Opinion: Tougher protocols reflect ‘one fail, all fail’ demands of NFL’s COVID-19 environment

It looks as though the NFL could have a full deck of 32 fully operational teams again on Wednesday, with the Tennessee Titans hoping to re-open facilities on the heels of the league’s first COVID-19 outbreak.

Sorry, Titans. Being undefeated isn’t the reason you’re being chased.

The NFL’s intensified efforts to enforce its pandemic protocols – video surveillance and the potential for forfeits and docked draft picks are now in the mix –are a direct result of suspicions attached to the Titans after 20 members of the organization contracted COVID-19.

That’s hardly to conclude that the 10 players and 10 staff members infected were negligent. The coronavirus can attack the innocent and foolish alike. Yet the Titans (3-0), under investigation by the league and the NFL Players Association, are now Example No. 1 that may ultimately save the NFL’s season.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in January 2020. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports)

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You can bet that’s what Roger Goodell was thinking on Monday during a conference with team power brokers to lay down the law, uh, discuss reassessing the protocols that have worked rather effectively since early August.

“Simply put, compliance is mandatory,” Goodell reiterated in a memo to teams obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

It’s striking that Goodell & Co. will go to the point of accessing the security video systems already in place at every team’s headquarters for spot checks and evidence, if needed, to hammer home the point that they are serious about the mask mandate. Players don’t have to wear masks during practices (yet), but coaches and everybody else in the NFL ecosystem (as Rams coach Sean McVay calls it) are on an even higher level of alert now.

  “I was happy,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians told reporters Tuesday when asked for his reaction to the stricter measures. “I don’t have to be the mask police anymore. New York can be the mask police.”

What a sign of the times, with the NFL determined to keep the type of schedule disruptions experienced last weekend – the Titans-Steelers matchup was pushed to Oct. 25, the Patriots-Chiefs game pushed to this past Monday night – in check with the end goal of playing a full season.

 With the threat of tougher punishment looming, it’s apparent that savvy 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman was prophetic a few weeks ago when he predicted the league would be more prone to declare forfeits than widespread schedule shuffling.

Think about it: A perfect record or maybe a playoff spot, saddled by a forfeit L.

“Sure, there should be a penalty for negligence because it’s a ‘one fail, all fail’ mentality in the environment that we’re in,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters Tuesday.

Tomlin, a member of the league’s competition committee, added that he doesn’t have a strong opinion on the matter of forfeits because he’s not involved in the investigative group that determines negligence. But it’s clear that after preaching to his team since the start of training camp that their personal responsibility in minimizing risks had wide-ranging ramifications, he’s on board with teams and individuals paying a price for negligence.

“But to the extent of what it should be and all of that, that’s not my charge,” Tomlin said. “I’ve been focused on running the football outfit and making sure that we adhere to the protocols that are delivered to us out of New York.”

As the NFL’s investigation suggests, it’s fair to wonder whether there was something screwy about the Titans culture that facilitated their outbreak. Maybe this is a case wrapped in the notion there are always some willing to push the envelope. (The Las Vegas Raiders are Example No. 2, with 10 players fined this week for not wearing masks at a charity fundraiser).

 Yet it is also easy to question whether there was another breakdown in the testing process – did outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen, the first member of the team infected during the outbreak, slip through the cracks as a false negative? – that contributed to the mess with the Titans.

 Ask Saints fullback Michael Burton about the reliability of the tests. Although the reliability rate for weeks has apparently been well above 90 percent, Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical adviser has acknowledged from the beginning that perfection is elusive.

 In the Burton case, it turns out the result that threw the Saints for such a loop in the wee hours of the morning on Sunday after their Saturday arrival in Detroit, was a “false positive.” For a few hours, the Saints-Lions matchup was in jeopardy of being postponed. It wasn’t until 3 a.m. Sunday that confirmation from the rapid-response, “point-of-care” test cleared Burton and others who were in close proximity on the team’s flight.

 Game on, except with little sleep for Burton, who worried if he had infected teammates, and for backfield mate Alvin Kamara, who sat near him during the flight.

 “That’s part of the deal this year,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after his team recovered from a sluggish start to defeat the Lions.

Payton pointed out that the electronic contact tracing system the NFL has used wasn’t quite up to snuff, either. Only three people were deemed by the system to be in proximity to Burton; the Saints took the initiative to test four others.

“You get that initial call and you’re like, ‘How’s that possible?’" Burton told reporters after Sunday’s game, alluding to his diligence in minimizing risk. “But anything is possible and we live in a very unpredictable world right now with everything going on with COVID.”

 Adjustments have always been a way of life in the NFL. Yet obviously, this is such a different category than reshuffling the offensive line due to a rash of injuries or adding new blitzes to the game plan.

Consider the plight of the Patriots. After Cam Newton tested positive for COVID-19, the team’s flight to Kansas City on Saturday was canceled, various players and staff tested (the results were negative, although another Patriot, practice squad defensive lineman Bill Murray, was placed on the COVID-reserve list on Tuesday) and the game pushed back a day. The Patriots then made the decision to travel to Kansas City on the day of the game, using two airplanes – one for players deemed at risk, presumably because of their proximity to Newton.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long been arguably the best coach in the NFL when it comes to making adjustments. Yet even Belichick’s knack for that is tested like never before. At the moment, that includes not knowing whether Newton – who has been asymptomatic, according to a Fox Sports report – will be cleared to return on Thursday. According to the protocols, a player can return if he is asymptomatic and has two negative tests within five days of a positive test.

Asked Tuesday about having to prepare for uncertainties related to the pandemic, Belichick told reporters, “We spent time on it and so has every other team in the league. I mean, we’re all under the same protocols.”

Yet there’s no NFL parity here. Pandemic challenges are not created equally.

Tomlin, coming off an “unanticipated bye week” realizes there’s only so much that can be planned for in this environment.

“We don’t overthink it,” he said. “You can paralyze yourself with contingency plans on top of contingency plans. We have a hard-core plan, but we just are committed to being light on our feet and ready to adjust when the circumstances dictate it. So, we’re moving in our normal rhythm, but we acknowledge when we come in here day to day, that we could have to adjust. When we have to, we will.”

 It’s one game at a time in the NFL like never before.

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