By Kevin McNamara
In this new, day-to-day, COVID world, it’s hard to tell who should be calling the shots in the National Football League.
Back in the summer the NFL, its owners and the Player’s Association came to an uneasy agreement. Both sides wanted to see a 2020 season and crafted a unique set of parameters that would govern just how a fall and winter of expected outbreaks of the virus could unfold.
Everyone agreed that the future, the virus, would dictate every scenario. No one could predict how things would look come October or playoff time.
Well now the rubber is hitting the road and who’s ultimately calling the shots, the NFL, individual teams or the players?
The Tennessee Titans became the first team to endure an outbreak and have a game postponed. The New England Patriots may not have a true outbreak, but it’s pretty darn close. Four players have tested positive within a week. A high-profile game at Kansas City was delayed a day with the Pats forced to fly on game day, a prospect that clearly irked a host of players.
On Sunday worse news hit Foxboro. The fourth player, reportedly Byron Cowart, tested positive Saturday. He played in the game at Kansas City, flew on the team plane and attended the team’s only practice of the week Saturday.
Cowart’s test result seems to be the Patriots’ last straw. There were players (and maybe coaches?) who did not feel playing in Kansas City was the wise thing to do. That trip potentially led to more spread of the virus as star cornerback Stephon Gilmore tested positive within a day of that game. Now there’s Cowart.
This all led to the NFL deciding to cut the Patriots a break and postpone Monday night’s scheduled home game against the Denver Broncos. But was it the Patriots who told the Shield `we’re not playing!’ after a week of only one in-person day of preparation?
Texted a #Patriots player about report that the game is – as of now – still on. Response: "They know we've had a walkthrough and that's it, right?" Another player: "This is the polar opposite of ideal." @nflnetwork @AroundTheNFL
— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) October 11, 2020
The clues of where the Patriots stand right now were dropped all week. Asked last week if the team was pulling out all the stops in favor of player safety, coach Bill Belichick didn’t mince words.
“I feel like we did everything that we could control,” Belichick said. “I think we did everything properly with the extra plane, the extra busses, the same day travel, etcetera, etcetera.”
“There’s nothing more important than the health of the team. I mean, without a healthy team, you don’t have a team,” Belichick said. “So, that priority number one, I would say not only for our team, but also for their families and people that are close to them. So, that’s always our number one concern and we’ll try to do everything we can to make that the best that we can make it. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s not going to change. So, whatever we have to do to do that, than that’ll be what we do.”
After missing practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the Pats convened for a light workout Saturday in advance of the game against the Broncos that was pushed off a day to Monday. In a perfect world the NFL would’ve found a hole (a Week 18 perhaps?) in the schedule and delay the game but this is 2020. Nothing is perfect.
“Honestly, we haven’t seen our team since Monday night in Kansas City. We haven’t done anything together except have virtual meetings, so I’m not sure where we are in a lot of cases,” Belichick said before Saturday’s workout.
There were reports this weekend that some Patriots players, fearful of the continued spread of the virus, stayed at area hotels this week instead of going home to their families. Then when Cowart’s test result came across, other players’ worst fears were confirmed. The virus is still circulating in Foxboro.
Patriots CB Jason McCourty says players practiced with masks or Oakley shields today.
He seems annoyed that the NFL ignored the incubation period before having the Patriots travel and play last week.
— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) October 10, 2020
Veteran (and player’s association rep) Jason McCourty spoke with the media Saturday. He voiced the player’s concerns in crystal clear tones. The Patriots aren’t comfortable with competing with a hand tied behind their backs, flying on game days, barely practicing and coping with the spread in their locker room
“I would kind of say throughout all of this the realization that it’s a not a league-wide thing,” McCourty said. “It’s kind of a team thing.”
“For us in this locker room, this is what we have. Between the players, the coaches, the administration, the staff, it’s up to us to kind of take care of one another to make sure physically we’re all set, make sure mentally, because I think outside of here, the people that don’t have to walk in our building – whether it’s the league office, whether it’s the NFLPA – they don’t care.”
That may be a bit harsh, but McCourty is right. The NFL cares about the good of the entire ship, all 32 teams. The TV networks, its playoffs, the Super Bowl. If an individual team (even the Patriots) hits the sour end of the stick along the way, so be it. Deal with it. We’ll alter the rules as things unfold.
NFLPA not ready to agree to home-market bubble; after players start losing game checks, that could change https://t.co/2zi4QmDtMc
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 11, 2020
That’s an equation that is sure to rile up a few more teams over the course of the next few months. That’s central to the deal the NFL and the Player’s Association agreed to last summer when everyone longed to give things a shot in 2020. Is it fair? No. Neither is COVID-19.