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NFL sees situation differently as MLB has coronavirus scare

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians.
The issues that surround playing football amid a pandemic are clear to Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians.
(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press)

The troubling news that 11 Miami Marlins players have tested positive for COVID-19 reverberated throughout the sports world Monday, and certainly to the opposite coast of Florida, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the verge of opening training camp.

This should be a season of unprecedented excitement for the Buccaneers, who have added six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady and lured All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement.

But for Bruce Arians, the news of the Marlins was a sobering reminder that even when leagues and teams are trying to play it safe, a coronavirus spike can cause plans to quickly unravel.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to get sick at work, because we test every day and everybody is clean,” Arians said by phone Monday. “So it’s just, ‘What are you doing away from home, away from the office?’ The same thing goes for players. Most will take care of themselves, they’ll stay at home. But if they’ve got kids, and they go back to school, there are so many variables that come into play.”

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It’s the biggest question looming over the league, which officially opens training camps Tuesday. What makes the NFL confident it can pull off a season during the pandemic with no “bubble” to separate players from the everyday world and in a sport in which social distancing is impossible?

If Major League Baseball already is beginning to postpone games, won’t the NFL do the same?

MLB games in Miami and Philadelphia were called off Monday after 11 members of the Marlins tested posted for the coronavirus in recent days.

There’s at least one distinct difference. Baseball is playing a compressed season, with teams playing 60 games in 66 days. The NFL has mapped out a traditional season, with typically one game per week, so there is more time to adjust on the fly.

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“The knee-jerk is, ‘Sports are doomed because the Marlins had an outbreak,’ ” said an NFL team executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “If that was the case, we should have never started. The real case is, can you figure out whether it’s safe to move on from here, how it affects other teams, and is it just a season of attrition?”

The NFL schedule has been constructed in a way that Weeks 2 and 3 can be postponed, or even eliminated, without jeopardizing the playoffs. The league can make do with an abbreviated schedule and still crown a Super Bowl champion, as it did during the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons.

Multiple international leagues have staged seasons successfully without completely cordoning off their players, among them soccer’s English Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga, as well as the Korean Baseball Organization.

In an open letter to fans Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the NFL in 2020 “will not look like other years.”

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“Adaptability and flexibility will be needed for the foreseeable future,” Goodell wrote. “After all, even the best game plan changes as new challenges arise. This year’s NFL Draft is a good example that embracing change can still deliver the fun and excitement we all crave.”

Despite a daily testing regimen for the first two weeks of camp and — if the numbers are low enough — every-other-day testing after that, the NFL does not expect to have teams glide through the season without outbreaks within their walls.

“We often say, ‘We can’t test our way to safety,’ ” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said in a call with a small group of reporters. “What we mean is, the idea that we’re going to test everyone and everyone is going to be negative, then we can sort of go about football and business as usual, that is flawed thinking. 

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“None of these tests are 100% accurate, even the very best of the best tests. They do have some level of inaccuracy. Also, we’re still learning how early after someone becomes infected will their test turn positive. Testing is important, but it’s not the only way to mitigate risk.”

Nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine this highly contagious virus ravaging a team and forcing game postponements or cancellations. What if all of a team’s quarterbacks — who study together in the same room every day — were to be infected?

The thought has crossed Arians’ mind.

“Back in June, I talked about quarantining the quarterbacks …” he said. “I’m still thinking about that.”

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Arians, who turns 68 in October, is in a vulnerable age group for the coronavirus and has had some serious health scares in recent years. As for his team, he knows the virus will play a big role in charting the course.

“Hopefully, we can get by with as few guys as possible getting sick,” he said. “I wouldn’t anticipate, say, all the running backs would get it. But you never know.”

Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said he finished work Sunday and felt “really good” about where the NFL stood in terms of COVID-19. Then he woke up Monday to the news of multiple Marlins, and the trainer/infection control officer Eric Sugarman of the Minnesota Vikings, testing positive.

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“That’s reality,” Telesco said. “Reality hits hard in this thing.”

Staff writer Jeff Miller contributed to this report.


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