The unusual nature of 2020 NFL offseason led to this scene: The first overall pick barking signals into a computer screen in his parents’ basement in southeast Ohio, more than 100 miles away from the closest pro football team, the team this particular quarterback happens to play for now.
For this part of the virtual offseason, over the last few weeks, Bengals coach Zac Taylor wanted to make it feel real for Joe Burrow, even if it couldn’t really be.
“We made the quarterbacks stand up,” Taylor said, laughing. “So Joe’s probably in his parents’ basement, standing up, yelling, while his mom’s upstairs making lunch. It was good. They took ownership of it. And I told them, we’re not trying to act like we’re in church here, we need to replicate these reps we’re missing on the field, so speak up and be loud and let everybody hear you. And our guys did a good job of that.”
The 2020 offseason also meant team officials studying the attention spans and screen habits of millennials and Generation Z. And teams having offseason speaker series taking up time that would normally be swallowed up by learning line splits and route combinations. And coaches taking on new roles in family relocations.
And before anyone could get started on any of that, for the NFL’s 32 teams, the 2020 offseason was about making sure your Wi-Fi connection was solid.
This has been a strange year for everyone in America and, truth be told, of all the major U.S. sports leagues, the NFL has probably been least effected by its events. When its 2019 season wrapped up, COVID-19 was still seen by many as another country’s problem, and we still have close to three months left before the 2020 season starts. In that regard, the NFL has been pretty lucky.
But that doesn’t mean the first half of this calendar year hasn’t tested NFL coaches and teams in some pretty unique ways. It most certainly has.
So it was that Burrow, rolling fast toward being the Bengals’ Week 1 starter (we’ll get to that), was in the house he grew up in, full-throated and trying to simulate being in a 70,000-seat stadium, running an offense that he hasn’t taken a single physical rep in yet, thanks to these weird circumstances.
Those reps will come in the summer, of course. For now, this had to do.
We’ve reached the final week of the 2020 offseason program, and we’ve got a fun MMQB for you. Further down in the column, you’ll find…
• A look at the COVID-19 affected summer, and where we’re headed.
• Why some teams want the season pushed back.
• How to digest Donald Trump’s NFL-related comments from Saturday night.
• Why the NFL is rooting for Colin Kaepernick to get a job.
But we’re starting with stories of the 2020 offseason, as it wraps up, from the head coaches who lived it.
Taylor knew he’d have to do things differently this offseason, and not just in the way everyone would have to do things differently. Having a rookie quarterback that he had to prepare to play from Day 1, without all the spring on-field work, meant needing to be creative to give him the best chance to get ahead. So came the idea of doing the work on Joe’s cadence in the basement of Jimmy and Robin Burrow.
And it was actually significantly more detailed than just that. These were full-on walkthroughs, sans the actual walking-through of plays.
“We’d make a 20-play cutup, create a script off that cutup, and initially I’d just call a play out loud, so everybody could hear me, the quarterback could repeat, and call the cadence,” Taylor said. “And we’d just go through, ‘O.K., center, Trey Hopkins, make the initial call here.’ And we’d be showing a clip from the end zone view, and he’d make his call, the appropriate linebacker. Then, ‘O.K., right tackle, who do you got? O.K., quarterback, any checks? No? O.K., call the cadence’
“Set, hut, blue 80, blue 80, set, hut.
“And then we’d go on to the next play.”
Then, Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher evolved it. Once Burrow got a handle on things, during walkthroughs, Taylor would mute his computer on Zoom, and FaceTime Burrow. He’d then relay the play call to Burrow, who’d have to call it for his teammates.
“If you have Philip Rivers, I don’t know that you’d have to do that,” Taylor said. “But for the guys, our center had never heard Joe Burrow call a cadence before. He needed to hear his voice, and I needed to hear it, so you could make the corrections that he can work on all summer. We were able to get a lot accomplished that way. I feel really good coming out of it that we used every second they allotted us and got a lot of work done.”
And the underlying truth here—Burrow’s almost certainly going to be the Bengals’ starter.
When we talked, Taylor didn’t want to anoint the Heisman Trophy winner as the guy yet. But then I asked if Burrow is going to take the first snap in training camp. There was zero hesitation on that one.
“Absolutely,” Taylor said. “Yes.”
With that, the Bengals coach also acknowledged that, because of the relative scarcity of physical reps between now and Week 1, he and his staff will have to give the team clarity on its starting quarterback early in camp. “You have to. There’s no doubt, it is a unique year. That’s just the approach we gotta take. We can’t beat around the bush. We gotta get him ready.”
So it wouldn’t shock me at all if Taylor comes out and says it on Day 1 of camp, mostly because Burrow’s been everything they bought into at the end of April.
“He’s been great,” Taylor said. “As advertised is the best way to put it. You can tell he spends a lot of time on his own being prepared with questions and he’s doing a great job taking ownership, which is important for a quarterback to do, and he’s doing everything he can to own this offense. Been really impressed with him, but not surprised.”
Of course, the Bengals have 82 other guys on their roster heading into July, which means the spring wasn’t just about getting Burrow ready to face the Chargers on Sept. 13.
And so before we get to more stories from a few other teams, I thought this was a really interesting and creative thing that Taylor and his staff did with the team as a group—and a way of tapping into the ethos of that generation. The coaches split the roster into nine teams—seven groups of nine and two groups of 10.
To get there, they had a draft. So they made two veteran holdovers captains for each team, and assigned a group for each round, to assure each team would represent a cross-section of the roster. In the first round, the captains had to take a rookie. In the second round, they had to take a defensive veteran. In the third round, they had to take an offensive veteran. In the fourth round, it was a new free agent. And so on.
Once the teams were assembled, for each week, the coaches would assign a video project. One week, the teams had to put together a rap video, another it was a TikTok video. This last week, the final week of the competition, it was Best Cameo Video. One team went through the app to book Snoop Dogg to record one, another got Cedric The Entertainer, another the Shark Tank crew.
“It was pretty good,” Taylor said. “I had Flavor Flav yelling at me to set the guys free—We’ve been working all offseason, please, coach Taylor, set the guys free! So it was pretty good. It was entertaining.”
That was just one of the team-building measures that Taylor and his staff took (rookies were assigned a sort of Big Brother, as well) to try and make up for the lack of face-to-face interaction. Making a big effort in that area, as you’ll see, wound up being pretty common throughout the league.
GIANTS MEET THE WIVES AND KIDS
So much of Joe Judge’s first few months as Giants head coach centered on his own family—as he went back and forth between Massachusetts and New Jersey—that one measure he took to try to build relationships on his new team came pretty naturally.
See, once the nation went into lockdown, he made the call to move back from the corporate apartment complex he’d been staying in with his new staff, to North Attleboro, Mass., just around the corner from his old office in Foxboro. That meant he, like so many others on staff calls ahead of the players rejoining for the offseason program, was very visibly juggling family life and work life in a way he hadn’t had to before.
And as that was happening, he and his coaches were assessing the challenges ahead.
“Really, we saw that the biggest challenge wasn’t the football part of the learning, it was breaking down those barriers, and forming relationships with the players, whether it was player-to-player or coach-to-player,” Judge said. “That was the biggest thing we wanted to make sure we overcame.”
The answer on how to do it, as it turned out, was right in front of everyone’s face, on those Zoom calls. Instead of trying to sidestep what everyone was going through at home, why not incorporate it?
And on top of normal player turnover, Judge and his staff being new made it even more important that those barriers came down. “We had to learn the players,” he said, “and they had to learn us.” So regularly, players or coaches would actually be asked to bring their wife or kids into the Zoom meetings, to introduce them, and allow for everyone to have a conversation with them.
It helped to loosen the mood, of course, and also to build relationships on another level.
“It really kind of opened it, when everybody’s going through different things, different challenges, and that brought a little insight into what everybody’s situation is,” Judge said. “Like, ‘Hey, man, tomorrow, you’re up—bring your wife and kids, everybody wants to meet them.’ That was it, and it worked out great, it really did. It was fun watching everyone interact, and it was important, we thought, to bridge those gaps, to get to know everyone.”
As for Judge’s own situation, it wasn’t without mishaps. In fact, on the Monday before the draft a pretty relatable problem arose, and he had to adjust his plans.
To that point, through four weeks, things had gone fairly smoothly for the family. He and his wife picked a house in suburban New Jersey and had their offer accepted just days before the quarantine began. (“Had we not gotten the house then, I don’t know what we would’ve done,” Judge said.) And he was able to fairly seamlessly move back to Massachusetts when the Giants offices closed. But over the weekend before the draft, the Wi-Fi started acting funky.
“With the Wi-Fi connections, we had to kind of boost it up afterwards,” Judge said. “I think it had to do with my kids being on every possible Xbox and PlayStation device you could name, draining the rest of the house. That’s when we ended up getting all these extenders and all that stuff. But it basically came down to that.… Once I had a couple hiccups, I was like, ‘Nope, I’m not risking this.’”
So he called the Giants’ IT people, and told them he was coming down Wednesday, the day before the draft, and asked if they could have his corporate apartment setup in time. “They flipped it around and did a great job,” he said.
And as it turned out, the guy the team wound up taking first that weekend had a pretty good link to Judge through the offseason, too. Because of his connections at the college level, and because college football was a little ahead of the NFL in its offseason, Judge leaned on some old colleagues to work ahead this offseason.
In that regard, Alabama’s football operations people helped as Judge worked through the logistics of doing things virtually, and how to be most effective over video. In another way, the advice of Georgia’s Kirby Smart—who happened to coach new Giants OT Andrew Thomas, the fourth overall pick in April—was invaluable.
Smart told the Giants to be careful about letting meetings drag on for too long, because the message could lose its strength over Zoom.
“We used a lot of stuff that he brought us from the time base for the meetings, some of the competition stuff, some of the apps they were using to incorporate the players’ cooperation in the meetings,” Judge said. “That was good, because they’d done some troubleshooting through their own program, so we were able to talk to them about what they were doing.…
“I think the biggest thing we had to keep being mindful of was how much time you’re spending in each meeting, and how you can change it up and keep them really stimulated without burning them out and making them feel like they were in a webinar.”
As such, Judge has tried to keep his finger on the pulse of not just the players, but the whole operation. Over time, to accomplish that, they built from position group meetings at first, to unit meetings and then finally squad meetings with more team-building worked in. And with a lot accomplished, and a weird offseason winding down, Judge saw fit to break his vets for the summer on June 12.
“We felt like we were in a really good place, and the players really worked hard, so we wanted to give them a little bit of a break, to mentally just get refreshed heading into training camp,” Judge said. “Along with that, to be honest with you, the coaches have been grinding so long too, I really was trying to look out for the staff as well. I really was kind of sitting there looking at the coaches thinking, I don’t wanna burn these guys out before we get started. It’s a fine line and they were close to it.”
So they’re back off now, with the idea it’ll give them a better shot to go full-throttle in July (or whenever camp starts). And yes, Judge, his wife and four kids are, finally, in Jersey now.
RIVERA FAM MOVES TO VIRGINIA
New Washington coach Ron Rivera wasn’t as lucky as Judge, as far as timing a move. He and his wife were putting their house in Charlotte on the market just as the lockdown hit, and they’d scheduled their move up to Virginia for the week of the owners meetings, a week Rivera would typically give his staff off.
So instead of traveling to Palm Beach for the annual league summit, the new Washington coach was with his wife Stephanie on the ground in North Carolina as moving trucks arrived on the last Saturday in March. And he was going back and forth between final competition committee meetings over the computer and what was happening on the homestead.
“Thank goodness for us the movers were still essential,” Rivera said. “But we had to do the move during my week off, and at the same time sell the house. So after we finished packing, and getting the house ready to be sold, we moved up to Virginia. And the movers had to come. And think about this too, we had to do the whole move with the protocol—they were wearing masks, they were wearing gloves, they unpacked the boxes and had to wash everything. It was interesting to say the least.”
The movers finished boxing the Riveras’ stuff late that Saturday, and Ron and Stephanie started the six-and-a-half-hour drive up to Ashburn, Va. first thing Sunday morning. They got to their new place early afternoon; two hours later the moving trucks arrived, and the movers went in the house and put down floor coverings. Monday morning, they unloaded the trucks, and that’s when the real work started.
In past years when Ron would switch jobs, as is the case in many football families, he’d go to the family’s new city early to start working, and Stephanie would captain the move.
This time? No such luck.
“For a few weeks, I’d get up in the morning, go right into my tape, my prep for the draft, then meetings. We’d finish our meetings, we did that right around 2:30, 3:00, and then I’d go right into unpacking boxes,” Rivera said. “I can remember Mr. [Dan] Snyder calling me one day, asking, ‘How you guys doing?’ I said, ‘We’re doing OK, don’t tell anybody but you gotta get me back to work now. I’ve never opened more boxes in my life.’
“He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘My wife’s killing me.’”
Rivera did confirm for me that he got a few eye-rolls from Stephanie over those few weeks.
But in a lot of ways, Rivera took positives from the process. In fact, as he saw it, he became more productive than he had been previously in certain ways.
And he did have an example of how. In a normal year, in Carolina, Rivera would work through film of the top 100 on his team’s board, and it’d always prove a challenging task to make it through all of it. This year, he had no such issue.
His home setup, as arranged by the Washington IT folks, proved pretty efficient.
“I’d get up in the morning, here in Virginia, and after breakfast, I’d just start working,” he said. “Then grab something to eat, and start working a little bit later in the afternoon. And then I’d work till dinner. I mean, I got a lot accomplished. It’s crazy, because now you almost wonder, ‘God, is it good to be away from people so you don’t have people constantly pulling on you, tugging on you, interrupting you?
“In all honesty, all the drafts I’ve got through, having to watch players, I’d get a long list, you never really get a chance to finish that list. Well, having as much time as I did to focus in on the draft, I finished my list and then some.”
So he wound up watching a few extra guys that he hadn’t planned to, and popped into a few extra Zoom meetings.
Of course, everything wasn’t perfect from behind that desk at home—he had two laptops hard-wired, one for video and the other to draw up plays with, in the office—and he knows there’ll be extra work to do as a result of all the field work the team lost. And in the end, that’s what he’s most excited about, when he thinks ahead to July.
He believes his players have done what they can, and now he wants to see that come to life.
“When I’ve popped in and out of the Zoom meetings, I’ve always felt pretty good about our guys,” said Rivera, who was actually in a similar-but-different situation in Carolina in 2011, as a first-year coach getting a late start to the season, then because of the lockout. “OK, they’re getting it, they’re learning, they’re understanding.’ But does it translate on to the field? That’s the thing you’re always excited about seeing.”
Soon enough, we all hope, he’ll get to do that.
FALCONS LEARN FROM 'SNL'
There’s been plenty of information trading between football people on how to handle the pandemic and, to be sure, Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s been a part of that. But he also wanted to seek advice from those outside his own corner of the world—and that’s how Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson wound up presenting to the Atlanta staff.
And at the start of all this, it was Thompson who actually gave the coaches one of the best pieces of advice they’d wind up getting over the course of the spring.
“Trying to do comedy online is hard,” Quinn said, laughing. “They’d done a Saturday Night Live from home. And so we’d asked, ‘What’s hard about it?’ He goes, ‘You don’t know if the joke is funny, because you don’t hear anybody laughing, because their mics aren’t on.’ So learning some of the technology was fun, and sometimes before meetings we’d just have open mics so you could talk s--t and have fun like a locker room does. And then I’d have to hold up the sign: OK, mics off, cameras on, let’s go.
“But yeah, there were plenty of failures, brother. I’d say with technology, we found out, we could do a lot of things.”
And as Quinn figured that out, he decided … We’re going to do more. Thompson was one example of that. Four-star general Paul Funk of the U.S. Army, whom Quinn befriended years ago on a USO Tour, was another. Quinn wanted Funk on because Funk so often has to coordinate remotely with people overseas and thought his experience would be relatable, in some way, for his staff.
Quinn’s first question on that Zoom: How many people are under your command? “When he said 800,000,” Quinn said, “the 150 didn’t seem so daunting anymore.” Then, Funk relayed advice that would resonate for the coaches in the weeks to come.
“You’re the keeper of the standard,” Quinn said. “If you let the standard slip, then there’s a new standard. So when you’re starting with somebody new, we were talking about it because so much of his job is recruitment and bringing soldiers in, them knowing that you care about them, that you’ll love them up, the personal things about them, that’s a big deal. He wanted to spend the time on the relationships with soldiers. In our case, it’s the players, knowing how much you care about them. Once you do that, the standard can never drop.”
In an effort to cement that, Quinn tried to keep things intimate, and make discussions meaningful in the meeting rooms—and that extended to what became a speaker series.
The list is star-studded, but the key is in the format. Each guest came in to speak to a specific group, which allowed for actual conversation, separate from the larger group. Tony Gonzalez talked to the tight ends. Charles Woodson and Kam Chancellor met with the defensive backs. Mike Singletary and Lofa Tatupu came in to talk to the linebackers. Osi Umenyiora, DeMarcus Ware and Kevin Greene got with the pass rushers. And Joe Thomas, an old teammate of Atlanta center Alex Mack, visited with the offensive linemen.
“He was phenomenal,” Quinn said. “I was blown away by how good he was. I knew Joe Thomas was fantastic player, but the detail, the ability to express it in such a fashion, you couldn’t have asked for something better from somebody in that position. Those moments were fantastic for us.”
The overarching thing, as Quinn saw it, tied into ESPN’s documentary The Last Dance in a timely fashion, and how Michael Jordan built a gym at the studio where he shot Space Jam—it took a certain amount of obsessive nature to get to that level as a player.
The coaches got these lessons too, with Miami Heat coach Erik Spolestra joining Funk and Thompson among those who spent time with the Atlanta staff.
And that narrow focus carried over to the football side—where Quinn wanted every player to work on “one main thing,” in an effort to absolutely crush it in that area. We detailed Matt Ryan’s (keeping his hips and shoulders in front of his chest on crossing routes from right to left) last week. For young linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, it was focusing on man-to-man coverage by studying different players doing it. Then, there was Calvin Ridley’s detail work.
“The footwork in the routes, that was one, for sure, that stood out to me,” Quinn said. “Because I hadn’t gotten to see it, I watched and said, ‘Damn, that is some s--t.’ I was pretty excited to see that coming to fruition, because he spent a lot of time and effort with Matt, in Atlanta, in California, back in Atlanta, you could tell the work was put in on his part.”
The cool part? The dividends of the approach have already come clear. After the draft, as part of this, Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff did calls with all 26 Falcon rookies (“We’d never done that before”) to get to know them better off the field.
The thinking, again, is that doing more of these little things will add up. And the big things, then, will take care of themselves.
LIONS HONE IN ON THE DETAILS
In his own effort to take care of the little things, Lions coach Matt Patricia tried to focus his staff’s teaching through the spring by taking advantage of the technology—establishing small breakout rooms off the bigger meetings to get his players the individualized instruction they wanted.
Two month later, Patricia hopes, and thinks, it made a difference across the board. But there’s one area where he’s pretty sure it did.
Detroit has a new special teams coordinator, Brayden Coombs, and assistant special teams coach, Marquice Williams, which means there’s one phase of the game where relatively radical change is coming for the players. So all spring, guys working in that area got specialized training. In one example Patricia raised, the core of the punt team might have been in the main special teams room, with the gunners in a breakout room at the same time.
The upshot for the staff was it allowed for the big and small picture to be handled simultaneously, and as needed. In the aforementioned cases, Coombs might have made the call that the gunner needed the intimate lesson more than he needed to know what the right guard is supposed to be doing.
“So Brayden might be in the protection room working on stance and punch and fundamentals there, where he’s gotta move the camera around and show footwork,” Patricia explained, “and then Marquice might be showing tape on hand fighting in the other room.”
Suffice it to say, by the time the Lions were doing this part of their offseason program, Patricia had come a long way from where he was around the draft, when he was wondering what they’d be able to get done with the players through the technology.
“I tried to lower the expectations, because we were all just so new to it, we didn’t know how it was gonna work,” he said. “I just thought in general we’d have a lot of problems. I thought there’d be a lot of technical issues, I thought it’d be hard for the players. And really in the end, the players were phenomenal. They were much more adaptable than the coaches were from that standpoint, because they’re just so used to all the different technologies.
“And I was really impressed with their commitment to it all the way through.”
Patricia also saw it, on his end, as an opportunity to grow, and there were two areas where he thinks the Lions made that happen collectively.
One, the coach believe bonds were strengthened through everyone’s personal lives being broadcast to each other—players and coaches got to see their teammates and staffmates’ surroundings, their kids and wives, their dogs and cats. “That stuff was amazing,” Patricia said. And the second part, he continued, was how he became more adept at reading players’ faces, which, he hopes, made for more effective teaching than you might get otherwise.
“So many times, in classrooms, you’re trying to see everyone’s face, but you’re also working the room, or working the board, or working something,” Patricia said. “With this, you’re fully focused on a person’s face and his facial expressions, and trying to learn to see how they’re taking the information in. … We’d be in meetings, and I’d see something, and you know everybody’s like, They can’t see all of us. I would see something, and I’d be like—and everyone’s muted—hey, Albert, bless you, saw you sneeze there.”
Patricia laughed, but there’s a larger point here.
“I’ve got 120 guys on the screen—Hey, I just saw your daughter run through the room, is she OK? And they’re like, Whoa! How did you see that?” Patricia said. “It’s those observation skills, and then you learn how to read people, read their expressions, either, OK, he’s getting this, or He’s really dialed in or No, I need to reexplain this, because it’s confusing.”
And if he’s better there, he’s a better coach for it, and the Lions are better off too.
Now, all those concerns? They weren’t unfounded. Losing the field work was tough for everyone, and there was other stuff that wasn’t same, too.
For Taylor, the feel of staff meetings wasn’t the same over Zoom, and that was reinforced when his group returned to the office this week.
“Everyone’s muted, so guys would unclick and give feedback, but it’s just not the same feel when you want a dialogue with 25 people,” Taylor said. “And same with offensive staff meetings, the dialogue, where you try to be creative and talk through some of these things, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to replicate a live in-person meeting, you’re just more engaged with people that way.
“When you’re teaching players, having that kind of dialogue, it’s fine on Zoom, because you’re asking a question, there’s a direct answer you’re typically looking for. But when it’s more conversational I found it to be a little bit easier to be with a group of people when you’re actually in person.”
Patricia, for his part, brought up a similar issue.
“It was more, for me, when you talk in a room with people, I don’t want to say you talk over each other, but you can talk at the same time,” he said. “And sometimes, while that person is talking, it might spark a different conversation or a different thought, whereas in the Zoom you’re waiting your turn. And you don’t necessarily get that same back and forth.”
Conversely, there were other things that these coaches took from this spring that they hope to adapt to what they do every year—and a lot of that stuff went back to team-building. Taylor mentioned how he feels like he knows all the new guys now, and in a normal year he’d still be working through all that. Quinn said being able to build bridges for his players to the larger NFL brotherhood, by bringing those legends in, was particularly rewarding.
Then, there was the time management element of things, and the revelation so many found that maybe there would be a better way for football teams to balance work and life in the offseason.
“We were very productive and able to work together as a staff through that entire draft process really without many hiccups, watching tape and meeting,” Judge said. “And because we were so effective with that, kind of talking about it afterwards, I went back and thought, Hey, this is something, especially for guys located around the country or that have kids in other places, giving them a little bit of an opportunity in the offseason before the players get back and really get rolling, we could build something in and do it working from home.”
Of course, soon enough, they won’t be working from home anymore.
But if one thing’s for sure, they won’t soon forget what it was like during the offseason that they had to be.
SOME OWNERS WANT TO PUSH BACK WEEK 1
The very latest public comment we’ve gotten from either the NFL or NFLPA on the handling of COVID-19 going forward (as of publish time early Monday) was this, on Saturday, from the NFLPA’s medical director, Dr. Thom Mayer:
“Please be advised that it is our consensus medical opinion that in light of the increase in COVID-19 cases in certain states that no players should be engaged in practicing together in private workouts,” Mayer said in the statement. “Our goal is to have all players and your families as healthy as possible in the coming months.”
That could affect the best laid plans of many of the NFL’s quarterbacks. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan ran what amounted to a full offseason program for his teammates in Georgia and California, Buccaneers QB Tom Brady has staged workouts in Florida (plenty more than just the one you saw pictures of), Colts QB Philip Rivers held a camp for teammates at Grand Park near Indy last week, Bills QB Josh Allen had his guys together in Florida in May, and Washington QB Dwayne Haskins has been throwing with Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon all offseason.
And these are just a few examples. Many of these guys, by the way, have been planning on reconvening their groups before training camp in July to tune up. All of which underscores the uncertainty, as did the rash of cases at Texas, Clemson and LSU, as players from those major college programs returned to campus.
So what do we know now, after all that, about NFL training camps? Not enough, and the league and union slow-playing finalizing plans is a pretty good indication of it.
Last week, the NFL had a series of calls to discuss expanding the league’s existing contagious disease policy—and maybe establish a COVID-19 reserve list (that seems like it’d be a no-brainer), to help teams manage cases on their rosters—and altering the size of practice squads, to allow teams to have more players that know their system and have been through testing on hand.
None of that had been presented to the union, as of the end of the work week, and that’s mainly because that league and union haven’t even cemented a plan for training camp yet, as far as reporting dates and the possible cancellation of preseason games.
Here’s one thing I will say: Teams that have wanted the start of the season pushed back aren’t going to get quiet about it in light of all that’s happened over the last few weeks.
“That’s the first place you have to start,” said one team exec. “I’m big on pushing back.”
“We need to push back the start,” said another.
The reasons why it’d make sense are pretty obvious, but I’ll lay them out here.
1) It would give the NFL an opportunity to study the final results in European soccer, and evolving data in baseball, basketball and hockey. And, importantly, identify some of the potholes those sports may drive into in the coming weeks and months.
2) The league would also then be able to study what happens in college football, with NCAA coaches allowed to work with players starting in mid-July, and fall camp set to open for schools in early August.
3) A vaccine probably isn’t coming this quick, but it would buy time for more and more reliable testing, and the development of therapeutics.
4) It would give the league flexibility to build a full-on acclimation period into the calendar, while preserving the preseason (that’d mean preserving some revenue in a year when you know there’s going to be a shortfall, which would help with the 2021 cap issue).
5) The league has the flexibility to move the Super Bowl back in February, so starting the season in early October would still allow for a full slate.
I’d add here that the league office has been resolute on starting on time with its teams. But it sure seems to me like at least considering this alternative would be smart.
TRUMP VS. THE NFL
In case you missed his appearance in Tulsa, and some of you might have, here’s what Donald Trump told those in attendance at his re-election rally, as to where he stands with the NFL: “Explain this to the NFL, I like the NFL. I like Roger Goodell. But I didn’t like what he said a week ago. I said, ‘Where did that come from in the middle of the summer? Nobody’s even asking.’ ...
“We will never kneel to our national anthem or our great American flag. We will stand proud, and we will stand tall. I thought we won that battle with the NFL. Their stadiums were emptying out. Did you see those stadiums? Took them a long time to get you back. Lot of people didn’t like that, lot of people that you wouldn’t even think would care that much. I’ve had people that I said, ‘These are super-left liberals,’ and they didn’t like it.”
I’d consider that a warning shot at Goodell and the NFL, and I’d expect the league to stand firm with its players after all that’s transpired over the last month.
Therein lied the brilliance of the player video that was release three Thursdays ago. It didn’t attack Goodell, it simply told him he hadn’t done enough, and gave him exactly what the players wanted him to say. In giving Goodell that, the players forced their commish to pick a side. If he’d refused to read the statement, he was walking away from them. If he read, he was running toward them.
Goodell made his choice to side with the players, and now he can’t go back without destroying his credibility. Which means he has to let the players protest as they see fit, whenever the seasons starts.
I think we all know where this goes next. By September, the campaign will be heating up, and Trump will again press the anthem button. It should be interesting to see where things go after that, because I really don’t see the players backing down.
I believe the league office wants Colin Kaepernick employed. And I’ll take that a step further and tell you I know some key people there wished it happened in 2017, thinking then that it would save the NFL a lot of problems down the line (they were right about that one, huh?). To me, the next steps are key. Does the NFL generate an opportunity for Kaepernick by working with teams on it? If that does happen, does Kaepernick smell a rat and not want to do it? And will Kaepernick now go to a team and play on low money with no guarantee of a roster spot? (That’s likely where he would’ve been with someone, had he signed in 2017.) These are all open questions. One thing we do know is that the first thing is that we won’t get answers until someone makes the first call to the quarterback or his camp. Here’s hoping that happens soon, because I’d love to see what he has left, eight years after he rode the crest of the zone-read explosion to stardom, and at a time when more and more offenses have the scheme to accommodate his skill set.
Dak Prescott signing his franchise tender (as ESPN’s Adam Schefter first reported) is significant. And that’s because it means he’s coming to training camp. If his plan was to sit out for any piece of it, he wouldn’t sign the tender. So we know now that when Mike McCarthy blows the whistle on his first practice at The Star in Frisco, Prescott will be taking the first snap from center. As for where the negotiation goes from here, as we’ve said, so much likely boils down to the years on the deal. The Cowboys want to do a longer-term deal (of at least five years), like those they’ve done with Ezekiel Elliott, Jaylon Smith, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence, Prescott wants a shorter one that would allow him to go back to the table sooner, and reap the potential benefits of the league’s looming broadcast and gambling gains (You can see Russell Wilson’s four-year deals in Seattle for evidence on how that works). Stay tuned. The Cowboys and Prescott have 26 days to get something done.
Of all the training camps I’d like to visit (if that’s possible this year), I think Carolina tops the list. Here’s why—of all the new coaches coming out of the 2011 lockout, San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh had the most success, and my strong belief is that it’s because he was coming from the college game. At that level, he was dealing with the 20-hour rule, and much more stringent restrictions on coach/player contact, so he learned to make the most of what time he did have. That served him well during that truncated offseason with the Niners. One thing I vividly remember him doing was basically running two separate practices during training camp, to maximize reps for every player, and make up for everything that had been lost. I’m sure there were a lot of other things the Niners did that I’m not remembering now, too, that helped paved the way to a 13-3 year and an NFL title game appearance. And while Matt Rhule does have to adjust to the NFL, having talked to some guys there, I know he’s taken a take-as-it-comes approach to this offseason, and I’d expect he’ll have some fun ideas to get the Panthers ready for his first year in charge.
The Raiders deserve a lot of credit. The team is opening a new $75 million practice facility in Henderson, Nev., this week, and that it’s happening concurrent with the opening of a new stadium is pretty staggering. When the Panthers, Jaguars and Texans entered the league as expansion teams, they simply had their offices, meeting rooms and practice fields built into their stadiums. Both L.A. teams decided to wait until after SoFi Stadium was complete before building practice facilities. Bottom line: It’s rare that NFL teams can open up both a new stadium and new practice facility at the same time (let alone amid a pandemic), and Mark Davis’s team is on the cusp of pulling it off.
The Eagles’ guard situation bears watching in the wake of Brandon Brooks’s injury. We went over this in the GamePlan Thursday—Howie Roseman values linemen, on both sides of the ball, and while they trust line coach Jeff Stoutland to bring guys along, like where Matt Pryor and Nate Herbig are, and drafted Jack Driscoll at the position, they won’t leave anything to chance here. So this could go a couple of ways. One, they could address it now and pursue a veteran immediately. Two, they could wait, see what they have in camp, and then decide on whether to go with one of the young guys or to add someone. Either way, there are options there, especially since, as of Sunday, the Eagles have the fourth most cap space in the league ($24.6 million). They could call New England, and try to pry either Joe Thuney or Shaq Mason (the two combine for over $23 million against the cap this year, and the Patriots are less than $1 million under). Or maybe they try and coax Kyle Long out of retirement, given the overwhelmingly positive experience his brother Chris had as an Eagle. Either way, I don’t see Roseman allowing the position to be a problem in Brooks’s absence.
Deebo Samuel’s injury is a big blow for the Niners. Expectations were high for the South Carolina product internally after a big rookie year, as they should be, and foot injuries can linger and be problematic for receivers. On the flip side, the door should open here for two players in particular. One is Samuel’s draft classmate, Jalen Hurd, who’s a big, freakish athlete that’s relatively new to the receiver position. (He was a running back through the 2017 season, after which he transferred from Tennessee to Baylor.) The other is, obviously, rookie first-rounder Brandon Aiyuk. And I’ll say this for Aiyuk: Kyle Shanahan had a very well-defined vision for Aiyuk’s fit in the offense, and Shanahan’s pretty well-regarded for evaluating the position he once played. Plus, Samuel’s production last year, and in particular in the playoffs, shows he’s not averse to playing a guy in his first year.
It’s fair to expect big things for Khalil Mack. And I’ll admit that it was on Chicago radio—I was on with ESPN 1000’s David Kaplan—that I first was apprised of Bears outside linebackers coach Ted Monchino’s comments on the star pass-rusher. “I think that that’s something that’s exciting, when a player of his caliber approaches his work the way he has approached it. Motivation is not an issue with Khalil; never has been,” Monachino told Chicago reporters on Thursday. “But what I’ll tell you is that he has approached this offseason with something to prove—and that’s something that I think we all can be encouraged by.” Mack turns 30 next February and, clearly, the window for the Chicago defense won’t be open forever. So to hear about that sort of urgency has to be encouraging, because those sorts of things can trickle down.
I’ll be interested to see how much different Hard Knocks looks this year. The decision to feature two teams instead of one—HBO announced this week that both the Rams and Chargers will be a part of the show—for the first time is the first indication that the league’s plans to move the series in a different direction is beginning. Over the last couple years, it’s been a point of discussion inside the room that the program needs to be refreshed after years of teams resisting going on it. One idea, in fact, was do it the way HBO does its 24/7 series with college football teams, where the crew follows teams around for a week at a time during the season, rather than just going with one team for an extended period. This, to me, seems like something in-between that and what the traditional Hard Knocks has brought. And, again, I’d expect it won’t be the only thing changing.
I love so much of how Lamar Jackson handled himself last year, and I think it can explain his comments from this week on the loss to the Titans. In case you missed it, here’s what he told Complex’s Load Management podcast, during a promotional tour put on by EA Sports: “That’s what happened in the playoffs, and we end up losing to the team people had us favored over. It’s any given Sunday. You can’t underestimate no team, no opponent and that’s what we did. So I’m looking forward to this 2020 season, playing the Browns first. ... Don’t underestimate your opponents. They caught us by surprise. That’s all it was.” In all my conversations with Jackson last year, what stuck out most was how quick he was to credit his teammates, and how fast he’d get a teammate’s back. It happened over and over when we talked after games. And I think that’s what this is—backing up his teammates. Unfortunately, for Jackson, it didn’t quite come off that way, and, for sure, if I was Mike Vrabel, I’d be posting that quote all over the Titans’ locker room, because it does sound like shade on Tennessee. But my guess is that wasn’t his intention.
I’m wishing Josh Gordon the best. He applied for reinstatement. He’s waiting. The guy’s had a really rough eight years as an NFL player. And everyone who’s been around him really cares about the kid, which has always told me that there’s a genuinely good person there. Here’s hoping that his football career ends on a high note, and that this is the reinstatement that facilitates that.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) I generally want to avoid politics here, but I really wish every red/blue argument didn’t lead to claim that someone on the other side did something worse. Seems like the bar should be higher than that.
2) If you’re one of the people who were flying the confederate flag at Talladega over the weekend, after all the attention this issue has gotten, you’ve made it clear where you stand.
3) I’d say we should probably give it a few weeks before we declare the college football season over due to COVID-19. I know some people believe that canceling it would be as simple as flipping a switch, but the truth is the economic impact of losing football revenue would be catastrophic for a lot of athletic departments (and lead to the elimination of ta ton of non-revenue programs). And I’m saying that not to defend the idea of going forward, but to explain the reality of the situation—it’d take a lot for the season to be called off.
4) While there have been some bumps here in the U.S. on the path to sports inching back toward normal, it seems like plenty has gone right in European soccer. Which means there’s probably something to be taken from the leagues in England and Germany.
5) So the baseball union was gonna vote Sunday morning and then didn’t, and you can wake me up when that one is over. Again, people in that sport seem to have no awareness of the cliff of irrelevance they’re teetering on.
6) Weird having a Father’s Day without the U.S. Open. And I didn’t even know the Belmont was being run until less than 48 hours before post time, then planned to watch, then forgot. Which makes me wonder if my habits are changing.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
It’s a little sappy, but that really was a great moment. Very real.
And that is still weird.
What a boss.
That’d be Ravens rookie QB Tyler Huntley, and I’d guess for a lot of the first-year guys, without a spring of OTAs and minicamp, getting the rundown of the pre-camp conditioning test might be a little intimidating. Those PUP lists might be stocked in late July.
WARNING: If you flip through this, you won’t soon forget the experience.
The Jamal Adams situation is going to be interesting. Two things I’d keep in mind. One, this has been in the works for a while—really, going back to Jalen Ramsey’s wildcat strike in Jacksonville, you heard Adams could try something similar. And two, the one guy that Adams is close to on the Jets staff is Gregg Williams, so the DC is probably gonna be a key here.
If you want to hear a funny story about this sort of thing, Google “Foxboro Stadium Flush.” You’ll get a reminder that the Patriots weren’t always the model franchise.
Another reminder that these guys aren’t like the rest of us.
I hadn’t seen this, but pretty cool of Trevor Lawrence to do this.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Today and tomorrow are the dates for the third annual Quarterback Coaching Summit. You may not have heard of it, but it’s an important couple days for the NFL, particularly given all that’s happening in our country.
Want to know why? Check out Thursday’s GamePlan for the rundown on that. We’ll have more on the event in the coming days.
• Question or comment? Email us.