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GamePlan: NFL’s Changes to COVID-19 Protocols Need to Happen Fast

As cases have spiked in recent weeks, the league and its players association need to find a common ground on regulations. Plus, the post-Urban Meyer Jags, Dak Prescott’s “slump” and more.

The other night was going to be a big one for Tyler Higbee.

The Rams had just snapped a three-game losing streak, and had a chance in front of them, in Arizona, to turn the NFC West race into a race again. And they were getting that chance on the standalone primetime stage that Monday Night Football provides all players. Moreover, Higbee figured into the game plan in a way where one could envision it being 60 minutes of football to remember.

That was right about when everything came undone.

On Saturday, Rob Havenstein, Donte Deayon and Darrell Henderson came up positive for COVID-19. Higbee and Jalen Ramsey were identified as close contacts, with Higbee linked to Havenstein. That meant both guys had to undergo additional testing leading up to the game. Both tested negative on Sunday. Both tested positive on Monday, after the team had traveled to Phoenix for the game.

The Rams scrambled to nail down the results. They tested Higbee and Ramsey again. Ramsey’s positive was confirmed. Higbee’s second test came back negative. They gave Higbee a third test—negative again.

The team called the league on Higbee’s behalf, explaining he’d tested negative all week, had no symptoms and, again, produced two negative tests after a single positive. No dice. The league told the Rams it needed a negative PCR test, which needed to be run by an NFL-approved lab, to clear Higbee. The team offered to put Higbee’s sample on a private jet to get it to an L.A. lab. The league said no, citing competitive balance concerns (maybe because not all teams would throw money around like the Rams could).

Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee (89) celebrates with wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) after catching a touchdown pass against the Seattle Seahawks during the third quarter at Lumen Field.

Anyway, Higbee didn’t play. The Rams won. The next day, Tuesday, that PCR sample came back negative, proving Higbee’s first Monday test was, in fact, a false positive.

Now, I’d assume this is the place in this story where you ask, Who cares? The team wound up winning the game, and the league erred on the side of caution, and maybe that can be positioned as an acceptable result. Here’s the problem: Players don’t think that way. They have a small window in their lives to play pro football, and only 17 chances per year (plus playoffs) to do it within that window.

On Monday, one such opportunity was taken from Higbee. He wasn’t happy about it. He shouldn’t be. Mostly because it sure does feel like, by now, we should have a better way to do this.


Busy news week, so here we go. Inside this week’s GamePlan, we’re covering …

• The week’s biggest games, starting on the season’s first NFL Saturday.

• The post-Urban Meyer Jaguars.

• The betting scene, with my suddenly stellar gambling advice.

But we’re starting with a story that’s threatening the NFL schedule. Again.


NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills stood in front of the league’s 31 owners on Wednesday and detailed to them the COVID-19 wildfire that was breaking out within the ranks of seven different teams. Early indications, he said, were that this was the result of the Omicron variant landing in the United States in recent weeks, and could be the tip of the iceberg for the NFL. Sills then explained the nature of what he’d call “almost a new disease.”

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Omicron is more contagious than previous variants of the virus, and cuts through the vaccines easier, but, in most cases, also carries less serious symptoms.

Right or not, this is the message that team folks in the room took—we’re now facing something that’s going to do more damage to our season (with rising player absences) with less real reason to just sit there and allow it to happen (since this version of the virus is less severe). And that the NFL and NFLPA updated their protocols on the fly on Thursday, as they negotiate more significant changes to the rules, was seen as acknowledgment of it.

In Dallas, there were ideas floated. One, after Sills affirmed to the room that booster shots give everyone the best shot at protection from evolving strains of COVID-19, was to incentivize players get boosted by telling them if they do, they’ll no longer be tested without symptoms, on the premise that you treat symptoms, rather than search for the virus. Another was to go back to daily testing, but allowed asymptomatic, vaccinated players who test positive to continue to work under increased precautions (masking, distancing, etc.).

At the heart of both ideas was this fact: We’re at nearly two years now, and the NFL has found zero (zero!) evidence of on-field transmission of the virus. They found transmission, to borrow their saying, when players “meet, greet and eat.” They haven’t found it when they actually play.

That idea will again be put to the test in the coming days, with the entire league going to enhanced protocols as the NFL and NFLPA work toward a renewed agreement. For now, teams are going to meet either virtually, outdoors, or in outsized indoor environments (i.e. fieldhouses/practice bubbles). They’ll be masked and distanced. So really, the only risk of spread should come at practice and in games.

The hope is that it slows down the aforementioned wildfire that’s landed 25 Rams, 21 Browns, and 21 members of the Washington Football Team on COVID-19 reserve, and also that changes to rules that allow players to test out of the protocols (it won’t just be based on positive or negative anymore, but on a player’s viral load) will allow for guys to return to the field quicker.

But chances are, without more change, the massive number of players on the COVID-19 list is going to affect the performance of teams, and of individual players. And, personally, I’m not sure it has to be that way anymore.

We have more information this year than we did last year, we have vaccines that we didn’t have in 2020, and circumstances around the virus have changed as well.

First, of all the cases in the league this year, the NFL’s data shows two-thirds have been asymptomatic. So they’re less serious than they were. And second, they’re impacting players on a more individual basis than last year, since guys are having a much harder time testing out of the protocols (roughly 80% have continued to test positive and had to sit the maximum of 10 days set for asymptomatic players) than they did in ’20.

Because cases had been relatively limited, those individual hits players were feeling hadn’t really reverberated on a team basis like last year. This week, it sure looks like that’s changing.

So why haven’t there been changes yet?

As always, negotiations between the league and the union never happen without the sides being sensitive to perception that they gave an inch, or lost in any way, an attitude that’s proven to be the direct enemy of compromise. Then, there’s the natural concern that each league has (the NBA and NBPA are in a similar fight) about being the first to start to backpedal towards normalcy.

In my column on Wednesday, I tried to drive home the point that there were a significant number of team people in Dallas this week that felt like it was time for the league to pivot the way a lot of workplaces in America have, towards learning to live with a virus that isn’t going away in a more pragmatic fashion. Thing is, it’s hard to be pragmatic if the priority isn’t to try to find a middle ground.

Meanwhile, you wind up costing a guy like Higbee an important night.

There was a time, of course, when we could all say that was just the cost of doing business in a pandemic. Based on how far we’d come since, it sure seems like we should be past that.


New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) warms up on the field during a time-out against the Buffalo Bills in the second half at Highmark Stadium.

FIVE STAR MATCHUPS

1) Patriots at Colts (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET): This should be a slobberknocker—both teams are rugged, and built to beat opponents up. And you’d assume the primary goal of both defenses will be to take the other team’s run offense out of the game. If each is successful, this could end up being a pretty good progress report on Carson Wentz and Mac Jones too. And as for stakes, the Patriots losing this one would open the AFC East race back up, while Indy needs the win just to keep pace for a playoff spot. Add that it’s our first Saturday night game of the season, and this one should be fun.

2) Packers at Ravens (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): No one’s going to question Baltimore’s toughness, resourcefulness, or resiliency. But the last couple weeks, through close losses to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, it sure does feel like the laundry list of injuries has finally worn the Ravens thin. And yet, John Harbaugh’s crew still is atop the AFC North, a game up on the Bengals and COVID-racked Browns. So a home win would be huge for Baltimore. And it goes without saying that every step towards having playoff games at Lambeau is vital for the Packers.

3) Saints at Buccaneers (Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET): These two teams are in very different places than they were when they met on Halloween. The Saints’ then-growing list of injuries has approached critical mass over the last two months, and only a visit to the Jets snapped a five-game losing streak that they rode into last week. Meanwhile, the Bucs have taken off, and come in sitting tied for the top spot in the NFC riding a four-game winning streak. Still, the Saints are 3–1 against Tampa since Tom Brady arrived in the NFC South, so it’s hard to rule anything out in this one.

4) Titans at Steelers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): The Titans are trying to maintain their playoff seeding while they give their offensive skill guys time to get right health-wise, and the Steelers are fighting just to get in. So there are big stakes here, and potential—given how the offenses are struggling a bit—for this to be an old-school rockfight like Steeler/Titan games of the Bill Cowher/Jeff Fisher era.

5) Bengals at Broncos (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET): No one had this one marked down in September. But the teams come in at 7–6 and in the playoff picture, and both are playing an entertaining brand of football with quarterbacks that look in command. Side note: Seeing Joe Burrow having to combat a complex Vic Fangio defense should be fantastic to watch.

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FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW

COVID-19. I wish this wasn’t the case. But Browns/Raiders on Saturday, and Rams/Seahawks and Washington/Eagles on Sunday figure to be to be hit by the very sudden league-wide outbreak, and who knows what other games could wind up in the crosshairs by the weekend. You get the feeling that how Week 15 goes will help chart the course for how the league and union draw up the rest of the year.

How do the Jaguars respond? The fact that the line for the game against the Texans moved in the Jaguars’ favor after Urban Meyer was fired reflects the feeling that a young group could get a post-Meyer emotional bump after a really rugged end to the coach’s short tenure in Jacksonville. And along those lines, it’s at least worth mentioning that interim coach Darrell Bevell benefitted from such a bounce last year, in leading Detroit to a win over Chicago as interim coach in the Lions’ first post-Matt Patricia game. I’ll be particularly interested to see how Trevor Lawrence plays. Word was Meyer mostly left the defensive coaches alone, but was all over the offensive coaches, and had an issue with the performance of at least a couple of them. So how do those coaches look having moved past that?

Is this the week Dak Prescott finds his stride? Here are the Cowboy quarterback’s passer ratings in the six games since he returned from injury: 73.9, 127.9, 57.9, 106.2, 79.0, 58.8. And the two 100-plus ratings were against the Raiders and Falcons. Meanwhile, Tyron Smith is out this week, the run game is struggling, and the defense has carried the team the last two weeks. Is this the spot where we see the Cowboys’ $40 million man assert himself?

Can Buffalo build off a strong finish in Tampa? The Bills were sideways on a funky night in Orchard Park against the Patriots, then sleepwalked into Tampa. And then, in the second half of that Bucs game, it seemed as if Buffalo found something. The defense tightened up. The run game got a chance. And Josh Allen turned in a tough, gutsy effort. There was something to build on there. We’ll see if they have Sunday, with the Panthers coming in motivated to be beat a team that’s led by a bunch of ex-Carolina staffers.


Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) waits for a snap against the Seattle Seahawks during the second quarter at Lumen Field.

TWO BEST BETS

Season record: 13–15

Vikings (-3.5) at Bears: Minnesota is in the playoff race, and engaged. Chicago isn’t the first thing. Whether that prevents them from being the second thing remains to be seen.

Rams (-4.5) vs. Seahawks: Sean McVay is 7–3 against Seattle. The Rams are at home, and in position to get back in the chase for the division title. I think we see L.A.’s best.


ONE BIG QUESTION

Is the idea of players skipping their bowl games a bad trend?

We saw Kenny Pickett and Kenneth Walker announce decisions to skip the Peach Bowl on Thursday; and no, it’s not a bad thing. It’s a business decision, and I’ll refer you to what former NFLPA president Eric Winston said to me five years ago, when Christian McCaffrey helped to launch this trend by sitting out his final game for Stanford in 2016.

“What’s been awful about this whole thing—it’s always ‘he’s right’ and ‘he’s wrong,’” Winston said. “I just don’t look at it like that. There are a lot of former players that are really going after these guys. You can’t always control what happens out there, and they know that better than anybody. And that’s what’s really been mind-boggling to me, the venom that’s come from some of the former players.

“Like they know what’s best for them? … I just don’t think it’s their place. Oh man, back in my day. C’mon, your situation was different from these guys’. …

“I want to empower these guys to be able to look at a situation and say, ‘O.K., this is what’s best for me.‘ At the end of the day, that’s what we’re talking about. At this point, a lot of the decisions they’re gonna have to make in professional football, they’re gonna have to say, ‘What’s best for me?’ This is the first one.”

There have been, of course, many more since.

And good for those guys for doing what’s right for them.

More NFL Coverage:

MMQB Staff Week 15 NFL Picks
Urban Meyer Never Stopped Living in the Past
2022 NFL Offseason Head Coaching Carousel Primer
Five Risk-Free Candidates for the Jaguars to Replace Urban Meyer

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