- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
As it draws closer to actual football practices, the NFL is still working to answer a central question of its coronavirus mitigation policy: Is there a practical and effective way to mimic a mask for players on the field?
The league’s first response, in conjunction with the NFL Players Association, was to partner with Oakley to create a mouth shield, one that would be attached to the helmet and presumably prevent the forward movement of droplets that contain the virus. The shields have been distributed to all 32 teams, and players will be given the option to test and provide feedback when they get on the field in August. But pushback from a number of prominent players — most notably Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt — has dampened enthusiasm for widespread adoption.
During an appearance Thursday on “The Dan Patrick Show,” NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills acknowledged another option: a gaiter-style neck pull-up that some players already wear during cold-weather games. Sills indicated that the league’s joint coronavirus task force is researching possible designs that could be used in warm-weather games as well.
“I’m looking at everything that makes us safer,” Sills said. “So I would certainly hope that we arrive at a design that offers protection and doesn’t hinder performance, and I think if we do that, it would certainly be something I would want to see everyone adopt. If we can hit that sweet spot, if we can find something that does offer protection and doesn’t hinder how guys breathe or communicate on the field, I would have to think the players would buy into that and want that.”
As it stands, there is expected to be some voluntary use of masks during practice and games. The league’s game-day protocol strongly recommends that coaches, staff members and non-participating players wear them on the sideline. Referees and other officials are likely to be in masks too, to be used in conjunction with electronic whistles.
But for now, the only people required to wear masks on the field on game day are the relative handful of non-football personnel who will have access to the field. So the fundamental paradox of playing football in a pandemic — minimizing virus spread among players in a game that does not allow for social distancing — might only be solved by voluntary adoption of technology designs that remain in development. Absent a visor or mask, the NFL will have to hope that the rest of its protocols, from daily or near-daily testing to strict limitations on in-person meetings during the practice week, will prevent infected people from getting onto the field in the first place.
Let’s consider a few other relevant topics in our weekly look at the NFL’s fight against the coronavirus.
Browns’ no-huddle sparks an idea
Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters Thursday that the team won’t huddle during training camp walk-throughs, a football version of social distancing. That tweak brought to mind a larger adjustment the XFL introduced during its 2020 season, and planned to enhance in future years, until the league filed for bankruptcy in April.
To speed the pace of the game, the XFL initiated a major expansion of wireless communication from a coach’s headset to a small speaker in players’ helmets. The NFL currently allows it for quarterbacks and defensive signal-callers. But the XFL also used it for some skill-position players and planned to implement it for linemen in 2021.
There is no need for a huddle, of course, if every player hears the playcall at the same time as the quarterback. Conservatively, a team could eliminate at least 100 instances of players gathering close together during each game.
There is no evidence that the NFL gave serious thought to expanding coach-to-player communication as part of its pandemic protocols. Historically, it has been slow to adopt technology on the field. Remember, it still prohibits teams from using their Microsoft Surface Pro tablets to view video on the sideline.
But there is a world of advantages to consider in such an expansion, even if it has to wait until a less chaotic time. According to Sam Schwartzstein, the XFL’s former director of football operations, the league was planning multichannel communications in 2021 that would have allowed position coaches to speak only to their players prior to the snap. The XFL also eliminated the cutoff point for communication to help improve the quality of play. (The NFL’s cutoff point is with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock.)
“You don’t need to make the game harder than it already is,” Schwartzstein said. “Coach-to-player communication is definitely the next step. We had just scratched the surface with it.”
Less roster churn?
For beat reporters, the first task of every NFL practice is to take attendance. Roster turnover is so high, both during training camp and the regular season, that often the first indication of a roster move is noticing a new number on the field.
In fact, according to research by Matt Willis of ESPN Stats & Information, NFL teams collectively signed or claimed on waivers an average of nearly 700 players during training camp or the preseason during the past five seasons. It slowed down during the regular season, with an average of about 800 over the 17 weeks.
In camp, coaches and general managers worry every day about ensuring the normal range of players at each position, in order to support practices that don’t overtax veterans and allow them ample time to recover from mild injuries. In the regular season, they use their practice squad for similar purposes.
It’s reasonable to wonder how much that approach will change this season, given the five-day intake process the NFL and NFLPA mandated in their coronavirus protocols. At the moment, any player a team signs or acquires must produce three negative tests in four days before he can enter the team facility on the fifth day — even if he has already done so for a previous team. That gap reduces the utility of bringing in a player for a potentially short-term stay in what Sills has called a “virtual football bubble.”
As Sills and others have said, the NFL’s protocols will continue to evolve and change. But for now, at least, NFL teams can’t be quite as agile as they usually are in (micro-) managing their rosters.
Collecting $150,000 could be tough
The NFL and NFLPA offered players a two-tiered opt-out plan. Those who fall into a predefined high-risk category would receive $350,000 if they chose not to play in 2020. Players who aren’t high risk but were uncomfortable with playing for other reasons would receive $150,000.
That $150,000 has several catches, however. For one, it is actually an advance on the player’s 2021 base salary. So if that player was due to make $1 million in 2021 base salary, he’ll actually receive $850,000.
Here’s where it gets interesting. If a player is cut or otherwise doesn’t play in 2021 for non-pandemic reasons, he will in theory owe the team $150,000 in cash. But there really isn’t an effective way to collect what amounts to an unfulfilled salary advance from an inactive player, said Andrew Brandt, who negotiated contracts for the Green Bay Packers from 1999-2008. So unless the NFL and NFLPA adjust this rule, it seems unlikely that teams will recoup the advance if the player isn’t in the NFL next season unless he voluntarily pays it.
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