As the calendar turns to July, the NFL now has reached its most crucial point of the 2020 offseason.
Looming less than four weeks away is the anticipated start date of training camps — a time that normally ends a dead period for the league and brings with it excitement of the coming season.
But this year is different. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, confusion and uncertainty abound for players, coaches and other team employees.
NFL officials continue to maintain optimism on the chances of a full and uninterrupted 17-game season and postseason. But based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s evident that a regular season like none other awaits.
Offseason programs took place virtually. Most rookies and free agents have yet to meet their new coaches and teammates face-to-face. The league has scrapped all international games. The Hall of Fame game has been canceled and accompanying ceremonies postponed. Team facilities have yet to open at full capacity. Season ticket holders remain in limbo.
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“There are a lot of questions unanswered, and even when you do come up with an answer, it brings up three more questions,” NFL Players Association president and Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter told USA TODAY Sports in a recent interview. “It’s kind of constantly trying to plug the holes, and you’re just trying to stay afloat.”
While players wait for direction, their union and the league continue to engage in discussions on the best possible way to execute the launch and operation of a 2020 season.
“The NFLPA and NFL are in the same exact place, where we want whatever makes for the safest possible environments for all our constituents, whether they be players, coaches, trainers, medical staff — anyone in that team environment,” the NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said via conference call last week. “We’re going to work very hard together to educate everyone about the steps that we feel collectively are the most effective in reducing risks for everyone.”
The talks continue with the goal of hammering out the most important factors somewhere between July 8 and 10, according to people familiar with the discussions, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter. That timeline would give players time to make travel plans to return to the cities of their employment before the start of camp on July 28.
In recent weeks, USA TODAY Sports polled players, coaches, team employees and league and union officials about uncertainties they face while awaiting training camp. All of them spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the discussions. These are the most pressing questions they raised.
1. How will testing and contact tracing be handled?
The question ranks among the most important and commonly asked. Players want to know the frequency of which they’ll be tested, who will administer the tests and how their teams will respond to positive findings. NFL and NFLPA officials are in the process of trying to determine which lab will be used for the testing and which testing method will provide the most accurate results. The possibility of false negatives concerns many, and some players wondered if they should worry about whether teams would be honest in sharing test results leading up to big games. A third-party testing service would help avoid such a predicament, as would players having online access to all of their medical reports.
Meanwhile, the possible response to positive tests also raises other questions. Will the affected player be sent away and the rest continue to practice? Will teammates quarantine as well? What risks does this create for players’ family members? Will a rash of positive tests force an interruption of training camp for the entire team? Will the whole league then hit the pause button?
2. What does the acclimation period look like?
Training camp usually opens with a conditioning test for all players and then three pad-free practice days before the hitting begins. This year, players have worked on their own to stay in shape, but rushing back to full action too quickly can subject them to additional risk of injury.
It’s going to be impossible to go from zero to 60 on the first day or even the first week of training camp. So there’s a strong possibility that the preseason will be reduced from four to two games to allow for a longer ramp-up period, which would also give teams more time to develop game-day protocols amid COVID-19 restrictions. But the specifics of the ramp-up, practice schedules and workloads remain undetermined.
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3. How will social distancing work for a football organization?
Bringing a football team back together involves the congregating of a large body of people. That goes against social-distancing requirements. Training camp rosters typically feature 90 players. Roughly 25 individuals fill out a coaching staff. And then you have the training staff, front office members and non-football staff members.
Some states, including New Jersey and Michigan, are allowing outdoor gatherings of 250 people. But not all team activities can take place outside the walls of the team facility, including ones in the locker room or auditorium for full-squad meetings.
There have been discussions within NFLPA circles about reducing training camp roster sizes from 90 to 75-80 players. However, it’s unclear whether such a proposal would actually fly. Some within the players’ union aren’t in favor of such a change because of the diminished employment opportunities that a numbers crunch would translate into. Another possibility involved still having 90 members per team but not bringing all of them to camp, and instead keeping some in reserve to plug in if others contract coronavirus and have to be quarantined.
Position group meetings, which normally take place in smaller rooms that make it difficult to maintain 6-foot spacing, present another challenge. These factors prompt some within the NFL to wonder if on-site work days will be shortened and if meetings would continue to take place virtually.
But the most fundamental matter of all: football is a contact sport. Players are sweating, breathing and — at times, although unintentional — spitting on one another during portions of practice.
Echoing the common refrain uttered by players and coaches, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay said in a recent news conference, “We’re gonna social distance, but we play football? It’s really hard for me to understand all this. I don’t get it. I really don’t.”
4. What is the building and safety protocol?
The NFL must determine how teams will handle non-football-related activities, such as meals and showers, and exactly how much time players will be permitted to be in facilities.
The preseason and regular season are long, and it’s not uncommon for players and coaches to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in team cafeterias. Pre- and post-practice workout sessions raise another set of questions. How many individuals will be permitted in a weight room or locker room at once? And how will teams handle the sanitization of their facilities?
And those are only the top questions that involve the return to work. It remains to be seen how teams handle travel arrangements, not only for players and coaches, but also for advance scouts, whom teams normally dispatch to the games of upcoming opponents. For now, multiple scouts said they have yet to receive word on if they will be assigned to attend games this season.
And many wonder what will happen if a player in a position group tests positive on the eve of a game. Does the entire position group have to quarantine as a precaution? Will that cripple teams to the point where games must be rescheduled?
As Tretter said, one question seemingly triggers three more.
For now, the NFL is operating out of a place of cautious optimism, hoping for the best, but preparing for all scenarios. But as time winds down and as questions remain unanswered, one can’t help but wonder how realistic it is to expect to see a seamless football season this fall.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.