When the NFL decided not to postpone Denver's game this past weekend, leaving the Broncos with zero actual quarterbacks in a 31-3 loss to the Saints, many around the league were stunned. Yes, Denver broke the rules, but so did Baltimore. The Ravens game was pushed back three times, finally happening Wednesday afternoon (a 19-14 loss to the Steelers).
"The Broncos, they were stupid, the QBs didn't have their mask on. But with no QBs, they [the NFL] made an example out of them, let's just be honest," says a personnel executive. "But they have not made an example out of the Ravens, and it was also their own doing!"
Baltimore's strength and conditioning coach was disciplined internally for, as the NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported, failing to report COVID-19 symptoms and not regularly wearing a mask and tracking device at the facility.
"I don't give a damn if you have to move offensive players to defense or whatever to fill a team. ... I just disagree [with postponing Baltimore's game]," the personnel executive continued. "They are making adjustments for one team, and it just seems way out of bounds because everybody else is getting hammered."
A non-executive source with Denver is angry with the way their game was handled, and says, "The league is f--ked up."
Players took note as well, and on one AFC team a group chat lit up, discussing the Broncos game.
"Unbelievable they had to go play a professional game with WRs and RBs," an AFC player says of Denver's quarterback options. "It's definitely a shocker and illuminates the seriousness the NFL is taking to try and complete the season."
Only one team took the step of expressly adding a quarantine quarterback to their roster this week, after the Denver fiasco (one complete pass for the game). Several teams already have a quarantine quarterback, or something close to it, in place, but most do not, at least publicly. Many coaches spent part of their weekly media conferences touting their teams' careful self-policing.
"Show must go on," says Bills cornerback Josh Norman, who spoke to Bleacher Report as part of a promotion for his Buffalo Business Blitz. He's partnered with Buffalo's mayor and hopes to raise $1 million by the end of 2020 to support small businesses in Buffalo. "We had close contacts on Saturday on two occasions and we still played those games on Sunday. So, it's get the people out of the building that are close contacts and let's go. I am not trying to stop their show, guys aren't making their money if they aren't playing." (Norman tested positive and spent 10 days on the COVID-19 list this season.)
League commissioner Roger Goodell, on a conference call with the media Wednesday, reiterated that the league is not going to postpone games for competitive reasons, only for health and safety reasons. Goodell said the Broncos game was played because there was no apparent threat that the virus would spread to the rest of the team.
Several sources around the league echoed concerns that the league's rulings are inconsistent. The Titans, Ravens, and Patriots broke protocol, had positive tests and fines—and their games were pushed back because of outbreak risks. The Broncos had a positive test and broke protocol—and they had to play because they didn't have the risk of a team outbreak. The Raiders' starting offensive linemen were on the COVID-19 list the week leading up to their Week 7 game against Tampa Bay, after a break in protocol. The linemen were unable to practice before the game. The team lobbied to postpone the game a day but the league actually moved the game forward from Sunday night to ensure it had a primetime game (and Vegas lost 45-20).
In conversations with several executives, players, scouts and agents around the league, the topic of consistency and fairness was a common theme. There's real anger and frustration out there among those who work for teams that have been fined, or have lost draft picks, or have faced situations like the Broncos' and Raiders'.
"You don't want the message to be, 'It is better to have a team outbreak,'" says another executive. "But I don't think this is apples to apples. People will always try to compare each outbreak and each game to each other, and I don't know that you can do that."
"It has been inconsistent, but I think we knew before the season started that some things weren't going to be fair," says an NFC executive.
So far, the league has fined five teams for violating COVID-19 protocols. The NFL fined the Raiders and the Saints $500,000, the maximum amount. Las Vegas lost a sixth-round pick for repeated violations, and the Saints conceded a seventh-rounder for their mask-less locker room celebration. The NFL fined the Titans for their outbreak and protocol issues as well as New England, but neither team lost a draft pick. The league also fined the Steelers after some of the coaching staff failed to wear masks at all times during a game. Denver and Baltimore have yet to receive sanctions.
"Why did this team lose a sixth and another team lose a seventh?" says the personnel executive. "What's the difference? That's my thing like, why seven here and why six here? It's arbitrary."
Early in the season, several sources said, the frequently changing protocol was hard to understand, but they all agreed that it seems like everyone is in full support of the measures the league has taken to protect players and staff, such as clubs working from home on Monday and Tuesday this week.
"Consistency, that's all we're asking for," says the personnel executive. "Being clear on what the protocols are, being fair, being consistent in the way fines are levied and punishment from the league office. That's all. If it's consistent, I don't think you have anybody complaining about anything."
Quarantine QBs Still a Rarity
If there was any lesson that other teams learned from the Broncos situation on Sunday, it's that, "If you get wiped out at QB, you are still playing," says the club executive who talked about the difficulty of comparing one team's situation with another. "That is the most important takeaway. The real question is, 'If you have a bunch of your QBs get it, what you can do?' Sure, you can put a QB in isolation, but what are your odds of winning a game with a QB in isolation?"
After Denver's fiasco, it seemed natural that teams would consider putting their third quarterback, or fourth, if they have one, into isolation, rather than resorting to an emergency non-QB plan like Denver did.
But only the Washington Football Team is in the process of expressly adding a quarantine quarterback to their roster this week. Washington Post reporter Nicki Jhabvala reported that the Football Team is expected to sign QB Taylor Heinicke to the practice squad with the intent of making him its "quarantine QB."
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday that because of Denver's situation, he is now taking steps to make sure third-string quarterback Danny Etling is apart from the other quarterbacks and would not be connected to an outbreak in the group. Etling will join meetings virtually and work out separately.
Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Tennessee have experimented with the strategy. Bills third-string quarterback Jake Fromm (they have a fourth quarterback on the practice squad) does not practice with the team, and the team limits his contact with Buffalo's other quarterbacks.
Until he was poached by Houston, Philadelphia had veteran Josh McCown on the practice squad as a fully remote quarterback, joining meetings from his home in Texas.
Trevor Siemian played the designated-survivor role for the Titans, practicing on his own, throwing to the team's equipment staff and assorted executives. Now, DeShone Kizer serves that same role for Tennessee.
In Cincinnati, the Bengals have been keeping their quarterbacks apart for the whole season with virtual meetings, and Brandon Allen was the designated quarantine quarterback who kept his distance at practice.
Before he went on IR, Joe Burrow and QB coach would be in a room together and the rest of the QBs were virtual. Now that Allen is the starter, Kevin Hogan is the "QQ" who keeps his distance at practice.
Twelve teams currently are carrying four quarterbacks on their active roster and practice squad (an unheard-of number until this year, when the NFL expanded practice squad size). Some coaches have been vague about their intentions and practices, trying to preserve competitive advantage.
"That is something that I have put a lot of thought into," Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said this week—one of many coaches talking on the topic as part of his media conferences. "Just in case, and those are discussions we will continue to have. ... We will have a plan for that."
Despite overwhelming evidence that players and staff around the league are not consistently following the NFL's COVID-19 protocol perfectly, coaches seem dangerously overconfident in their players and staff's ability to follow the rules. Seattle is the only team left that has not had a positive COVID-19 test.
"Our guys have been outstanding," Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said. "We follow the protocols, and we have such a great facility; we have so much space and so much space outside. They have their masks on at the meetings, and they are spread out, and we have been able to, knock on wood, be really good with the virus, especially in the quarterback room."
Arians had been one of the more vocal coaches this offseason in talking about potentially keeping a quarterback away from the rest of the QB group, but he did not and is not reconsidering. "I don't think we need to [quarantine one quarterback] just because of the protocols that we are following pretty closely, really closely, so I don't think we would have that problem."
"No, because we exercise all of the necessary precautions in terms of the quarterbacks we have," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. (Four Steelers players are currently on the COVID-19 reserve list.)
"We're on top of what's going on, where the protocols are headed, where the stress points are particularly as it directly affects our team," said Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy. "We feel like we have a very strong plan in place with our team and more importantly with our quarterbacks room."
(McCarthy's team narrowly avoided a quarterback COVID-19 disaster of their own because quarterback Andy Dalton tested positive while in concussion protocol, so he wasn't around as many teammates or in the building as much. He didn't travel to the Week 8 game at the Eagles, so didn't create any close contacts for exposure.)
There are plenty of reasons teams are hesitant to isolate one quarterback. It could hinder a rookie quarterback's development; it's tough for a quarterback not to be throwing to the team's receivers; a first-time head coach who is installing a new culture wants everyone in the building to be part of that; and teams prefer to fill that role with a veteran familiar with the offense, which can be hard to find.
"I know people think you should just quarantine a quarterback and just have him sitting there in a room, just on ice, ready to come out when time's needed," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. "If it gets to that point, I feel bad for that guy too. You can't just go into an NFL game after being locked in a room for weeks until you're needed and think you're going to go out there and perform much better than a practice squad receiver would at quarterback. That sounds nice, but if it gets to that point, no answer is very good. So, you just deal with it."
Trying to be extra-safe, many teams have developed their own ways of self-policing. One team has created a "mask task force"—a group of medical and operations employees responsible for observing mask-wearing at the facility. If a player or staff member is seen not properly wearing their mask, the task force adds their name to a list that is emailed out to the whole organization each Friday. An executive with this club says that the public shaming has been effective in enforcing the protocol.
Other teams have used the threat of fine-warnings to keep players and staff in line. The NFC executive said he's sent a few warning letters to players and staff for not following mask protocol, showing up late to the daily COVID-19 testing, or forgetting to wear their contact-tracing devices at all times in the facility.
It's evident by the fines issued to teams, but the NFC executive says he has noticed that not every team is following the rules properly. He says his team signed a player after he was cut from another team's active roster and that player didn't wear his contact tracer during his first practice with his new team. When told that he needed to be wearing the device, the player said that the team he'd just arrived from never wore their tracers during practice.
When asked what the hardest part of protocol is to follow, Norman jokes, "The whole thing." Particularly, the new rule that players must wear masks on the sideline (implemented Week 12) is tough.
"With all due respect, we are playing the game and we already been tested and we breathing on us, so to come to the sideline and put a mask on after you had 20 wind sprints, and you ran and chased somebody down and you want to communicate with your teammates, and they handing out masks, like come on!"
Even the Broncos, who suffered through a national sports embarrassment, originally didn't plan to further protect their quarterbacks.
"If we follow the protocols, we'll be fine," head coach Vic Fangio said Monday.
Two days later, the organization backpedaled on that and NFL Network's James Palmer reported that the Broncos will start to limit the exposure for Blake Bortles by having him spend less time at the facility.
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and thoughts: @KalynKahler.