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MMQB: How Week 4 Tested the NFL's COVID-19 Protocols and What Happens Next?

This week saw games postponed, facilities closed, a false positive on the road and more. Here's what it all means for the 2020 season. Plus, how the Vikings and Saints responded to COVID-19 scares, Tom Brady came alive, the Colts' defense is great and a Q&A with Aaron Jones.

The NFL has done a really good job managing COVID-19, and the work it did in conjunction with the union in June and July has paid huge dividends. The two months from the start of camp through Week 3 was proof of that.

And the last week? It showed that this bubble-less system is still far from perfect.

We still got plenty of Week 4 action, to be sure. But the game between the 3–0 Titans and 3–0 Steelers didn’t happen, and won’t for another three weeks. The Chiefs-Patriots showdown hasn’t been played yet, and when it is—pending no more positive tests, at 7:05 p.m. ET Monday, as part of a thrown-together MNF doubleheader—it will be with Brian Hoyer starting at quarterback for New England. On top of that, a false positive late Saturday night threw a third game, Saints-Lions, into doubt as the country woke up for its football Sunday.

This was not a good week for the NFL. Roughly a quarter of the league had games tossed into some level of doubt, thanks to positive COVID-19 tests, as pro football navigated its equivalent to baseball’s situation with the Marlins early in the MLB season.

And yet, in reality, this is probably what everyone should’ve expected all along. From the start, it was obvious the decision to stay outside of a bubble would create challenges that even the most stringent protocols wouldn’t eliminate. It was easier during camp, with guys logging 12-hour workdays. Once that was over, those days shortened and the variables multiplied—people’s kids went back to school, wives went back to work, etc.

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So if you assumed what happened this week was inevitable, the next question was always going be, What’s next?

“There's still a lot of information to come, but I think something that we've affirmed this week is that this is a very tough virus that is highly contagious,” the NFL’s chief medical officer, Allen Sills, told me late Sunday. “We've said all along that this is a tough opponent—this is hard—and that we know that we're going to have positive cases occur, and we have to work really hard to try to prevent spread.

“I think in that sense, the events of the week are something we've been anticipating, and it's what we've built our protocols around. What we do learn, and the new information that we gain from the review of the situation with each of these teams, will help us to continue to improve those protocols as we go along."

It’s been a wild 24 hours, and over that time we’ve had calls for bubbling the league, pausing the season or reevaluating everything altogether.

Meanwhile, the NFL did what it’s done since the virus started spreading throughout the United States in March. It stayed the course. And on Sunday, that meant playing a dozen games, setting up for two more on Monday night and juggling the schedule in a way that’ll eliminate any margin for error with two teams that figure to be playing important games all the way into the new year.

I was at my kid’s hockey practice on Saturday morning, and a bunch of dads who have kids that play with my son asked me what I thought would happen. My answer was similar to the one I gave people in July: I don’t know.

Really, how could you?

***

I promise we have a lot of football coming in this week’s MMQB—and I won’t be offended if you want to scroll past the COVID-19 stuff to get to it. If you do, you’ll find more on …

• How the Vikings managed to score their first win after a hectic week.

• The way that false positive messed with the Saints’ Sunday.

• Tom Brady’s second-half bludgeoning of the Chargers.

• The elite unit that no one is talking about.

But we’re starting with where the 2020 season stands now that the coronavirus has sunk its teeth into the schedule.

•••

We’re going to start with a quick recap of where things stand across the NFL. Here’s everything in a nutshell.

• The Titans have had 17 positive tests over a 10-day period and have registered positive tests on six consecutive days. This started with positive tests to practice squad CB Greg Mabin and outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen last Thursday and Friday. The team’s traveling party was tested that Saturday and came back clean the Sunday morning of Week 3, clearing everyone to play and coach. Subsequent tests Monday turned up eight positives on Tuesday morning. Around 5:15 a.m. ET on Tuesday morning, Tennessee shut down its facility.

• Tuesday was the first of the six straight days of positive tests. The league, sources say, also found abnormally high contact tracing numbers in the Titans’ data, hastening an investigation into the team’s handling of the protocols. That review launched Friday, with NFL and NFLPA officials arriving in Nashville to look into questions over the team’s practices on COVID-19.

• Patriots QB Cam Newton and Chiefs practice-squad QB Jordan Ta’amu turned up positive on Saturday morning—those tests were taken Friday. The Patriots had a team meeting that morning at 8 a.m., then called a second team meeting at 10:45 a.m. to send the players home and tell them to sit tight. The Chiefs held a team meeting and walkthrough, then sent their players home. By midday, both teams’ facilities were shut down for the weekend.

• The Patriots’ plan to fly to K.C. on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, obviously, was scrapped as a result. The league, union and teams worked through scenarios—with the NFL wanting players to clear two days of PCR and point-of-care testing before the Patriots traveled. That meant the earliest the Patriots could travel would be Monday morning.

• The NFL and NFLPA had previously decided against having day-of-game travel amid the pandemic. But playing Tuesday would’ve put the Chiefs in a tough spot—with a Thursday game looming in Week 6 (which would have meant three games in 10 days). So the league and teams made the exception here, allowing for the Patriots to travel Monday morning and play at 7:05 p.m. ET on Monday night, pending continued negative tests.

• Meanwhile, late Saturday night, the Saints got word that fullback Michael Burton’s PCR test from Saturday morning had come back positive. The lab reran the test, it came back negative and Burton took a point-of-care test that also came back negative. So he, and the Saints, were cleared to play in Detroit on Sunday.

Now, for what’s next.

***

To me, the most fascinating part of this whole thing, and the league’s handling of the situation, has been this—there’s a segment of the public, and the press, that really, really believes these guys shouldn’t be playing, for the sake of their own health. And the players themselves badly want to play, even now.

When I asked one Chiefs player on Sunday how he felt about playing, he didn’t hesitate.

“Fine,” he said. “I know it’s a small sample of one, but Minnesota wasn’t affected by the other team having it [the Titans in Week 3]. We’ll test tomorrow and if we’re all clear, I don’t see why there would be any worries [beyond what’s normal]. … We’re still in a hotel tonight like normal so I think guys will get back on track tonight. New England getting off a plane, driving 35 minutes to Arrowhead, then playing seems like much more of a changeup than whatever we have to deal with.”

“We’d much rather play [Monday] than Tuesday or make it up during our bye week,” said a Chiefs staffer. “I don’t get the feeling our players feel [concerned]. Our guys have done a pretty good job following the protocol.”

On the flip side, some Patriots players were a little spooked on Saturday morning. And the fact that the team will be taking two planes to Missouri on Monday—one with Newton’s close contacts (there were around 20) and one with all other personnel—has to be unsettling.

But one player hit me with his coach’s famous line, “It is what it is,” before acknowledging that this was always likely to be someone’s reality.

“Pretty crazy,” he texted. “Have to be ready to go through all of it. I figured something like this would happen this year. Never thought it’d be our team, but that’s the NFL in 2020.”

This sentiment—that the players want to play, even after all this—puts us right in the place we were in the summer. The next question: Will they be able to?

***

In talking to Sills, travel came up a few different times. There was one particular nugget he gave me that I thought was interesting—it relates back to the contact tracing devices all team employees have to wear (either as lanyards or bracelets)—that was raised as a big concern coming out of this week.

“One of the things we've been focusing on a lot over the last week is travel,” Sills said. “And specifically, we've gone back and looked at data that we have from the Kinexon proximity-tracking devices. And we recognized vulnerabilities in regard to airplane and bus travel. We've actually done calls with all 32 teams with some specific findings and some specific suggestions about additional ways to mitigate risk while traveling.

“We've already seen teams employ some of those recommendations. Certainly, based on the knowledge from the current situation, we'll have some additional recommendations that we can pass along."

Now, Sills emphasized that the league was already working to patch some of the holes in the contact tracing. Here’s the example he used to explain that to me: If a club had teammates who were roommates and one roommate tested positive, and the other didn’t come up in his contact tracing, he would still be considered a close contact. Point being, they’re not relying solely on the device.

But it’s a hole, and it shows that none of this is 100% perfect. And another place where that shows up, of course, is in the testing, and this week’s timeline underlines that—with the Titans players and coaches having passed tests before traveling to Minnesota, only to encounter an outbreak within their ranks upon returning to Nashville.

“What this shows is we can never become complacent and think, ‘Well, everyone's tested negative, so we're all O.K.,'” Sills said. “We've said all along, we should behave as if someone has COVID-19 around us at all times. That's really kind of the golden rule of prevention. Because if you do that, you're going to keep yourself safe. And I think this even goes back to maybe a discussion that was popular last weekend, which is, 'Why are you making these coaches wear face coverings on the sideline?' This is why. Just because everyone tested negative, you can't assume that someone's not infected in the team environment.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the protocols aren’t getting better, or that new ideas won’t continue to be implemented. They will be. And that’s where Sills and I went next, hitting a few topics that should paint a picture of the next couple months.

Enhanced tracing. One area that Sills was optimistic about was in genetic sequencing. Because I’m no doctor, it took some dumbing down for me to get it—but in essence, this is a way of detecting a fingerprint for each infection, which can allow you to figure out if people have the same strain, which tells you if there’s a likelihood they got it from one another.

In this case, once genetic sequencing is available to the NFL, the Titans could in theory figure out if the people who tested positive last week got it from Mabin or Bowen.

“Did every single one of those cases have that same exact fingerprint?” Sills said. “That obviously would strongly suggest that you passed it from one person to another. On the other hand, if you find that there are three or four different strains of the virus, now you may be looking not just at one person that infected a number of individuals. ... Again, it's never going to be 100% perfect, but it at least allows you to have a little bit more information.”

Rapid testing. The PCR testing still takes almost a day to turn around, which creates another layer of margin for error, on top of the incubation period. And I know the NFL’s initial decision to go with the PCR testing over the summer was because it was far more accurate. But the rapid testing’s gotten better. So, I asked Sills if the NFL was getting closer to the point where it would use rapid testing for its daily screening, over PCR tests.

“We still have concerns about the sensitivity and the specificity of that test,” Sills said. “We continue to look at it in conjunction with our own data. Because, again, remember that we are using it. We are using it for certain situations, and in doing so, we're continuing to gain experience and to see where it can be helpful and where it has limitations. But right now, we would state that we believe the PCR remains the most sensitive, the most specific and the most reliable for our day-to-day testing.

“I think I've said to you before, also, we expect point-of-care testing to continue to improve, to continue to get better. There are always new test methodologies that are developing. And we and others will continue to get more experience with it. But right now, today, I think we're comfortable with the role that we have for point-of-care testing."

Traveling and bubbling. I asked Sills if the Titans’ situation after last Saturday’s travel influenced the NFL’s decision not to let the Patriots travel this Saturday. Interestingly, he said the decision actually came down to the tracing: “In this case, it was felt at the time of the initial positive test that there were a very large number of close contacts."

Sills said that was an example of how every decision made on travel (and he emphasized these aren’t just NFL decisions; they’re made in consultation with a panel of infectious disease doctors and epidemiologists) is made on a case-by-case basis. So then I asked if, in an effort to make everything more uniform, he’d be in favor of moving teams into hotels to create mini-bubbles in every NFL city.

“As of this point today, no, I would not … for several reasons,” Sills said. “One is I think that we have a very long season. You're talking about a period of four months. That's an extremely long time to keep people sequestered away. And I think beyond the infectious disease considerations, you have to think about the mental behavior and health and emotional considerations of keeping people sequestered for that length of time. And I think that's a very important point that people often don't consider.

“Secondly, it's not being sequestered together that keeps you safe. Because in any hotel or locked-down environment, you're still going to have people coming in and out of that environment. You're going to have food service workers and support staff and security staff. So there is still going to be vulnerability to the virus. … In some ways I would tell you you're actually at higher risk if you do get someone infected, and you've got people clustered together in one spot.”

***

And that brought me to really my central question for Sills: Are you less confident than you were a week ago that the season will be completed?

“No,” Sills said. “I still remain confident in the protocols that we have in place. And I remain confident in the systems that we have set up. I think that what we've said consistently is this is going to be very hard. And so we've expected all along that we'd have positive cases. Obviously, I'm distressed that we had an outbreak within a team, just like anybody is. And we want to always avoid those outbreaks.

“And most importantly, I'm upset as a physician for the individuals who contracted the virus. Because you never want to see anyone with that virus, and we know that that has implications beyond each individual, to their family members and their household members. So upset and distressed, yes. Lack of confidence, no.”

With that, Sills wanted to make a point.

“I’ll tell you one more thing, Albert, and I don't think we've said this directly … At every point starting Tuesday morning when the results came in, every conversation I had with the commissioner and with all of our leadership at the NFL has been centered around only one thing, and that is what is the best thing to do medically,” he said. “No one has ever brought up game schedule, television schedule, playoff implications.

“Those conversations have not been a part of the main focus, which is what do we think is the safest thing to keep not only each individual and team, but the entire league, safe. So I think it's important to recognize that and say that has to be our North Star going forward.”

So the league goes forward. The Chiefs and Patriots play Monday at 7:05 p.m. ET, the Packers and Falcons at 8:50 p.m. ET, and the Bears and Bucs just three days after that.

The reality is, this is how the NFL has operated since March. More measures will be put in place on Monday to curb violations of the protocols, when the league has coaches, GMs and executives on a conference call. But the train will keep moving.

Will it work? All along, I’ve thought it was O.K. to answer the question like I did at my kid’s hockey practice the other day, and I still feel that way.

My answer is simple. I don’t know.

***

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THE SAINTS' SCARE

The weirdest situation of all this weekend might’ve been what confronted the Saints.

Coming off consecutive losses for the first time since Weeks 1 and 2 of the 2017 season, New Orleans arrived in Detroit on Saturday afternoon facing a critical Sunday, at 1–2 and suddenly chasing Tom Brady and the Bucs in the NFC South, despite having beaten them in the season opener. And then, late into the night, news filtered through the team hotel that Burton’s last PCR test, taken Saturday morning in Louisiana, had returned positive.

Stressful? Probably, as long as you were awake for that.

"I woke up to a lot of text messages from people,” Emmanuel Sanders said, over his cell on the way to the airport after Sunday’s game. “The first couple things that I read was, ‘It's canceled,’ and then they changed their mind as they went. Then I saw—I got the ESPN app on my phone—that it said the game was going to be played. So after I saw that, I was like, 'What has occurred? What has occurred?'”

And for Sanders, there was another twist.

"Actually, I was sitting next to [Burton] yesterday at dinner, we were talking,” he said. “And so, when I first read that, I was like, ‘What the hell? I was just sitting next to this dude.’ But then when I saw it was a false positive, I was kind of excited about that, that I didn't have anything to worry about.”

If it seems like Sanders did O.K. taking all this in stride—after sleeping through the initial news hit—it sure was reflected in his play. And eventually his whole team’s play, too.

Just as the Saints’ start at Ford Field illustrated a team a little discombobulated, their flourish thereafter showed one that was resilient, and determined to pull itself off the mat after prime-time losses to the Raiders and Packers. After falling behind 14–0 in the game’s first five minutes, with Detroit touchdowns sandwiching a Drew Brees pick (intended for Sanders, no less), New Orleans shook off the cobwebs to rattle off 35 straight points.

They had to hang on at the end—they won 35–29—but they went to Detroit with a lot to prove. And given the circumstances, may have proven even more than that.

"I mean, we didn't blink,” Sanders said. “Even when we were down 14, I knew we were going to be able to come back, because I know who's at quarterback and I know what kind of players we've got. So we just took it one play at a time, drove down, cut the lead to seven. Then we got the ball back and were able to tie the game. Once we tied it up, I knew it was a wrap. I don't really like how we finished, I felt like we could've kept our foot on their necks.

“But at the end of the day a win is a win. And it's hard to win in this league. So we'll add that to the win column and try to improve next week."

So the first thing you take from this one, for the Saints, is what they went through to get that win.

From there, talking to Sanders, there were two other big points. One was the obvious—the team has heard its quarterback questioned plenty over the last few days. And this isn’t Sanders’s first rodeo with that sort of thing. He was in Denver down the stretch of Peyton Manning’s career, and remembers that, and this isn’t all that different.

“At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter,” Sanders said. “And being in the National Football League so long, one thing I understand about this league is every week’s a wild week with the talk, with the fans, with the media. One week, they’re saying you're the greatest thing since oxygen. Then you lose and they say you don’t have it no more. Then you come back and you throw for five touchdowns, and they say, ‘Oh, he’s still got it.’

“At the end of the day, that's just how it is. The week is going to be like a rollercoaster. At the end of the year, we just want to be holding that Lombardi Trophy, we don't really worry about the outside noise, that's all we're focused on.”

The second piece is just as interesting to me. The Saints have been without Michael Thomas since early in the Week 1 game against Tampa, leaving them a little out of sorts offensively. Sanders is new. Promising third-year man Tre’Quan Smith’s role has grown. And all that was an adjustment.

The hope is that, Sunday, a corner was turned. Sanders had six catches for 93 yards and told me he felt like Sean Payton was starting to scheme for him. “I could just feel that he was trying to get the ball in my hands, and that felt good,” he said. “The previous games, I can't say that I felt that.” Smith scored twice on four catches (for 54 yards). And Brees, after his game-opening pick, went 19-of-24 for 246 yards and those two scores.

Now, the thought goes, Thomas should return to an offense with more balance around him.

“You’re talking about the best receiver in the world, in my opinion, getting him back,” Sanders said. “With me and Tre'Quan, getting our confidence up to be able to catch passes, I just feel like it's going to make for an even more lethal offense.”

So maybe the Saints have finally found their stride in a most unusual way. Regardless, Sanders said the lesson from the scare overnight into game day was clear.

“Just seeing the reports that Cam has it and the Titans have it, all the shenanigans that's going on, that's enough reminder for me,” he said. “The goal is to try to get through a whole season. We all knew it was going to be challenging. Right now, we're facing those challenges. Hopefully it gets better. I don't know if it will. We're going to take it one game by one game and see how it goes, see if we can grab the championship at the end of it.”

***

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THE VIKINGS MAKE NO EXCUSES

And the Vikings’ situation going into Sunday wasn’t totally unlike what the Saints were facing. Minnesota entered Week 4 at 0–3 and faced a COVID-19 challenge, too.

The difference is, the Vikings’ challenge surfaced at the start of the week, not at the end.

Minnesota, you’ll remember, played Tennessee last Sunday. So news of the Titans’ outbreak landing on Tuesday morning necessitated the Vikings closing their building for 48 hours, which threw their work week into a blender. Tuesday was already the players’ day off, but is always a big game-planning day for coaches, and losing the ability to do anything in person on Wednesday wasn’t going to be easy on anyone.