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NFL 2020: Latest on what we know about league’s return

Players are being urged by the league and the PA to not get together between now and training camp. Quarterback Tom Brady (right) and his new Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not listening to that advice, continuing to practice on their own. Reuters
Players are being urged by the league and the PA to not get together between now and training camp. Quarterback Tom Brady (right) and his new Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not listening to that advice, continuing to practice on their own. Reuters

For months, the NFL had clung stubbornly — some might say heroically, others unrealistically — to the idea of a more or less “regular” regular season.

With fans packing stands as normal, players equipped as normal, rosters stocked as normal, etc., etc.

Who knows? That might still largely come to pass. Millions of North Americans sure hope so.

But, as well all know, 2020 is anything but normal because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s becoming clearer by the day, with the opening of NFL training camps now just a month away, that irregularities necessarily are indeed going to be instituted, left and right, between now and September.

Should coronavirus hospitalizations continue to spike in some jurisdictions south of the border, then further, major reconsiderations and alterations — even a cessation — could come about.

NFL owners held a meeting via video conferencing on Thursday afternoon. A handful of league executives afterward summarized for reporters on an audio conference call where things are at, about four weeks from when the first players begin reporting to training camps.

Bottom line, it’s not full-steam-ahead for the NFL. How could it be? But that power setting, and every increment short of it, are all under consideration by the league, in conjunction with the players union, in countless areas.

You have questions. Here are some up-to-date answers.

When will training camps officially open?

Officially, most teams will open on July 28, as planned, per the collective bargaining agreement. Rookies and select other players such as those rehabbing injuries may report a few days earlier, as in past years.

Will preseason games in August be shortened from the usual four games per team?

Perhaps. Reports have said as few as two games per team could be in the works.

“We’re in active discussions with the players association on those issues,” NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said, “and we’ll continue to have that and expect to have some resolution relatively soon, and we’ll advise the clubs at that time.”

The league confirmed morning reports that the annual preseason kickoff, the Hall of Fame Game, has been scrubbed, and that this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class now won’t be inducted until 2021. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys were to have faced off Aug. 6 in Canton, Ohio, but now won’t do so until August 2021.

Will preseason and regular-season games be permitted to be played in front of capacity crowds? Or in front of no fans at all, as with so many other restarting pro sports leagues this summer? Or will it be something in between?

Again, all options remain on the table and are being considered and planned for, league leaders said. It’ll depend largely on what’s permitted locally.

If fan admittance will be limited, how might teams go about such limiting? Will season-ticket holders be given preference over single-game ticket buyers?

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive VP for club business and events, told me on the call: “We’ll be closely following state and local guidelines in terms of any guidance, in terms of the ability to have fans, as well as CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines.

“We certainly hope fans will be able to attend in some capacity. Clubs at the local level will be working on those decisions, and as you might expect, they will look to give preference to those who are season-ticket owners, PSL owners, and long-tenured. That will be a club-by-club decision. But certainly, as you would expect intuitively, the focus will be on season-ticket members and those who are long-time season-ticket members of a club.”

Is the league making plans to, if forced, relocate a team’s home game (or games) to another less-infected jurisdiction, if it comes to that?

Again, sounds like nothing is off the table. But being barred from having fans attend definitely would not compel the game to be relocated.

“Our focus and the clubs’ focus is on playing in their home stadiums … even if initially that’s without fans at some stadiums,” O’Reilly said. “Obviously we always build contingency plans for a scenario — whether it be weather or a hurricane or other things — where a game would not be able to be played in a home stadium at all, then we would have those contingencies in place. But the focus is really on playing in home stadiums this year.”

Are reports true that teams will be permitted to tarp off the lowest eight rows in the lowest deck, and replace fans with advertisements?

Yup. While the ads are optional and up to each team, the tarping off of the lowest eight rows in fact is a league edict. It’s to act as a buffer to separate players, coaches, support staff and other field-level crews from fans. Right: COVID-19 protection.

Will players even look the same?

The NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, confirmed that the league and NFLPA have had “very active” investigations — including discussions with engineering advisers — into potential equipment variations, as a result of COVID-19, “particularly” helmet modifications.

“We’ll have more to say on that in the coming weeks,” Sills said of whatever such PPE advancements might be incorporated for 2020.

One visual image of a potential reimagined football helmet making the social-media rounds earlier this month looked more like a BMX helmet than familiar protective football headgear. It incorporated a plastic nose-mouth-and-chin covering that wrapped in front, from ear to ear, with a clear plastic eye shield above it. So no facial skin uncovered or unprotected.

What manner of COVID-testing program for teams will be implemented?

An ambitious and strict one, Sills said. And not just for players and coaches but all support staffs, including trainers, doctors and equipment personnel.

The NFL is closely liaising in this area with other returning pro sports leagues around the globe, Sills said.

“When players gather together, the infections that tend to show up, or certainly be detected within the first two weeks, are often exposures that happened prior to when they gathered back together,” Sills said.

“We’ll have very strict protocols around the activities at our club facilities, and the exposures that happen there — and then a very, very aggressive testing and surveillance program that will hopefully help us accomplish the goal of identifying anyone that’s infected at the earliest possible stage, and then be able to isolate them.”

Since April no players have been permitted inside team facilities, except those rehabbing injuries.

Players are being urged by the NFL and NFLPA to not get together between now and training camp, and furthermore to wear face coverings in public and limit public exposures as much as possible, Sills said. Tell that to Tom Brady and his new Tampa Bay Buccaneers receivers, who continued this week to practise on-field together, on their own.

Meantime, ramped-up laundry and sterilization protocols for player equipment and practice equipment already have been distributed to clubs, Sills said.

“That’s the level of detail that the club protocols go into to make sure that we’re handling everything in the most thoughtful manner possible,” he said.

Will active-roster or practice-squad rosters increase, as protection against the possibility of continuing, limited positive tests within a club?

That’s being discussed within various league committees, in consultation with the NFLPA and their medical advisers. Stay tuned, we’re told. Under the newly signed CBA, each team is permitted to carry 53 players on its active roster, plus two additional players each week promoted from its 12-man practice squad. Game-day rosters increase from 46 to 48.

JoKryk@postmedia.com

@JohnKryk

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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