COVID-19

NFL, NFLPA Discussing Offseason Changes

In 2011, a lockout stalled the league year until training camp. But players could still work out independently in groups. This coronavirus-marred offseason has brought a different reality, and teams are growing worried.

Quarantines have players confined to their homes, and for the many NFLers without elaborate home-gym setups, it will disrupt workout routines. Teams that made quarterback or skill-position signings may not see their new-look offenses running plays together until training camp. Concerns from teams, the NFLPA and league executives have emerged regarding the physical health of players, Mike Garafolo of NFL.com reports, adding that these worries stem from players being in much worse shape as the quarantines stretch through April.

Teams’ offseason programs begin each April, but the COVID-19 pandemic is almost certainly set to wipe out OTAs and minicamps this year. The NFL took the step to close teams’ facilities, and Garafolo adds various players have been turned away from working out at their respective teams’ headquarters. Still, teams are hopeful the social distancing guidelines will ease up at some point in May or June to allow a truncated offseason program, Garafolo adds.

The prospect of teams convening during the several weeks on the calendar between minicamp and training camp — usually an NFL dead period — has come up. Discussions between the NFL and NFLPA of a multi-week ramp-up period before training camp occurring at some point in late June or early July have occurred, per Garafolo, who adds the NFLPA does not want players going from 0-100 come training camp.

The league still hopes to hold training camp and the regular season on time, but with even these late-summer staples not locks in this uncertain period, a pre-training camp ramp-up period may also be optimistic.

Players’ workout bonuses have also become an issue; $36MM-plus in offseason payments are in limbo. Players’ participation in teams’ virtual offseason programs has come up as away to reward these bonuses, per Garafolo. Teams are preparing to begin virtual offseason programs this month, ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano notes. These could not occur in 2011, when teams were barred from contacting players. Teams sending players digital playbooks and, interestingly, videoconference workouts are scenarios on the table, Graziano adds.

As for free agents who remain unsigned, the inability to visit or work out for teams has doubled as a bad break for those with medical question marks. Various free agents who have already agreed to deals could run into trouble as well. Teams have raised the possibility of rescinding agreements after the draft if needs are filled to the point certain free agents are no longer needed, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com notes (on Twitter).

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Sean Payton Cleared From COVID-19

Sean Payton revealed March 19 he tested positive for COVID-19. The longtime Saints coach received good news nearly two weeks later. Doctors have cleared Payton of the coronavirus, he announced Wednesday.

The 56-year-old coach said he was cleared six days ago. Payton represented the NFL’s first scare related to this virus, which has paused the sports world and altered the way of life in hundreds of countries. Payton was tested March 16 and said (via Jarrett Bell of USA Today) his symptoms reached their worst point around two weeks ago.

You fatigue real easy,” Payton said of this period. “I’d be up moving around, doing something, then you’d want to lay down again. That lasted three or four days. By the time I got the test results back I had begun feeling better. I had my appetite back.”

When Payton was diagnosed, the U.S. had confirmed less than 12,000 coronavirus cases. As of Wednesday afternoon, that number has climbed past 211,000. It is unlikely Payton’s positive test will be the only one to affect the NFL, but this obviously represents good news.

The 15th-year New Orleans coach took time away from football responsibilities but returned to work (remotely) Monday. The Saints are building their draft board and will hold their war room at a New Orleans bar, Larry Holder of The Athletic tweets.

Despite the dire revised COVID-19 predictions released by the White House on Tuesday, the NFL still plans to go ahead with the draft as planned — though, the event will unfold in a far different fashion — and as of now is planning to begin the regular season on time with fans in stadiums. OTAs and minicamp remain on hold but are unlikely to commence this year.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Latest On NFL Draft

Despite concerns from GMs, the NFL will barrel ahead with its draft as scheduled. The draft will take place from April 23-25. More particulars of this year’s unusual selection event emerged Tuesday.

  • While NFL staffs are currently operating remotely, teams will be permitted to assemble modified war rooms during the draft. Teams can have up to 10 staffers in their respective war rooms, but they must follow the social distancing guidelines that have been recommended nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. The staffers must stay six feet apart, NFL executive Peter O’Reilly notes (via NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero, on Twitter). This will be a significant adjustment for teams, but a draft taking place without a main-stage component will certainly overshadow it.
  • Another change the NFL is considering: expanding the time teams will have to make picks. The competition committee will debate giving teams a one-time-only option to extend their clock by one or two minutes, Pelissero tweets. This is in response to GMs who voiced concerns about completing trades under this unusual format. Normally, teams have 10 minutes to make their first-round pick; those numbers steadily decrease throughout the weekend. This could be a way of throwing GMs a bone. After all, the NFL disregarded front office staffers’ concerns and has threatened to punish those who speak out against the league’s plan.
  • National Football Scouting, which works the Combine for the league, has instituted a voluntary medical recheck process, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reports (on Twitter). Teams can no longer visit with prospects, work them out or attend pro days before the 2020 draft. While a recheck process would provide additional clarity for teams regarding prospects with medical issues, La Canfora notes it has placed additional pressure on players. Not voluntarily submitting to a recheck would naturally arise suspicion.
  • The NFL has implemented new rules regarding virtual communication. It will allow teams to speak with more prospects leading up to the draft.

NFL Not Planning Shortened Season

American sports remain on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the NFL’s offseason and draft undergoing significant changes, questions about the viability of the league’s regular season beginning on time are understandable. The NFL addressed this issue Tuesday.

The NFL’s current plan remains to begin its regular season on time and with fans present in stadiums, NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said (via Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, on Twitter). Owners did not discuss the prospect of a shortened season on their conference calls Monday or Tuesday, Pash added (via the Washington Post’s Mark Maske, on Twitter). The league is “pretty confident” it will be able to play a full 16-game season this year, Pash notes (via Maske, on Twitter).

Regular contact with the CDC and other public health agencies have led NFL brass to use a model that indicates it remains possible for the regular season to begin at its usual time — the Thursday after Labor Day — but the league cautions public health conditions changing could cause its plans to change, Dan Graziano of ESPN.com tweets.

Given the way the coronavirus has changed the country, it certainly cannot be assumed the NFL schedule will take place as usual. The MLB season continues to be pushed back, and a shortened NBA playoffs in quarantined neutral sites without fans has surfaced. The NFL’s training camps — which begin in late July — figure to be a logical goal. But the prospect of an altered camp schedule (without fans) and a shortened preseason may be on the table already.

If I had to speculate now, and I use the word speculate because that’s really all it is, I would say yes,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said regarding the season starting on time (via NBC Sports’ Peter King). “Only because it’s so far away from where we are today. I could easily see camps being shorter, players being tested on a daily basis, things of that nature. No fan attendance. Things like that.

We may have fewer preseason games, which probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. But I think by September, my hope is by the time the regular season starts, that we’ll be able to bring people together in some form or fashion in a safe manner and play.”

The NFL has gone through two modern-era shortened seasons. Players’ strikes in 1982 and ’87 condensed the season to nine and 15 games, respectively. In 2001, the league delayed Week 2 after the September 11 terrorist attacks but played a full 16-game season.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Tony Boselli Hospitalized With COVID-19

Bleacher Report NFL columnist Mike Freeman has been keeping close tabs on those tied to the NFL who are dealing with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier Saturday afternoon, Freeman reported (via Twitter) that former Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli had been hospitalized with COVID-19. Freeman followed up, adding the 47-year old Boselli was first placed in the intensive care unit, but appeared to improve and was receiving treatment elsewhere.

Boselli was the second overall pick in the 1995 draft by Jacksonville where he would spend the entirety of his seven-year career. While his career was cut short, Boselli still managed to receive five Pro Bowl and three All-Pro selections during his playing career. In fact, Boselli has been on the preliminary nominees’ list for the Pro Football Hall of Fame on every cycle since 2009.

Hopefully, Boselli can serve as a reminder to anyone continuing to take the current public health situation lightly. Everyone needs to do everything they can to help minimize their risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Negligence from public officials and people will get people hospitalized and potentially killed. At this point, many more people (in the NFL and otherwise) are going to contract the virus and face dire health circumstances, but if everyone takes responsibility for what they can control we can hopefully minimize the toll of this crisis from becoming worse than our negligence has already made it.

We at PFR join everyone in wishing Boselli and all those dealing with severe cases of COVID-19 the best in their fights.

NFL Orders Teams To Close Facilities

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, commissioner Roger Goodell issued a memo to all 32 teams tonight mandating that they close their facilities by 6pm tomorrow, March 25, as Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network reports (via Twitter). The full memo can be found here.

Of course, many teams had already closed up shop, and others had limited personnel at their facilities. We heard earlier tonight that the league was going to look into the matter to determine if the teams that remained “open” were gaining a competitive advantage, and Goodell ultimately decided that closing headquarters was for the best.

Importantly, teams remain free to conduct all normal business operations, including signing free agents. The league will reevaluate the situation on April 8.

As we know, the decision to move forward with free agency upset some execs, and the league’s plans to hold the draft from April 23-25 as normal is also being met with resistance. Per Adam Schefter and Dianna Russini of ESPN.com, the general manager subcommittee unanimously recommended to Goodell that the draft be moved back, but Goodell has not made any changes as of yet.

The desire to reschedule the draft makes plenty of sense. After all, with teams unable to visit with prospects, give them physicals, etc., they will be unable to make fully-informed decisions when the draft rolls around. And clubs in states that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus may still be on lockdown on April 23 and therefore could not be at their facilities for the draft.

The situation remains fluid, and it would not be a surprise to see Goodell reverse course at some point. As one league source told Schefter and Russini, “I think a lot of owners aren’t sold on keeping it on schedule. Of course the power owners are calling the shots. Plus, add to the fact that April is going to be the toughest month with this virus. It’s really a poor look.”

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Hopes To Start 2020 Season On Time

As of now, the NFL remains hopeful that the 2020 regular season will start on time, as Mark Maske of the Washington Post writes. But the COVID-19 pandemic — which has already had a major impact on the draft, free agency, and offseason activities — could delay the start of training camp, and an adjustment to the regular season still looms as a real possibility.

In addition to the obvious health concerns, there are also competitiveness issues to consider when it comes to training camp. If the league tries to proceed as normal and a player tests positive for coronavirus — thereby forcing that player’s team to cease operations — the team is suddenly at a major competitive disadvantage. Similarly, Maske reports that the NFL will soon look into how many teams have closed their facilities and how many have not to determine if significant fairness concerns already exist.

One way or another, it seems as if offseason programs, including minicamps and OTAs, will be canceled entirely. As one league owner told Maske, “I would be shocked if we had any kind of offseason program at team facilities.” The same owner also said it is too soon to tell what the league will do with respect to training camp.

As Maske observes, any change to the regular season may require a corresponding shift to the Super Bowl, which would be a Herculean task. Executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, Rob Higgins, told Maske that there has been no discussion of contingency plans at this time.

Earlier today, we heard that the NFL is moving forward in negotiating new TV deals.

Latest On COVID-19’s NFL Impact

Although a lockout marred the 2011 NFL offseason, this year will eclipse that delayed offseason for the most unusual in the league’s modern history. Here is some of the fallout from how COVID-19 has affected the NFL during free agency and how it will impact the league going forward:

  • Some teams have inserted coronavirus-triggered language into contracts. With players not permitted to visit team facilities and take physicals and teams not allowed to have staffers meet with free agent targets, some teams have included provisions into contracts indicating that failed physicals would void signing bonus money, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com reports. Players are prohibited from entering team facilities until at least April, and with this likely set to be an offseason without OTAs, it could be months before free agents take physicals with their new teams. It is not known how many teams are taking this hard-line stance, Fowler notes.
  • Teams are permitted to use independent physicians for physicals, but Tom Pelissero of NFL.com notes (via Twitter) some of the league’s franchises are not comfortable doing so. The delay on physicals has led to most free agency deals yet to be officially announced. Some teams that have announced trades got around these rules. The Falcons and Ravens announced their Hayden Hurst-centered trade because Hurst took his physical before the COVID-19 rules went into effect, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk notes. This delay on teams’ medical staffs being able to examine players figures to keep some free agents with injury questions unsigned and has certainly impacted the Cam Newton trade market.
  • Due to the stock market’s uncertainty because of coronavirus, multiple NFL owners instructed their front offices to defer signing bonus payments for as long as possible, Florio reports. Signing bonuses are committed to players when they sign, but teams often pay them in installments. Some teams are trying to push back the windows for some of the bonus money to be paid, Florio adds, noting that the Raiders are avoiding signing bonuses altogether. Las Vegas made multiple splashy signings early in free agency, but no details of signing bonuses emerged after those agreements.
  • Some NFL execs were unhappy the league moved forward with free agency during this unprecedented climate in North American sports. “Tone deaf is right!” a GM told NBC Sports’ Peter King. “The world has stopped. We’re in a national emergency as a country and we do this? It’s awful. We’re telling the rest of the world we don’t care.” While the NFL provided the sports-following world with a distraction this week, the uncertainty surrounding OTAs and minicamps — and the lack of pre-draft visits and workouts — will send the league into a strange period similar to what the other major American sports are navigating because of coronavirus.
  • The NFL will make some changes to the draft, and some notable unknowns still exist a month away from the annual April event.

Latest On 2020 Draft

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be no draft-related events of any kind in Las Vegas next month. Although the draft remains scheduled for April 23-25, Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times reports that the selections will be broadcast from a studio setting with cut-ins from the headquarters of the teams on the clock.

We heard last week that the league had canceled public events in Las Vegas, but it was unclear whether the draft would still proceed in some smaller scale fashion in Sin City. We speculated that the process would take place remotely via video conferencing, and that now seems to be the case.

Of course, one of the most exciting parts of the draft, for players and fans alike, is commissioner Roger Goodell‘s announcement of each first-round selection, followed by that player’s walk to the stage — assuming that player was invited to the event and elected to attend — to greet Goodell and receive his new jersey. As no one knows what travel restrictions will look like next month, it remains to be seen if the league will attempt to bring in this year’s top prospects in an effort to simulate the usual pomp and circumstance.

Farmer obtained a memo from Goodell to league employees with respect to the decision, which reads in part as follows:

“Planning for the Draft is a good example of how we need to think differently, embrace technology and collaborate. We will also use the Draft to help support fans and those people impacted in our communities. While there have been changes to the way we work and some of our plans, we have an unwavering commitment to upholding the NFL’s legacy of unifying and lifting the spirit of America, and bringing out the best in our fans and in our communities around the world. You’ll hear more from us in the days and weeks ahead about how we intend to demonstrate that commitment well beyond our fields.”

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Might Push Back May Meetings

The NFL recently cancelled their annual spring meeting, an important event where rule changes get discussed among other orders of business, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time they announced those discussions would instead take place at a May 18-20th meeting in California, which had been expanded due to the cancellation.

Now that meeting is up in the air and the league is unsure if it will proceed, Mark Maske of the Washington Post tweets. In follow-up tweets, Maske posted a letter that commissioner Roger Goodell sent to NFL staff that he obtained. “While there have been changes to the way we work and some of our plans, we have an unwavering commitment to upholding the NFL’s legacy and lifting the spirit of America,” Goodell wrote.

We will get through these difficult days together and every one of you should be proud knowing that you have played an important role to help our world emerge stronger and more unified,” he continued. Goodell also said in his letter that the league would use April’s draft “to help support fans and those people impacted in our communities.”

There was initially a lot of talk about pushing the start of the league year and delaying free agency due to COVID-19, but that ended up getting avoided after the players’ union pushed back. If the May meeting does get scrapped, it’s entirely possible the owners will have to debate and vote on rule changes and other important agenda items for the 2020 season remotely.