Positive tests for COVID-19 could be as common as hamstring injuries in NFL locker rooms this season.
We’d have to be naïve or foolish to believe the Texans and Cowboys are the only teams with players who have recently tested positive for the virus. Their recent cases are just the ones leaked to the NFL Network.
NFL teams in general, and their players in particular, aren’t immune to the coronavirus. When they return for training camp, the Texans and Cowboys have to be especially vigilant because they practice and play in a state that continues to set daily records for positive tests and hospitalizations.
The Lone Star State set a record on Tuesday with more than 2,500 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, which is almost 67 percent more than on Memorial Day.
Health experts said many of the patients are younger and healthier but “still susceptible to serious illness or death from the disease.”
Gov. Greg Abbott blames the spike in positive tests on too many young people being careless. Players are young people, and even though the Texans’ medical experts have told them what to do and what not to do during these unprecedented times, you know all of them are not following that advice. When they return for training camp, no telling how many will test positive, including some who are asymptomatic.
Teams are looking for guidelines from the NFL and have so many questions that haven’t been answered. Commissioner Roger Goodell said during an ESPN interview Monday night the league knows there will be positive tests, and they’ll follow every protocol in dealing with them.
Last week, the league sent guidelines for every team. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said it would be impossible to follow all of them. Other coaches agree with Harbaugh but haven’t said so publicly for fear of rebuke from the NFL.
The Texans have one of the best medical staffs in the NFL, and they’ll take every precaution when players return for training camp.
The Texans don’t own NRG Stadium, so they can’t make every adjustment they’ll need to make. They share the building with the Houston Livestock and Rodeo, and there are other events in the stadium out of the Texans’ control.
One of guidelines that is going to be impossible to follow is keeping players 6 feet apart. Their locker room at the stadium is huge, but it’s too small for a training camp roster of 90 players.
Additional lockers have to be set up in the middle of the room, and players trip over each other and their gear trying to get to the shower, weight room and training room. It’s so crowded reporters aren’t allowed inside until the roster is reduced to 53 before the season.
The Texans can’t set up lockers outside in the hallway because they’d risk getting run over by golf carts, trucks and the occasional forklift that go by.
The meeting rooms at the stadium are just large enough for each position group. Asking the offensive linemen to stay 6 feet apart in a cramped room isn’t feasible. Do they meet outside in the heat and humidity? Of course not.
Perhaps coach Bill O’Brien and his staff will take players into the practice bubble and spread them around. For instance, offensive linemen meet on one end and receivers on another. Quarterbacks and specialists require the smallest space.
After getting advice from their medical experts, O’Brien and executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby have to figure out the safest way to have meetings and practice with the minimal amount of exposure to the virus. They know positive tests are inevitable, and they’ll deal with them by following league guidelines.
The NFL is a game of adjustments, and this season is going to require flexibility like no other.
The league says it wants to test the players and everyone who works around them at least three times a week. There are so many variables that have to be determined.
What if Deshaun Watson tests positive before the first game at Kansas City? He’ll be pulled away and quarantined until he has two positive tests that allow him to return.
What if Watson’s positive result turns out to be a false-positive. Experts say almost 30 percent of tests can be false-positives.
Can a player who tests positive get a second opinion like on an injury diagnosis? What if Watson tests positive on Monday, but gets a test outside the NFL that comes back negative? What do the Texans do?
The NFL will use contact tracing. They don’t need contact tracing to know Watson has been around quarterbacks AJ McCarron and Alex McGough. What if they test positive, too? Who’s going to play quarterback against the Chiefs?
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians was the first to bring up possibly quarantining a quarterback for just such an emergency. Coaches and general managers pride themselves on covering every possible angle, and now the NFL needs to help them.
Rosters should be expanded. So should practice squads. Maybe McGough, the third quarterback, should practice with receivers on another field, have a different locker room and use Zoom to participate in meetings.
Teams also need a backup kicker. Think about the disadvantage the Texans would face if Ka’imi Fairbairn tested positive and couldn’t play. Having an additional kicker and punter in the same protective environment as a quarterback should be essential for every team that should be preparing for every contingency.
The NFL is trying to think of every situation that could arise because of the coronavirus. Teams are trying to follow the guidelines as closely as possible. Every team is treated equally, and they’ll have to learn as they go and call a lot of audibles.
But here’s something that seems so contradictory: The league wants teams to follow guidelines during the week, and then it’s going to throw caution to the wind by allowing games to be played, games in which players get blood, sweat and spit on them.
Every year, the best teams are usually the ones that are the most fortunate when it comes to injuries. This season, the Super Bowl champion could be determined by which team has the fewest number of positive tests for COVID-19.