NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NFL knew it would likely have to deal with the coronavirus pandemic at some point when it proceeded with the 2020 season.
“At the end of the day, the safest teams and the healthiest team this year is going to be the one that’s going to be playing in January and February. We can only control what we can control,” Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard said in August.
The Titans became the first NFL team to experience a COVID-19 outbreak. The number of positive tests is now up to 18, and the Titans’ game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, originally scheduled for Sunday, has been postponed. The Titans maintain that they have adhered to NFL/NFLPA protocols and procedures.
Contact tracing was initiated as soon as positive tests were received, according to Titans coach Mike Vrabel. Players and select team employees wear a proximity recording device that tracks interaction with others who wear the device. Anyone who was in close proximity to a person who tests positive is subjected to multiple tests. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus has an incubation period that can last up to 14 days. An infected person can be contagious up to 72 hours before they even begin showing symptoms.
While the Titans were the first team to be affected, they weren’t the last. Here is a timeline of how everything unfolded for the Titans and the NFL leading up to Saturday’s decision to postpone the New England Patriots–Kansas City Chiefs game as well.
Sept. 24: Titans defensive back Greg Mabin tests positive. Mabin was removed from the team facility after receiving a positive test, according to Vrabel. He was placed immediately into the protocol.
Added Vrabel: “When he tested positive, he was removed from the building. He was quarantined, and those individuals that were close contacts with him were also retested and went through their protocol as well.”
The Titans signed Mabin to their practice squad on Sept. 21 to add depth. There are new procedures for bringing in a free agent due to the pandemic.
“When you try players out, they go through a process of testing and quarantine before you work them out, and then when you work them out, you decide to sign them or not, and then they’re into the testing protocol,” Vrabel said on Thursday. “At that point in time, when he tested positive, we went through and followed the protocol and he was removed from the facility.”
Sept. 26: Titans outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen tests positive. The Titans received Bowen’s positive test last Saturday morning. Bowen didn’t make the Titans’ trip to Minnesota to play the Vikings.
“When we get the results early in the morning, Todd [Toriscelli, director of sports medicine] and his staff and Adrian [Dixon, assistant athletic trainer] begin the contact tracing. They do the follow-up testing and then we proceed from there with the protocol as it relates to any of the positives that would come up,” Vrabel said Thursday. “There’s a POC test which happens, and we’re very confident that we’ve followed the guidelines with the protocol that the league and the players’ association have set forth as it relates to identifying those persons of close contact and by using the tracing devices.”
Sept. 27: Titans play the Vikings in Minnesota. The Titans defeated the Vikings with Vrabel calling the defensive plays in place of Bowen, who did it for the first two games.
No Vikings have tested positive since the Titans game.
Sept. 28: News breaks of Bowen’s positive test. Vrabel confirmed Bowen had a positive test and didn’t make the trip to Minnesota. He said Bowen wasn’t with the team and that the Titans had followed NFL/NFLPA procedures.
“I’d say we’ve followed all the protocols as it relates to COVID,” Vrabel said. “We’re following the hundred memos that they’ve sent out verbatim.”
Titans’ positive tests: one player, one team personnel member
Sept. 29: Titans have eight more positive tests. The Titans received new positive tests from three players and five staff members. They placed defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, long-snapper Beau Brinkley and practice squad tight end Tommy Hudson on the reserve/COVID list.
All in-person activities at the Titans’ facility were suspended, but the Week 4 game in Nashville against the Pittsburgh Steelers had not yet been impacted.
“We’ve been given a mandate to prepare as if the game is going to be played and played on time,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Vikings received news of the additional positive tests and closed their facility along with putting a halt to all in-person activities.
Titans’ positive tests: four players, six team personnel members
Sept. 30: Another Titan tests positive. Outside linebacker Kamalei Correa was placed on the reserve/COVID list. Vrabel was preparing the team to play as early as Monday. According to Vrabel, the players who were in need of treatment were able to enter the facility to see the athletic training staff. Anyone who entered the building was required to wear a mask at all times.
Vrabel also said some of the players who tested positive were experiencing flu-like symptoms but he anticipated that “they will feel better shortly.”
Minnesota reopened its facility with enhanced protocols. ESPN Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin reported that everyone entering the building had to have a negative PCR test and a negative point of care test (nasal swab with results available in 20 minutes).
Titans’ positive tests: five players, six team personnel members
Dianna Russini shares the latest on Cam Newton testing positive for COVID-19 and what that means for the Patriots.
Oct. 1: Two more Titans test positive; NFL postpones Steelers vs. Titans. The Titans placed cornerback Kristian Fulton on the reserve/COVID list. An additional unnamed team personnel member also tested positive.
According to a statement, the NFL’s decision to move the game to a later date was made “to ensure the health and safety of players, coaches and game day personnel.”
Vrabel told the media the Titans were “very confident that we’ve followed the guidelines with the protocol that the league and the players’ association have set forth.” The Titans’ facility remained closed. All players, coaches and select team members continued testing while the team was on its bye week as a result of the postponement.
Vrabel delivered news of the postponement to the Titans during a virtual team meeting at 8:30 a.m. The Titans turned their attention to their Week 5 opponent, the Buffalo Bills.
“We had a squad meeting to inform the team that in light of the two recent positive tests that we had, the NFL had made the smart and safe decision to postpone our game, and that we would be on a bye week starting now,” Vrabel said. “[We] reminded them to not gather with each other, players and staff, until we can find a safe way to enter in back to our building … hopefully which would happen Monday or Tuesday, [and] we would then [begin] preparation against Buffalo.”
The NFL also issued a memo with enhanced protocols for teams to follow after exposure to the coronavirus — including two daily tests. PPE and face masks must be worn by all players and coaches on the practice field and gloves must be worn by everyone except quarterbacks on their throwing hand. All meetings must be virtual, and there will also be daily deep cleanings of the facility. The protocols also prohibit team or player gatherings away from the facility.
Titans’ positive tests: six players, seven team personnel members
Oct 2: Two more Titans test positive; NFL reschedules Steelers vs. Titans for Week 7. The Titans placed wide receivers Adam Humphries and Cam Batson on the reserve/COVID list.
— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) October 3, 2020
Both the Titans and the Steelers now have Week 4 as their bye week. Officials from the NFL and NFLPA visit Nashville to look further into the outbreak.
The NFL released another memo, this time outlining procedures during the bye week and “testing cadence.” The statement reminds players there is a $50,000 fine for missing a test. A second missed test results in a one game suspension.
Any player that misses a daily test without authorization during the bye week must have five negative PCR tests (taken 24 hours apart) before reentering a team facility.
Titans’ positive tests: eight players, seven team personnel members
Oct. 3: Multiple NFL positive tests. The Titans received another positive test for a player — defensive end Jeffery Simmons, their 2019 first-rounder — and two for team personnel members.
News broke that New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton had tested positive on Saturday morning. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that, per a source, the Patriots did mass testing and retesting and there was no immediate spread.
Schefter also reported that Sunday’s Patriots vs. Chiefs game would likely be moved to Tuesday.
Chiefs practice squad quarterback Jordan Ta’amu also tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a source.
Titans’ positive tests: nine players, nine team personnel members