NFL football during a pandemic promises to look sort of similar and yet radically different
By ADAM KILGORE | The Washington Post | Published: September 8, 2020
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This NFL season, for everyone involved, will be an exercise in sensory disorientation. Franchises have aced the protocols necessary to begin a season in the middle of a pandemic, and in a few days the league will reveal the reward. It will be football, but it will occur in a bizarre environment — sort of the same and yet radically different, like a vivid dream with enough twisted details to remind you something is off.
The mayhem of the sideline will be replaced by a sparse smattering of players and coaches, who, like the on-field officials, will be wearing masks. The kaleidoscopic crowd will instead be empty seats, and cheerleaders and mascots will not be permitted. Noise will be piped in at a precise decibel level chosen by the league. The footballs themselves will be rinsed with chemicals.
"It'll still be 10 yards for a first down, and you'll still get three points for a field goal," Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, said in a conference call with The Washington Post. "But beyond that, things are going to be very different."
It is a small miracle that the 2020 season will start on time, but the concessions necessary to make it happen will be unceasingly evident. Limited or no fans at all will lead to strange scenes and potential strategic adjustments. Temporary expanded practice squads will alter how teams tweak their rosters. Some effects of the changes remain a mystery, as do the ways New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick will exploit them.
"It's not going to feel the same," Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale told reporters during training camp. "Because it's not going to be the same."
The biggest differences will derive from the dearth of fans, turning stadiums from raucous to cavernous. Some teams will fill their stadiums to about 20 percent capacity, but most, at least at the start of the season, are allowing none. Aside from what it means for competitive purposes, it will simply be bizarre, like a story without narration.
"A game without fans, you're missing an integral part of the fabric and the texture of the game," NBC's "Sunday Night Football" producer Fred Gaudelli said in a phone interview. "They're kind of the editorial exclamation point to the things that happen in a game. When the team is going well, you can feel that energy. When the team isn't going well, you can feel the deadness of the place."
Buffalo Bills Coach Sean McDermott called inconsistency in the number of fans allowed at different stadiums "honestly ridiculous" in the way it creates an uneven playing field. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell insisted the limited number of fans will not create any more or less of a competitive advantage than usual.
Inside the stadium, the NFL will fill the aural void with piped-in crowd noise over the public-address system. It will be a consistent hum, a version of white noise to make it slightly less weird for the players.
But what television viewers hear will be different. The NFL has harvested hundreds of hours of audio from the NFL Films vault, making specific recordings for every stadium except the debuting palaces in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The league created sound bites that an operator can turn into a sonic accompaniment specific to place and event. During a Kansas City Chiefs home game, a long pass by Patrick Mahomes will be accompanied on the broadcast by roars recorded at Arrowhead Stadium, and if he is sacked it will be greeted by the actual groans of bygone Kansas Citians.
"They were able to build a soundtrack that's flexible based on what's happening in the game with authentic sounds from that stadium," Gaudelli said. "I think the sound is going to be pretty good, actually."
Offenses generally prefer quiet so they can communicate, but no din at all will present new challenges. Defensive players will be able to hear audibles more clearly, both in real time and when studying video. This will not be an entirely new issue. The proliferation of microphones near the ball, especially on nationally televised games, has allowed defenses to decode audible systems for years.
It'll still be 10 yards for a first down and you'll still get three points for a field goal, but beyond that, things are going to be very different.
Offenses have responded not only by continually switching verbal communication but by keeping the same calls and changing their meaning — "hoping they still think it means what they thought it meant," Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman told reporters. This year, Roman said, there may be more "dummy calls" and subterfuge.
"That's one of the first things we started talking about — how the communication was going to be a lot more evident," Roman said. "We'll definitely mix some things up as we go."
Empty seats may make an impact on facets of the game in granular, unforeseen ways. During training camp, Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby practiced in Lambeau Stadium a few times to gauge wind patterns without fans "deflecting" the breeze, he said. He couldn't detect a change in the way the wind swirled or gusted, but he sensed stronger wind in an empty stadium.
"It's definitely running through there a little more," Crosby told reporters. "It was blowing pretty hard up top, but you could feel it a little more on the field than you could in the past. Those things we're just evaluating."
For the players, the oddest sensation may be the relative emptiness of the sideline. They will return to bench areas with fewer coaches and support staff members roaming around than usual. In addition to the lack of cheerleaders and mascots, there will be no media at all, which means a nose tackle will stick his face mask inches from the opposing center's nose 50-odd times, but at least he will be spared the peril of venturing within 20 paces of Michele Tafoya.
Traveling parties will be pared for road teams, and every player will receive his own hotel room, a perk typically reserved for veterans that has become a necessity. Big-money sponsors whom teams fete with a spot on the team plane will be missing. Teams must navigate gray areas. Is a team chaplain essential? If so, should he be allowed in the locker room?
It's not going to feel the same because it's not going to be the same.
The NFL expanded practice squads from 10 players to 16 in an effort to reduce the need for teams to hold midweek tryouts but also in case positive novel coronavirus tests require more replacements than usual. Those extra roster spots combined with the elimination of preseason games will have a sustained effect on roster construction.
Teams typically churn the bottom of their rosters, nabbing players from opposing practice squads based on need and using evaluations on unheralded players drawn from preseason performances. The expanded practice squads will limit teams' needs, and the lost opportunity to scout the bottom of opposing rosters will provide less motivation to swipe from a rival practice squad.
"Unless there's somebody we really felt strongly about with a college free agent or the draft process that becomes available, you can expect a lot of teams to have some stability and not as much poaching players from other rosters, just because you have limited exposure to what's going on," Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay told reporters.
The looming threat of the coronavirus has affected the way some coaches prepare. Some teams plan to separate quarterbacks in meetings so one potential infection doesn't sideline every passer on the roster. Roman noted the added importance of players who can fill multiple roles. Football is an inherently injurious sport, but a season played amid a pandemic creates more urgency to prepare backups.
"Everybody better be ready to go at a moment's notice," Packers Coach Matt LaFleur told reporters.
Without a preseason, it will be clear early on which teams prepared better than others. Belichick, in what seemed to be a message that he wouldn't tolerate whining or excuses from his players and assistant coaches, noted at the outset of Patriots camp that college teams prepare without preseason games every season. In one scene on HBO's "Hard Knocks," McVay warned his team that a lack of focus would lead to more presnap penalties than usual because teams have had less practice in gamelike settings.
If 2020 has taught the world anything, it is that imagination is limited. Coaches can try to prepare for how the new atmosphere will change football on the field, but the most successful teams will be the ones that accept they might have to cede control, that understand how best to adapt to the strange times.
"I can sit and think about it a lot, but I'm ready to see how it ends up being different and what the pluses and minuses are to it and being ready to adapt and change," San Francisco 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan said. "We'll figure that out."