 to 80, leaving 320 potential training camp standouts without the chance to show what they can do. As Texans coach Bill O’Brien recently intimated, teams will be forced to rely on their established evaluations of players so they can quickly project their final roster. Whereas undrafted free agents or back-of-roster types may have had the chance to impress in rookie minicamps or OTAs in the past, those types of players now may not even get many meaningful reps before getting cut.
For teams that will be forced to rely on young players in 2020, the lack of live full-contact and full-speed reps makes preparing for the season a huge challenge. The Eagles, who need several young receivers to step into major roles, have already hinted at increasing scrimmage time at camp to get their players ready for Week 1. “I’ve got to come up with ways of having game-like situations in practice because we are missing the preseason games,” said Doug Pederson. “It can definitely be done,” he added. But Philadelphia, like many other teams around the league, will have to be creative in this COVID-shortened training camp.