ANDERSON – There will be plenty of guesses and estimations over the next few months as to when the NFL will return to on-field operations.
The truth is that timeline will be dictated by the novel coronavirus and the nation’s success in stopping the spread of it. A best-case scenario right now might have teams beginning offseason workouts toward the end of May or start of June – around the time mandatory veteran mini-camps normally take place.
The most realistic option for now appears to be a late-July start with teams reporting for training camp.
Dr. Thom Mayer, the National Football League Players Association medical director, is part of a braintrust in conjunction with the league office studying the pandemic and formulating plans for football’s return. The focus, for now, is less on specific timelines and more on best practices.
One big challenge is the sheer number of people involved in day-to-day operations. During the offseason, NFL rosters expand to 90 players. That, of course, does not include coaches, trainers, medical personnel, front office staff, media and other daily workers inside a team’s headquarters.
Mayer said testing continues to improve on a daily basis, and doctors can get results back in as little as five minutes. That means testing an entire locker room can easily be accomplished on the day players report.
But what about the rest of the building, including guests like spectators?
The braintrust already has shared with the NFL its opinion that whenever team workouts resume, they’ll need to be run with minimal staffing.
“The most likely bet, if you were in Las Vegas, is starting with training camp,” Mayer said last week in an exclusive interview with CNHI Sports. “And, if that’s the case, then you’re gonna have to run skeleton staffs. And all those people who are non-essential to football operation and health and safety will probably not be there, including large numbers of the staff for the clubs.
“And, frankly, it’s highly likely that the original workouts may not have people in the stands because of exposure. All it takes is one to test positive, and all of the sudden we’ve got a problem not just for that club. But think about, this, one club tests positive, what does that mean for the rest of the clubs given the owners’ almost maniacal commitment to parity and competitiveness?”
Obviously, one team being quarantined for two weeks while 31 others continue work as planned is a massive competitive disadvantage. It’s also a health nightmare.
One positive test for Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert shut down the NBA in March, and many other professional leagues quickly followed suit.
Once games begin, the logistics surrounding a positive test become even more complicated in a contact sport such as football.
If a player tests positive after a game, it wouldn’t necessarily cause an immediate shutdown. But it would set off a chain reaction of questions the NFL-NFLPA braintrust already is asking.
“You go back to the (Centers for Disease Control) definitions, and that’s why we have our braintrust, which is a serious bad-ass group of people,” Mayer said. “You say, OK, this guy was the extra offensive lineman. They did not play in the game. What are close contacts? And if you look at the CDC, it’s pretty clear what primary and secondary contacts are. And it has to do with were you consistently within a 6-foot radius and all that?”
The answers to those queries will determine the next steps, but problems also can materialize well before kickoff.
General warmup procedures involve teams getting into full 11-man formations and walking through plays on both sides of the ball. That requires a large number of linemen in particular to be in close proximity to one another for an extended period of time.
That, too, might have to change at least temporarily.
“Warmups might be different,” Mayer said. “The way we warm up might be different this year, either for preseason games or for a game, than in the past. … All that is TBD. Those are precisely the questions we’re asking.”
And they’re trying to get the answers as widely disseminated as possible.
Mayer was part of conference calls last week with the NFLPA executive committee and then with the union body as a whole. He, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and NFLPA president J.C. Tretter – a center for the Cleveland Browns – plan to hold such calls weekly to get updated information into players’ hands as quickly as possible.
Scenarios change by the hour with a virus that has never been seen before, and the NFLPA’s goal is to make sure players and their families have all the best information to protect themselves moving forward.
“You can’t listen to every press conference, and you can’t read everything that comes out,” Mayer said. “And that’s where our braintrust comes in because between all of those people, it’s going to be pretty hard for something to slip by us in terms of data, information, the latest breaking news and all that.”
Mayer emphasizes these are unchartered waters for everyone, and teamwork is the key to moving through this crisis and safely getting to the other side.
He’s adamant that players, coaches and league officials alone can not determine the start date for the NFL season. Much of that also will be determined by the public’s ability to follow the guidelines and slow the spread of the virus.
But he also admits nobody can be certain of what’s coming next.
“We’ve seen pandemics,” Mayer said. “We’ve seen things like this. We’ve actually seen coronaviruses in terms of SARS and MERS. But, this one, it’s like a kid. It’s gonna have its own personality. It’s gonna express itself in its own ways, and that’s going to have consequences that we just have to anticipate as best we can. But we can’t anticipate all of them. No one can.”