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NFL vs. COVID-19: A Preview

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See Update Below.

Since the draft, there really hasn’t been much going on in terms of Vikings player news, development, or any news of position battles, scheme changes or adjustments, or really anything of substance to gain insight into how things may play out as the Vikings prepare for the upcoming season.

Of course the reason for the lack of news is all the coronavirus precautions, which have kept players and coaches at home, and prevented the normal schedule of off-season training events, including OTAs and minicamps. It’s also clear that players will not be conducting any sort of on-field team activities until training camps begin, presumably at the end of July.

There has also been talk that the preseason will be reduced to two games, as the NFL has said, or cancelled altogether as the NFLPA has recommended. The NFL has also reportedly said that the first several rows of seats nearest the field will be kept empty, with some sort of tarp with advertising placed over these seats.

Some teams have begun issuing some protocols to season ticket holders which including the required wearing of masks, and also offering opt-outs. The NFL, including the Vikings, have also offered a 2020 ticket refund policy, should games be cancelled or played in conditions that prevent fans from attending.

Playing games in empty stadiums remains an option.

But since the onset of coronavirus, the NFL has maintained that the season will otherwise begin and proceed normally.

However, as we get closer opening day - two months away - questions remain about how the season may play out - or fail to do so.

League, Players Face Key Decisions

First off, is a Covid-19 testing protocol for players and coaches. A few players have contracted Covid-19 this off-season, and the threat of more players contracting the virus is probably the biggest threat to the NFL 2020-21 season, so developing a testing protocol is first and foremost on the list of decisions that need to be agreed upon.

Details on who gets tested - players, coaches, and others close to them on the field presumably - and how often, will need to be agree upon. What to do if a player or coach tests positive is another thing.

The NFLPA has proposed that for a player testing positive but with no symptoms, they will not be able to return until 10 days after their initial positive test or in five days if they have gone through two consecutive negative PCR virus tests separated by 24 hours. If an individual tests positive and is symptomatic, they will have to wait 10 days from the first sign of COVID-19 symptoms and allow 72 hours to pass since their last sign of symptoms. They’ll also need approval by the team physician.

The NFLPA has also made a list of other noteworthy suggestions to the league in combatting the coronavirus:

  • Minimize time spent at the facilities (group meeting to be held virtually)
  • No mandatory hotel stays for players
  • Limit group activities leading up to travel/games (No 11-on-11 drills or other activities which heighten the risk of transmission starting on Thursday)
  • Reduce roster size from 90 to 80 players
  • Daily testing for Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals using mid-nasal swab during the first few weeks of camp and weekly testing for Tier 3 individuals
  • Mandatory testing for any individuals with bench or field access
  • Mandatory use of tracking wristbands among all individuals, but only while in the facility, at practice, training, travel, and games
  • Encourage the use of face shields during training camp and reevaluate following field testing and player feedback

I believe Tier 1 individuals are players, Tier 2 coaches, and Tier 3 other support staff.

I suspect the NFL and NFLPA will be able to come to an agreement on all these measures by the end of this month, in time for training camp to begin.

NFL Season in the Hands of the Players

While all these potential coronavirus precautions are well and good, what happens if players decide they don’t want to risk contracting the virus and opt-out of this season? So far, no player has done so, but there are some comments like this one from former Viking Stefon Diggs:

“I miss football,” Diggs tweeted. “But there’s so many unanswered questions with this upcoming season. I’d be lying if I said I was comfortable starting back up.”

Diggs seems to be the exception, along with one or two others so far, but depending on how successful the precautions and protocols are in preventing the spread of the virus among players in training camp, there could be others that decide it’s not work the risk.

The other issue is if the season is able to start more or less normally, perhaps with fewer or no fans in the stadiums, what happens if a number of players, particularly high-profile players, contract the virus and teams struggle to replace starters who’ve contracted the virus?

The other complicating factor is that the coronavirus is hitting some areas of the country harder now than others. Florida, Texas, New York and California are home to 10 NFL teams, and are currently states experiencing the most or spikes in Covid-19 cases. What if some teams are much harder hit than others? Is it their tough luck, or will the league decide to shut down the season?

Minnesota, great state that it is, is projected to have among the fewest coronavirus cases this fall, for what that’s worth.

One other key component of the coronavirus protocol is the availability of rapid-response Covid-19 tests that players can take before games. Without reliable tests that show a player doesn’t have the coronavirus before stepping onto the field, the league and players may be taking a big chance in hoping the virus doesn’t spread among players.

An outbreak after only one game, especially early on, could be enough to put the whole season in jeopardy. The same could be true if one or more teams suffer an outbreak in training camp.

Stay tuned.

Update: 7/10/2020

Mike Florio with PFT is reporting that the NFL and NFLPA continue to both make progress on some areas and details of a Covid-19 protocol, reaching agreement now on game day protocols, but that per a source with knowledge of the situation, that significant sticking points remain:

1. Testing: The NFLPA wants daily testing. The NFL continues to resist that approach. The source says that daily testing is a “big, big issue.”

2. Acclimation period: The NFLPA wants to gradually phase players in physically, given that there was no offseason program and limited opportunities for players to work out as they normally would. In 2011, when there was no offseason program due to the lockout, injuries spiked by 25 percent.

3. Preseason: The players want none, the NFL wants two. The players believe any preseason games present an enhanced physical risk by limiting the ability to gradually get players in shape. Preseason games also entail added risk of an outbreak that could derail the season, with limited financial gain given that no fans will be present for the game.

4. Emergency protocols: The two sides need to work out procedures that would be utilized in the event of an outbreak.

5. Opt outs: The rules regarding when and how a player would choose to not play this season remain unresolved.

6. Economics: The league has raised the idea of givebacks or escrow payments in order to defray expected financial losses. The players have not been receptive to any such reductions or limitations, given that if anything they have enhanced risk in 2020.

The league and the union are scheduled to convene another bargaining session on Monday, with the goal of getting a final resolution by Wednesday or Thursday. Otherwise, the launch of training camp as scheduled will be in jeopardy.

I suspect the two sides will be able to reach agreement on the first 4 points above, but #5 and #6 are not gonna be agreed upon soon. I suspect opt-outs will have financial ramifications that will be difficult to resolve. If a player is allowed to opt-out of the season, does he lose all compensation? Does he lose a credited year? Does his contract essentially extend an additional year to make up for the loss? From a team standpoint, a player sitting out a full season isn’t worth as much as one who didn’t. We see that in cases like Trent Williams. Does that mean the player takes a discount on his remaining contract? Those are tough issues to negotiate.

Even tougher, it seems, is the idea of player givebacks. I don’t see the NFL moving forward without givebacks based on lost revenue. Not agreeing on that most likely means no season at all, given the following clause in the current NFL Player Contract:

Per a league source, the NFL believes that if no games are played the players get nothing, whereas if even one game is played they get their full salaries. This comes from paragraph 6 of the NFL Player Contract, which explains that the obligation to pay a player’s base salary begins “with the first regular season game played by Club in each season.” While that wouldn’t apply to bonuses or other payments already made, it would allow teams to avoid the entirety of the base salaries for all NFL players.

There is no ‘force majeure’ clause in the NFL, as there is in the NBA, which the NFL could invoke to avoid paying players should the season be cancelled due to Covid-19. But this clause in the NFL Contract could result in more or less the same thing.

So, in addition to everything else, the NFLPA will likely need to agree to givebacks or it would seem unlikely the NFL would go ahead with a regular season that could result in their losing money.

Poll

Which of these is most likely to happen?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    The NFL ends the season early
    (142 votes)
  • 13%
    The NFL plays a full season
    (60 votes)
  • 53%
    The Vikings start the season 12-0, winning by nearly 20 points a game, and the NFL cancels the season
    (232 votes)
434 votes total Vote Now