For all the optimism we’ve had that pro sports can find a way to resume amid the coronavirus pandemic, this past week has been a sobering reminder of how quickly things can go awry.
Just four days into its abbreviated season, Major League Baseball was thrown into chaos after an outbreak ripped through the Miami Marlins clubhouse. The league says the outbreak has been contained and that it plans to continue playing, but with no league-wide bubble and teams continuing to travel from city to city, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be more outbreaks in the weeks and months to come.
Now imagine the challenge the NFL faces as it begins its new season?
This week players reported to training camp for the start of what promises to be the strangest season in league history. The NFL and NFL Players Association recently agreed to a revised collective bargaining agreement that will dictate how the league addresses the pandemic, but without a bubble and given the risks inherent to football, only time will tell if they can pull it off.
So what does this mean going forward? For now the plan is to forge ahead, adjust to the new safety protocols and hopefully get back to playing football by September. While there’s no telling what curveballs lie ahead, here is what fans can expect over the next month if things go smoothly.
Training camp timeline
Unlike in years past, there will be no preseason games for players to prepare for, so instead teams will slowly ramp up throughout the month of August in preparation for the regular season.
The first week of camp will consist primarily of testing, physicals and virtual meetings. Starting next week players will begin strength and conditioning, and on Wednesday, Aug. 12, teams will hit the practice field for the first time. Then there will be a four-day ramp up to the first padded practice on Monday, Aug. 17, at which point teams will finally get into what resembles a normal training camp. The first regular season game is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 13 against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.
All training camp practices will be closed to the public, and there will be limits on the number of team personnel, scouts and media allowed in the facility. For now the team is still holding out hope that at least some fans will be allowed into Gillette Stadium for games, but that would require approval from the state and is far from guaranteed.
As part of the revised CBA, all teams are required to submit infectious disease emergency response (IDER) plans to NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills and independent experts at Duke University for approval. As of Monday, the Patriots were one of seven teams whose plans were still under review, but in general each team’s plans will lay out specific social distancing rules while assigning a Covid Protocol Coordinator whose job is to enforce the new rules.
Players also have until Aug. 4 to decide whether or not to opt out of the upcoming season. Six members of the Patriots have already done so, including linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, right tackle Marcus Cannon, fullback Danny Vitale, running back Brandon Bolden and reserve offensive lineman Najee Toran. Those who sit out will receive a $150,000 stipend (or $350,000 if they are considered high risk) and their contracts will toll to next season.
Those who report to camp will be tested every day for the first two weeks, and then after that tests will be administered every other day.
In terms of roster construction, teams have the option to hold training camp with up to 80 players, or they can retain the usual 90 players but hold split-squad practices with two groups. The Patriots are going with one group of 80 players, cutting numerous fringe players to get below the threshold before losing half a dozen more to opt outs.
Teams can also carry up to 16 practice squad players after rosters are cut to 53 before the regular season. Those players will function as insurance in case players on the 53-man are forced to quarantine. To account for that likelihood, teams can place any player who tests positive or who is potentially exposed on a new Reserve/Covid-19 list.
Those players can then be reinstated once they are healthy without having to sit out for an extended period of time like those placed on injured reserve. Teams will not comment on whether or not a player has tested positive, but any player placed on the Reserve/Covid-19 list will be listed on the league’s transaction wire, which will provide added transparency.
How will this impact the Patriots specifically?
Great question! Because the pandemic wiped out the entire offseason program and all four preseason games, teams will have precious little time to prepare, giving teams with greater continuity an advantage.
While Bill Belichick’s system is well established and most of the coaching staff is back from last year, the Patriots’ roster has seen a lot of turnover, meaning new players will be entrusted to step up all over the field.
With Hightower opting out and stalwarts like Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts lost to free agency, New England needs to replace virtually its entire starting linebacker corps. Cannon’s decision also leaves a hole at right tackle, Chung’s a hole at safety, Vitale’s a hole at fullback, and in case you forgot, Tom Brady had already taken his talents to Tampa Bay — leaving a gaping void at quarterback for Cam Newton or Jarrett Stidham to fill.
Then there are all the rookies, newly signed veterans and undrafted free agents who will be looking to carve out their own roles, and with no preseason games on the docket, those on the bubble will have limited opportunities to stand out.
It’ll be fascinating to see how it all plays out, but one thing is for sure, these next few weeks are going to be among the strangest anyone in football has ever seen.
Mac Cerullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.