Editor’s note: This story has been updated following agreements by NFL teams and the NFL Players Association on Friday afternoon.
It has been 116 days since Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president and general counsel, announced an unexpectedly bold plan for the 2020 season amid a coronavirus pandemic that was only starting.
“All of our discussions,” Pash said, “all of our focus, has been on a normal, traditional season, starting on time, playing in front of fans, in our regular stadiums, and going through a full 16-game regular season and a full set of playoffs. That’s our focus.”
At the same time, Pash acknowledged the obvious. The date was March 31, which meant the NFL had months to figure out how to pull it off. But that time has dwindled. Some rookies and quarterbacks began reporting to training camps this week for COVID-19 testing. Most others are scheduled to report next week.
Can the NFL continue along the path of an on-time start to the season? In the time since Pash made his announcement, the United States flattened its daily virus count, only to see a surge in infections and hospitalizations this summer in Southern and Western states.
Other professional leagues, in sports from soccer to baseball to hockey, have returned in some form and with mixed results. None, however, have attempted a feat on the scale of the NFL’s challenge. During the next several weeks, just to give itself a chance to play the regular season, the NFL must execute a plan to protect some 6,000 players, coaches and critical staff members without using a “bubble” concept.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, has set a lofty goal for the massive project: plowing a road for the entire country as it deals with the pandemic.
“I think this is important not just for the NFL or for professional sports — not even for sports at all levels,” Sills said at a virtual meeting of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. “I think what we are trying to do — which is to find a way to mitigate risk and to coexist with this virus — this is really key information for schools, for businesses, for all segments of society. I think we have a unique opportunity but also a responsibility to use the platform and resources of the NFL to really study and learn and to take that knowledge and apply it for the benefit of the other segments of the society. That is what we plan to do.”
Let’s get into our weekly roundup of NFL pandemic planning, based on reporting of ESPN Insiders Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen, Dan Graziano, Jeremy Fowler and me.
What’s the latest?
The NFL and NFL Players Association have agreed on all of the outstanding items necessary to start training camp on time, both from a health and economic standpoint. A handful of rookies and selected veterans have already reported, but the majority of the league is scheduled to report July 28.
What are the key points of those health and safety protocols?
In addition to previous instructions about how to arrange team facilities to ensure 6-foot social distancing whenever possible, the NFL also established a testing procedure for intake of players. (It had previously established procedures for coaches and other staff members.)
In essence, players must produce two negative PCR test results over the first four days after reporting. On the fifth day, if both tests were negative, the player will begin daily testing and can enter the facility. Daily testing will continue for two weeks, and would then move to every other day if the positivity rate is below 5%. This testing approach will apply to all team employees designated as Tier 1 or Tier 2.
The NFL has hired BioReference Laboratories to handle the testing, the same company that is handling tests for the NBA and MLS, and has been assured of results within 24 hours.
What happens once players pass through the intake period?
They’ll go through roughly a two-week acclimatization period that the NFLPA and NFL negotiated to minimize the chances of injury after the virtual offseason program that included no traditional football work. There would be just over a week of strength and conditioning, followed by five days of non-padded practices. The first padded practice could occur Aug. 17, with a maximum of 14 padded practices before the start of the regular season.
Tom Brady reports to the Buccaneers’ training facility and will undergo COVID-19 testing in order to begin camp.
How would they play preseason games under that schedule?
They won’t. Owners agreed to the players’ request to cancel the preseason, even after reducing it from four to two games. Some coaches wanted to have some time to evaluate back-of-roster players, and the league hoped to give teams a chance to test new travel protocols before the regular season began. In the end, however, no one wanted to risk infections in games that don’t count.
Can NFL players opt out of the season without penalty?
Yes. Those deemed to be high risk to COVID-19 would receive $350,000 and an accrued NFL season if they opt out of the season. Players who aren’t deemed to be at risk but don’t feel comfortable playing can receive $150,000 if they opt out. Those numbers could change slightly based on circumstances.
If games are canceled, players won’t be paid. But there will be a fund/benefit established to pay back any benefits eliminated as a result of COVID-19 up to 2023, as well as paying back any lost guaranteed money to players.
Did the NFL do anything to expand rosters in anticipation of COVID infections?
A bit. Owners agreed to expand practice squads to 16 players. Normally, any of the 31 other teams can sign a practice squad player to their active roster. In this arrangement, however, they can protect four players from leaving on a weekly basis.
How were projected revenue losses resolved?
The NFL agreed to keep the 2020 salary cap intact at $198.2 million per team, even though revenues are projected to drop from between $3 billion to $4 billion. No matter how far revenues fall this year, the agreement establishes a $170 million floor for the 2021 cap. The remainder of the losses would be spread out over the next four seasons.
Why would there be a revenue shortage if most NFL money comes from TV?
The biggest source would be from reduced or eliminated fan attendance. The NFL has left it up to teams to determine fan policies for games, in conjunction with state and local regulations. Teams that have announced preliminary plans have capped their new capacities at 20,000 or less to ensure social distancing in the stands and concourses. Those plans are subject to change. The NFL will require any fan who does attend a game to wear a mask.
Would fans actually buy tickets amid the pandemic?
Probably. One anecdotal bit of evidence emerged this week from Atlanta. The Falcons told ESPN’s Vaughn McClure that they had received word from 181 of their 50,000-60,000 PSL and suite owners who said they had no plans to attend games this season. That’s a pretty low number.
What else did we learn this week?
The NFL and NFL Referees Association are negotiating a separate set of protocols and have determined that officials won’t make their annual training camp visits. Coupled with the cancellation of the preseason, officials won’t get any work on the field until Week 1 of the regular season. Other issues they need to resolve include travel adjustments, opt-outs and plans for illness coverage.
The average age of the NFL’s officiating roster is 52. The league did not hire any “swing” officials this year, leaving two options for replacements if and when officials fall ill: Doubling up on weekly game assignments or using crews smaller than the traditional seven-person group.