MAQB: Team-Sponsored Virtual Offseasons Could Actually End Early; More NFL Notes

Some teams feel they have exhausted what they can do through a screen. Plus, the Patriots' guest speaker, COVID-19 protocols for training camp, messages from Benjamin Watson and Kliff Kingsbury, and more.
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Lots to get to for a June afternoon …

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• There have been plenty of questions over how the hyper-focused Bill Belichick would handle the last week. So here’s what he did: Like a lot of other clubs, the Patriots devoted Zoom meetings to discussion on what’s happening in our country, and Belichick actually brought in a speaker for one of them. Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, addressed the team for an hour on Friday, giving them an education on racism in our country. Those I spoke with said that Hall was excellent, and spoke in great depth on the subject. And the theme of the session makes sense, given how Belichick has always used history to educate his teams. Also, there was a level of comfort there already, since the Patriots and Hall have worked together, with Hall having addressed the New England rookies during last June’s rookie transition program.

• We mentioned in the MMQB that the Texans will wrap up their virtual offseason program this Friday, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of that in the coming days. Yes, teams can keep going until June 26 by rule. But the sense I’ve gotten from across the NFL is that a lot of coaches and players have really gotten to the point where they’ve exhausted what they can do through a computer screen. So I think with some you may see player-led “minicamps” popping up—the Colts have one next week—in place of the virtual work. Indy, for its part, is ending its formal offseason program this week too, in part to accommodate what Philip Rivers is doing, though they’ll have some informal meetings with players here and there through the 26th (most of that work will be with rookies and developmental guys).

• I think the real push-and-pull between the league and union, beyond money, will be over the training camp report date. The NFL would like to allow for players to show up earlier than the July 28 date that’s set for most teams, to facilitate the addition of an elongated acclimation period (a five-day period is already built-in, in the new CBA), and testing and physicals and all that stuff. Players fought for their time off though, and lots of guys have plans for the annual summer break that they might not want to cancel (and then, there are young players who want to go back early). Would new NFLPA president J.C. Tretter want one of his first acts to be to cut guys’ vacations short? If the players hold firm, it complicates the timeline leading into the exhibition slate, and could lead to the cancellation of the first week of preseason games (which, I’ll say, some teams are OK with).

• Not that they need it, but pro football and its union are getting one heck of a good example from their baseball counterparts of how not to handle coming back from a pandemic. Those guys could turn a one-car funeral procession into a 10-car pileup.

• The NFL’s set of COVID-19 protocols, sent to teams on Monday, will force teams to be creative on several fronts. First, it reads that teams “must reconfigure locker rooms to permit six feet of space between each player,” which means most current locker rooms simply won’t be big enough. As it is, just to have room for a 90-man roster in camp, most teams have to set up extra lockers through the middle of the locker room, with the temporary stalls usually given to rookies. Second, it encourages virtual meetings and forbids in-person meetings of more than 20 guys—which would mean no unit meetings or squad meetings—unless distancing can be practiced. Third, it limits strength-and-conditioning sessions to 15 people at a time. All of this makes it a pretty good bet that logistical issues will be had.

• I won’t bore you with the rest of details—though you can read them above—just know that there are a lot of them, and the NFL and NFLPA promise, in this memo, to be watching like hawks. Each team will be required to have its head physician and infection control officer certify the facility on a monthly basis.

• On the matter of Drew Brees, I think retired TE Benjamin Watson’s voice is one worth listening to, and not only because he played with the Saints QB, but also because of the perspective a 16-year NFL career gives him. Watson went on Devin and Jason McCourty’s Double Coverage podcast, and said, “My initial thoughts on the comments were: I know Drew. We’ve had this conversation before. Even though I wasn’t on the team with him in 2016. I remember this happening and I remember him saying the exact same thing, so I wasn’t surprised. A lot of people were taken aback by what he said. I totally understand that because of the atmosphere we’re in right now. I spoke to him. We had a long conversation. He was really beat up about it. He was very remorseful not necessarily for his stance about the flag, but for being tone-deaf when he said it. And for not being able to bring the conversation back to where he could show the empathy that I know that he has.” And that really was the crux of the whole thing, anyway, and I thought Nate Boyer captured it well in my column this morning too. I don’t think anyone has a problem with someone else feeling strongly about the anthem in the way Brees does. The problem was more the idea that everyone had to interpret the anthem, or the ceremony of playing it before a game, the same way he did. Which, of course, is where empathy comes in.

• Watch Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury here. Really, I think what players want from their leaders in a situation like this is reflected in Kingsbury’s three points. First, he recognized the gravity of the killing of Floyd. Second, he pledged support to the guys, as they try and find the appropriate ways to react. And third, he emphasized that players should, and do, have a great platform in a spot like this to affect change. Good job by Kliff.

• The Steelers’ plan to have training camp at Heinz Field could allow for some fans to attend and does alleviate some of the logistical issue that their somewhat-cramped quarters—they share a practice facility with the University of Pittsburgh’s football program—would have with the new COVID-19 protocols. On the flip side, having full-scale practices with a 90-man roster on a single field isn’t easy. But the Cardinals, who have their camp at State Farm Stadium, pull it off every year, and others will stage stadium practices during camp, so it’s not like it’s unprecedented.

• One thing’s for certain: Donald Trump’s not going to let the anthem issue die. Add to that the fact that it’s an election year, and it sure looks like the NFL’s in for a very interesting September. Especially now that Roger Goodell has taken a side, and it’s not Trump’s.

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