NFL Insiders Confident (For Now) League Will Play Full 2020 Season

Kalyn KahlerContributor IAugust 18, 2020

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) passes during an NFL football training camp in Frisco, Texas, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero/Associated Press

Football is finally back. This week, teams across the NFL are holding padded practices for the first time, more than two weeks after players reported for camp. The lead-in to this season has been frustratingly slow for many eager players and coaches—"We've had endless Zoom meetings," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters—but the early returns on the league's coronavirus safety protocol have been promising.

Last week, the NFL reported it had conducted 109,075 coronavirus tests of players, coaches and team staffers through Tuesday, Aug. 11. The rate of positive tests was 0.46 percent overall and 0.81 percent for players. The league-wide number of players on the COVID-19 list is now down to 12. None were added on Monday and five teams have yet to put a player on the COVID-IR list: Arizona, New England, Houston, L.A. Chargers, Carolina.

Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, told NFL Media he was "pleasantly surprised" by the results and that he was not aware of any player or staff member who had a severe illness.

In the original agreement between the NFL and NFLPA, players and staff were to be tested daily for only the first two weeks of training camp and then move to tests every two days if positive tests were under 5 percent. Although the numbers across the league were under 1 percent and no individual club was greater than 2 percent, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to extend daily testing through Sept. 5 after consulting medical experts.

"The biggest concern will be a potential second wave if that comes this fall, and what happens with travel?" one NFC executive (who felt the season would be completed) said before practices began this week. "The initial testing phase has shown a lower percentage of cases than feared, and the new cases have not yet shown to be problematic. That being said, we aren't playing football yet in practice. That's a new data set that could change everybody's confidence. The initial data has been promising, but that confidence has a shelf life until we get the next data set."

With that uncertainty in mind, as well as the recent college football postponements, some NFL coaches are choosing to view the season microscopically.

"We've looked at the acclimation period as an eight-day season," one defensive coordinator said at the conclusion of the eight-day walk-through phase. "What is our mission for these eight days? Then the ramp-up period, OK, that's a four-day season. Then when we get to pads, that's another season. I think the seasons are smaller because you can't be thinking too far ahead. You can't have this telescopic view of the whole season."

The league has made it through the first two "seasons" with back-to-back wins, but there's a long road ahead. The NBA, NHL and WNBA all have had zero players or staff test positive for COVID-19 within their bubble environments. The NFL is attempting something much more difficult with a full regular season and playoff schedule, five months of games and traveling outside the safety of a bubble.

Bleacher Report polled coaches, executives and scouts across the league to gauge their confidence level in the NFL's ability to start and finish a full 16-game regular season and playoffs. Will the season go as scheduled? Or will it be cut short because of the pandemic? Of the 20 club employees polled, 16 expressed confidence in a full season as scheduled. Four said the league won't finish.

"I feel safer here than anywhere else other than in my house," a second NFC executive (who believes the NFL won't finish the season) said about his team's facility.

Several employees across the league echoed that sentiment. With daily testing, regular cleaning, social distancing and contact tracing, NFL facilities might be among the safest places to be right now. Each team has invested heavily in technology and services to keep facilities safe. The Denver Broncos went viral with a video in which their players walked out to practice through a mist of sanitizing spray.

Denver Broncos @Broncos

Time for work. 😤 But first, we sanitize. https://t.co/HIO4epiyyH

"I feel a lot more confident than I did before we got in the building and saw all the protocols that we have," another team executive said. "I am confident we will have a season with playoffs and a Super Bowl, whether it is 16 games, or 12 or 14. I have complete confidence that we will have a season."

Many teams are trying to limit the amount of time players and coaches are in the same room. In Cincinnati, the Bengals are careful to keep their most important position group as separated as possible. Quarterback Brandon Allen says they each join their position group meetings from a different room. No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow joins on Zoom from his own room, Allen from another, Jake Dolegala and Ryan Finley each from their own rooms, too. Allen spoke to Bleacher Report five days after he signed with the Bengals, and aside from time on the practice field in walk-throughs, he had rarely seen his fellow quarterbacks face to face.

An AFC coordinator who described himself as "cautiously optimistic" has been impressed by the way his players have followed the rules so far. "Our players have been great," he said. "They are serious about how they go about life outside the building. They follow the protocol in the building. It's early and there are a lot of variables we can't control. But I sense a level of seriousness about doing what's necessary to keep everyone safe."

One personnel executive admitted that for this season to go as planned, it's going to take "a huge sacrifice" by the players.

It didn't take long for the first player to be busted for breaking the rules and putting his team at risk. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported that Seattle cut rookie cornerback Kemah Siverand after he was caught on video trying to sneak a female visitor into the team hotel. Pelissero noted that a July 3 memo to teams stated that all hotel accommodations for players during camp must comply with NFL-NFLPA Team Travel Protocol: "Room visits are permitted only by members of the traveling party."

When the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences postponed their football seasons, one scout pointed out college football's lack of a commissioner and any group to represent players as major factors in the decisions. "The league office is finally being fairly proactive, unlike the NCAA, and is putting in enough leaguewide protocols that we can limp through and get a season in," said the scout, who felt the NFL would complete a full season.

Another scout, who voted that the league wouldn't finish a full season, said positive tests are inevitable and the perception of those cases will be too negative to continue playing. "I bet there are political issues and pressure from outside," said the scout. "People are going to get [coronavirus], but I question just how many and how the media handles it."

According to ProFootballTalk, an Aug. 7 league memo to teams announced the addition of immediate point of care testing (whereby results can be processed on site without the need to send them out to a lab) with the already-in-place off-site testing. PFT reported that the accuracy of the rapid test the league now uses is around 97 percent, according to the vendor. Whether the point of care testing matches the more accurate offsite testing will be important data for teams to track. If it does, they can feel confident they can catch the virus on the spot. "A lot of this season's future depends on if we can get point of care sooner rather than later," one scout said. "It's vital." 

Many in the NFL feel the season will start on time but also caution that new COVID-19 testing with the onset of full practices could alter the schedule.
Many in the NFL feel the season will start on time but also caution that new COVID-19 testing with the onset of full practices could alter the schedule.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press/Associated Press

Confidence is high around the league that the season will begin as scheduled Sept 10. "I think we'll start on time," the second NFC exec said. "But at some point games will be suspended, and [I'm] not sure if or when we'll finish. We definitely ain't playing a full season from start to finish as scheduled."

As the first NFC exec warned, the next data set of testing will be important because it will show whether contact at practice contributes to any new cases of the virus. So far, so good, but as the executive noted, it's just the first group of results. "We don't know enough scientifically or anecdotally to have confidence in any outcome," he said. "Adhering to previous positions in light of new information is what continues to plague the country."

There is still a little more than three weeks before the NFL season kicks off with the Texans set to visit the defending Super Bowl champions in Kansas City. Hope for a normal-ish season is the prevailing attitude around the league, but it's all subject to change. Remember, the encouraging results have already hit their shelf life.


Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and weird quarantine thoughts: @KalynKahler.