The NFL is learning how to navigate during the COVID-19 pandemic with each day bringing new developments related to the virus. And I'm here to offer some guidance as training camps kick off this week.
After talking with NFL general managers, head coaches and coordinators, I've come up with a four-point plan that will help teams win in this challenging environment. Before we get to the list, though, there are a few small notes (and one VERY BIG note) that I need to address. I'll start with the BIG one:
I know this seems obvious, but teams must avoid positive COVID-19 tests at all costs, with the health and well-being of players and staff being the chief concern in that respect. Players who test positive must stay away from team facilities for at least 10 days (unless he receives two consecutive negative tests within five days of the initial positive test) and there's a possibility of losing others who were in contact with him. This could derail a team's entire season. Staff and players must be disciplined about following protocols. That includes AWAY from the facilities, an area in which player leadership will be extremely important.
In addition, every player on the 53-man roster, practice squad and injured reserve (once they return from injury, of course) must be ready to start a game. And last, coaching staffs must take a no-excuses approach during a season in which there is so much unpredictability.
Got all that? I know it's a lot to take in, but I'm just getting started. Below you'll find a four-point plan for winning in the NFL's uncertain environment.
1) Develop roster depth
The importance of developing depth is especially crucial this season. Teams have to be prepared for every player on the roster to start on Sundays because they could lose ANY player(s) during the week to positive tests and/or contact with someone who has symptoms.
Teams have a deadline of Aug. 16 to trim their rosters to 80 players, but I'd bring the 90 players teams are allowed to camp at the outset. Practice squads have expanded to 16 players this season, although I would have liked it go up to 22 players, which would given team the ability to have two scout teams (one for offense and one for defense) that didn't include any player on the 53-man roster. Ultimately, I'd want as many players as possible in the system because there is no way to project how many players will miss time during the season due to the virus. The more players who have experience with the system, the smoother the transition to the field. That said, I realize there's potentially more risk of infection the larger the group of players. Regardless, certain position groups could thin quickly if players have to stay away from the team.
In training camp, it'd be ideal to split the squad into two groups and practice them at different times, which is something teams will be required to do in the first weeks of camp if they carry more than 80 players on the roster. This would give more individual attention to the younger players. Remember, training camp will be the first chance for teams to work with their new players on the field, so more one-on-one attention will be beneficial in the long run. This falls in line with getting every player ready to play -- and possibly start -- on Sundays. One head coach told me systems may be simplified this season due to the unusual circumstances of the offseason and the potential for sudden/significant roster changes. It'll be a balancing act that teams must figure out as they go.
Another important aspect of developing more roster depth is cross-training players. I'd have all of the defensive backs learn each position in the secondary (CB, FS, SS). It might be worth having offensive linemen study defensive line positions, and for tight ends to learn O-line positions. You just never know what situation you'll find yourself in this season.
2) Protect your team
The most important part of a team in 2020 might be its cleaning staff. Cleaning all of the common areas (locker rooms, showers, equipment, training room, etc.) is a must. When I was a general manager, we had a cleaning crew who emphasized the training room, locker room and cafeteria every evening, but much more thorough cleaning is required in this climate.
As for players, I view quarterbacks and the O-line as the two most important position groups, so teams should consider some unique practice plans for them. Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said last month that he'd consider quarantining the team's third QB in an effort to create a safety net in case Tom Brady and his backup get infected and can't play. Teams can't afford to lose their entire quarterback room. The QB3 could still learn the game plan through Zoom meetings, and he could stay sharp by throwing routes to other players who are quarantining. It also could be worth quarantining a versatile O-lineman who could play all three positions -- and a versatile defensive back, too -- if your roster numbers afford it. I'd strongly consider splitting my O-line starters up in practice with the starting right tackle, guard and center working with the backup left guard and tackle, and vice versa. Having two centers who can make line calls feels especially critical this season.
3) Create backup plans for the coaching staff
If the head coach, a coordinator or position coach tests positive, what's the succession plan? Quality depth matters here, too. Assistant position coaches might be asked to do more than they would in a normal year. How good those coaches are in these uncertain times matters. Coaches may have to learn to coach more than one position. For example, defensive coaches should know all of the position assignments and there should be several coaches trained as play-callers.
A good portion of game-planning includes compiling useful data for analytics and breaking down film -- often the work of quality control coaches. So, teams must have contingencies in place to protect this vital function within the organization. Breaking down film has become so detailed, as coaches are often expected to break down a minimum of four games per opponent, at a clip of three hours of work per game. Without quality control coaches breaking down games and entering information in the system (opponents' formation tendencies, blocking schemes, etc.) for coaches and the analytics staff, game-planning would be far too overwhelming. Coaches already have their hands full getting players prepared and don't have the vast amount of time it takes to do the job of quality control. There's the possibility that quality control staff could work from home, but losing staff in that area could be very detrimental to team success. Same goes for training staff, who obviously will not be able to do their work from home. That's an issue the Vikings are dealing with right now after their head athletic trainer tested positive for the coronavirus.
4) Have an emergency list
Organizations with the best and most-organized pro and college scouting staffs will have an advantage this season. And since there will not be any preseason games, teams will have to rely on their college scouting reports for first- and even second-year players who played very little or not at all as rookies. An emergency list, which every team has and will be even more important this year, is made up of the best available free agents. First, it's divided into two groups -- veteran free agents and practice-squad players -- and should be ready at the start of training camp in case teams need to replace injured players or players who test positive for COVID-19. However, keep in mind that under the rules for this season, four practice squad players can be protected each week from being acquired by another team. Once teams have their initial emergency lists, players from the following groups will gradually be added to it:
- Players who are cut from your team during camp.
- Players who are unsigned after being invited to your canceled rookie minicamp for a tryout.
- Bubble players (on the fringe of making other team rosters around the league).
Since there will be no preseason games this year, thus taking away a valuable scouting tool when it comes to bubble players, there are several things to do to make up for their absence. First off, teams should regrade rookies who they assigned low grades to but received large signing bonuses from other teams (drafted or undrafted). It's also essential that teams have updated reports on players who played short stints (due to injuries or getting released) in the XFL and NFL last year and are on current rosters. Teams should also follow media sources for reports on players who are doing well in camp; those players should be regraded if they had low or no grades or if teams lacked multiple reports on them.
Teams will discuss bubble players internally on weekly calls, which involve conversations about opposing teams that have a surplus at certain positions (for possible trades), along with positions of need for each team. This list is consistently updated with player grades and other information on bubble players, and it's used to track who gets cut and is available via waivers as final rosters take shape.
In a normal year, teams are able to bring players in for tryouts each week as they look to fill spots on the active roster and practice squad. However, as of right now, teams are not permitted to work out free agents. although my colleague Judy Battista reports further guidance from the league on this matter is expected. Still, it's absolutely critical that teams have prepared and updated lists to fill spots as needed leading up to and during the regular season.