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The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped the NFL — yet

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 6 days ago By Aaron Wilson, Staff writer
a close up of a flower garden: The Titans have had two dozen players and employees test positive for COVID-19 this season. © Mark Humphrey, STF / Associated Press

The Titans have had two dozen players and employees test positive for COVID-19 this season.

Fear, confusion, gnawing uncertainty and a growing sense of dread have haunted the NFL as the league scrambled into crisis mode during its first full-blown coronavirus outbreak.

Managing a global pandemic involves balancing the safety of coaches, players and staff by strengthening protocols and COVID-19 testing procedures. Doing so while dealing with a myriad of scheduling and competitive issues carries unpredictable challenges.

The Tennessee Titans, who host the Texans on Sunday, have been hit harder than any other team since the NFL launched its 16-game regular-season schedule for 32 franchises without the bubble environments utilized by the NBA, and NHL.

Despite dealing with at least two dozen positive COVID-19 tests since late September, including 13 players, not playing a game for 26 days because of postponements, being investigated by the NFL and the NFL Players Association for alleged protocol violations that included an unauthorized off-site practice with their training facility shut down during the height of the outbreak, the Titans are undefeated.

“When we lived in Houston, we went through hurricanes and things,” said Titans coach Mike Vrabel, a former Texans defensive coordinator. “So when you’re strong and you have a strong community before there’s a crisis, then people can react quickly. There’s leadership and there’s things in place, ‘Here’s how we’re going to respond.’ I feel like that’s kind of how our team is and are our organization is. You’re united in what you believe in, and then when things are against you or the schedule changes or there’s bumps along the way, that you can adjust to it and adapt and be flexible.

“The league’s been in constant communication with us specifically and tried to help us and give us and some other teams some enhanced protocols that we’re following. They’re trying to provide the best feedback and understand that it’s not going to be perfect. Nothing ever is.”

Saturday afternoon provided several reminders of how the coronavirus casts a shadow over the NFL.

Broncos running backs coach Curtis Modkins and his son, a coaching intern, tested positive for COVID-19 and didn’t make the trip for a road game against the Patriots.

Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams was placed on the reserve-COVID-19 list. Even though he didn’t test positive, Williams was in close contact with an infected person. Under league rules, he has to be isolated for at least five days.

Falcons defensive end John Cominsky tested positive. Defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi and another assistant are being isolated and not traveling for a road game against the Vikings due to being close contacts.

Earlier this season, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive and missed a key game: a loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. The Patriots, who also have had Pro Bowl corner Stephon Gilmore test positive, had to take two airplanes to Kansas City as a precautionary measure.

“If there’s one consistent theme to our season, it’s flexibility and adapting,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said during a conference call. “Flexibility is going to be critical. We can not become complacent, not the players, not the coaches, not the personnel.

“Ninety percent is not good enough in this environment. We have to be incredibly diligent and disciplined.”

The containment strategy

It’s all part of the NFL trying to juggle its schedule and adapt and maintain safety standards since this major outbreak began to infect the Titans’ locker room three weeks ago.

“I think the NFL is doing the best they can,” Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson said.

Only 39 players and 60 other personnel tested positive between Aug. 1 and Oct. 10 with more than 400,000 tests administered, according to league and NFL Players Association data. However, there were eight new confirmed tests among players and seven new confirmed tests among other personnel between Oct. 4-10.

“Just like any game plan, our game plan is only as good as the execution, so that’s what we are focusing on right now,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. “If we can apply the appropriate mitigation strategies, we can keep those cases isolated and we can keep it at the level of having a campfire and prevent it from turning into a forest fire.”

As much criticism as the Titans have drawn for an outbreak that included former Texans linebackers coach Shane Bowen testing positive, the NFL has shifted to a more conciliatory tone after initially signaling it was going to levy severe punishments against them.

“This is not about discipline,” Goodell said. “This is about making sure we’re keeping our personnel safe. That’s been our entire focus to date.”

Why were the Titans stricken so badly by the coronavirus? Ultimately, there aren’t a lot of concrete answers.

“Trust me, I’ve wracked my brain a lot just trying to piece it together and trying to figure it out,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson said. “But I keep coming back and telling myself that we are dealing with a microscopic bug that has found its way into a lot of people, certainly in our country.”

This week, the NFL expanded its testing program to include testing on game days.

The Texans had multiple false positives for players before a road game against the Steelers and had to get up at 5 a.m. to retest and be cleared before kickoff.

“We’ve never seen times like this obviously with the pandemic,” said Texans linebacker Brennan Scarlett, the team’s union representative. “I think our union and the league has spent a lot of time figuring out the best way and the safest way to allow games to be played and allow fans to get the game as well. With that comes some risk. But I’m confident in the protocol. It comes down to having the trust in the discipline in the guys around the league, on their team (Titans), on our team, and the 30 other teams around the league, that we’re doing all that we can do to help keep the virus out of our locker rooms.

“Honestly, I thought it was going to be difficult just to have a normal, full season. I didn’t anticipate how it could change and the schedules would have to reconfigure as far as putting a bye week here, taking away a bye week there, shifting and shuffling teams around with their schedules. We’re in foreign waters right now, just keep doing what we can do.”

Finishing in a bubble?

All of the chaos raises questions about whether a bubble environment represents the NFL’s best hope of completing the season. There’s little wiggle room left as teams use their bye weeks to accommodate schedule changes.

The NFL hasn’t ruled out the possibility of adding an 18th week to the regular season to make up for postponed games or a bubble situation for the playoffs.

Sills acknowledged that a bubble could wind up happening. Right now, though, the prospect of isolating players from their families isn’t how the league wants to proceed.

The NFL has discussed the bubble option since March before it was utilized by the NBA, NHL, and WNBA. The MLS and NWSL used it for tournaments before playing some games later at home sites.

“We don’t feel that is the safest course of action,” Sills said. “First of all, a bubble is not going to keep out all infections. You still have other individuals that come in and out: service workers, security, other personnel. And we’ve known from other experiences that those individuals can be infected. So, simply being in a bubble doesn’t keep us safe.”

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year and is a member of the influential NFL competition committee, is an advocate of a season-long bubble.

Sills raised concern about the potentially negative psychological effect of a bubble, though.

“Something that is not discussed when people talk about a bubble is the human and emotional and the behavioral health toll that that takes on people,” Sills said. “Imagine any one of us being sequestered away from our families, all of our loved ones, for three or four or five months on end. That’s a really significant stretch point.

“I think that we have to acknowledge that as just as much of a health and safety consideration as is COVID infections. And particularly when talking about a holiday period that we’ve all grown to love and celebrate.”

Success with the Texans

The Texans haven’t had any positive tests or players placed on the reserve-COVID-19 list since reporting for training camp. It’s been an intensive effort that has required a lot of changes, including facility upgrades and medical-grade cleaning standards.

“I think, for the most part, our guys have done a good job of following the protocols, wearing the masks, trying to stay apart, washing your hands,” Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel said. “The team has set up a lot of things to try to enhance that. There are hand-washing soap dispensers all through the place. Every five feet, you see a soap dispenser so guys can wash their hands. They are being conscientious about wearing their mask.

Said defensive end J.J. Watt: “We’ve had success so far, but again it’s a daily thing. You’ve got to be doing the right things at all times and trying to minimize your risk as much as possible.”

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill recently said he has lost faith in the testing program because some players who had symptoms tested negative and some who had no symptoms tested positive.

“I understand the frustration players may have,” Sills said. “We’re all frustrated with this virus and want to eliminate it from our lives. None of these tests are perfect. They all have loopholes. They can’t be infallible.”

Another change the league has implemented: Anyone with cold symptoms is being sent home to isolate even if they test negative.

That happened this week with Browns star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. even though he didn’t have COVID-19.

“There are many illnesses other than COVID that can cause those symptoms, but because there is so much overlap, we always have to assume it could be COVID,” Sills said. “And even if that individual has tested negative that same day, we are going to send him home until we have a chance to run through all of those other tests.

“Our goal is to make sure we don’t put someone on the field that we think might actively be infected. If it turns out those were non-COVID symptoms, then certainly we would all be happy with that outcome.”

Another adjustment players experienced recently: mandatory Oakley face shields affixed to their helmets at practice.

It’s all part of the sacrifice to play the season. If games ultimately are canceled, the players don’t get paid under the NFL collective bargaining agreement.

“The schedule across the league has just been chaotic,” Texans safety Justin Reid. “I feel like the league’s done a decent job about it. I’m not the biggest fan of the facemask shields that we had to do in practice, but it’s what we have to do.”

aaron.wilson@chron.com

twitter.com/aaronwilson_nfl

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