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Five Things to Know After Week 15: Confusing COVID-19 Protocols, Arians’s Empty Words

Plus, not every fourth-down and two-point decision is an 'analytics' decision, Bills-Patriots rivalry is ready to take off and more!

In August, if you peeked ahead to Week 15 and saw the Packers atop the NFC and the Chiefs atop the AFC, you wouldn’t have been surprised. But it’s been a winding road to get here, from the Chiefs’ 3–4 start to the Cardinals going from the presumptive No. 1 seed to a possible wild-card team within the last week, thanks to the Rams' surging and Arizona’s ugly loss to the Lions. The shake-up in the standings, though, was a footnote during Week 15, 2021’s first slate of games that was significantly altered by COVID-19 as the omicron variant has surged across the country.

1. Relying on self-reporting of COVID-19 symptoms when games mean the most is a gamble. The new protocols agreed to by the NFL and the NFLPA, in response to the recent omicron outbreaks that necessitated the rescheduling of three Week 15 games, will result in less testing for vaccinated, asymptomatic players and team personnel. We are at the stage of the pandemic where—both because of the continued spread of COVID-19 and the development of vaccines that guard against the most extreme outcomes—we are all finding ways to live with the coronavirus. The new protocols lean into this, requiring testing among vaccinated people only when symptomatic or a high-risk close contact, or as part of targeted testing among a certain group, such as a position room. But there are certainly flaws in this approach, including asymptomatic spread and a reliance on people to self-report symptoms at a point in the season when games have the highest stakes. It’s a curious plan, especially because we routinely see players take risks to return to the field as fast as they can from injuries, and the self-reporting of concussion symptoms has required a cultural shift that has taken years, even decades. The NFL has the infrastructure and resources to test as frequently as it needs to (but yet some league employees are still skipping the line?), so there was no reason to replace a baseline regular testing requirement for all players and personnel with an honor system that has the potential to go awry.

2. Bruce Arians brought back Antonio Brown because he wants to win as many football games as possible. That’s the beginning and the end of his reasoning for welcoming back a player who was suspended for misrepresenting his vaccination status, one year after Arians said publicly, multiple times, that Brown would be gone after one more strike. “The history has changed since I made that statement,” Arians said Monday, as he defiantly answered questions about Brown. We have discussed Brown many times, both in this column and on the podcast and going back to SI’s reporting on Brown’s misbehavior in September 2019. Brown continues to get chances because he’s a talented player who scored a TD in the Bucs’ Super Bowl win 10 months ago, and Tom Brady wants him around. Arians said he “could give a s---” what others think. Fine. But he has now also earned our skepticism moving forward, on any topic, as he has demonstrated that we cannot take what he says at face value.

3. Not every decision to go for it is an “analytics” decision. This is probably a feeble attempt to tamp down the frenzy from both the pro-“analytics” and anti-“analytics” factions on the scourge of a website that’s called Twitter. It’s a good thing that teams have more information than ever on the relative successes of in-game decisions and can use that to make informed strategic calls at crucial junctures in the game. But as the sideline video of John Harbaugh during the Ravens-Packers game shows, that’s not the only basis for the decisions even numbers-savvy coaches make. Harbaugh, who was miked up, surveyed both his assistant coaches and his players to decide whether they would try for the two-point conversion that could have won the game or kick the extra point to tie the score against Green Bay. “What do you want to do?” Harbaugh asked his players. They wanted to go for it, which is the response you want to hear if you’re taking a gamble like this. It didn’t work out—Tyler Huntley’s pass to Mark Andrews fell incomplete, just like Lamar Jackson’s two-point try intended for Andrews two weeks ago against the Steelers also failed. But as Andrews told Harbaugh after the play, “That was the right move,” despite the outcome. The play can fail and it can still be the right decision, as it was in this case. And a team can have the statistical analysis ready for any potential game situation but make a decision for other reasons, as happened here.

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4. Bills-Patriots is the rivalry we need. The same team won the AFC East in 17 of the first 20 NFL seasons this millennium, rendering it the most boring division. But then Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay, the Patriots embarked on a rebuild while the Bills were hitting their stride, and Buffalo’s run to the AFC championship game established a new favorite in the division. This year, though, the Patriots have come roaring back, and now we have a Week 16 showdown between two of the top teams in the conference for first place in the AFC East. The buildup for this game has only been enhanced by the theater of the teams’ first meeting just three weeks earlier, from the wild weather conditions to Sean McDermott's grousing after the loss, “Let’s not give more credit than we need to give credit to Bill Belichick in this one.” After the Patriots lost this weekend and the Bills won, setting up this week’s consequential showdown, McDermott told his team in the postgame locker room, “We know who’s up next,” i.e., the team who shall not be named. A real, sustainable rivalry between these two clubs would be a delightful addition to the league.

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5. The Jaguars are currently in position for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. The Lions’ upset win over Arizona shook up the order. If the Jaguars lose to the Jets, Patriots and Colts, they’ll pick first for the second year in a row, following suit of the 2017–18 Browns, who actively sought to tank. The failed Urban Meyer experiment set the organization back in myriad ways, among them that last year’s draft was done Meyer’s way, with the former coach fixated on bringing in players who were four- and five-star recruits out of high school. This was another example of Meyer’s relying on what worked for him in college, despite the fact that these approaches may be less effective in the NFL, in this case because the talent gaps that create mismatches in college simply don’t exist in the NFL. So it’s significant that as the organization works to cleanse its palate from the brief Meyer era, it will do so while holding the top pick again.

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Urban Meyer Never Stopped Living in the Past
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