Opening night: one month from tonight. The Houston Texans likely will be significant underdogs at Super Bowl champion Kansas City, and rightfully so. But the important thing in 2020 is something else, on the weekend we passed 5 million documented COVID-19 cases as a country. It’s actually whether Houston-Kansas City, and the 268 NFL games after that, will be played.
“I believe Week 1 will happen,” J.J. Watt told me the other day. “I’m optimistic.”
I think so too. There’s good reason to be optimistic, at least for this season to kick off. The NFL Players Association reported that as of Thursday, 56 players had tested positive for the virus, including pre-camp and daily testing once camp started; the majority of those players returned to their teams, virus-free. But the key, obviously, will be how players handle more post-training-camp freedom once they’re in regular-season mode.
More about a new twist, a potential COVID-19 kitchen cabinet for Roger Goodell, later in the column. On Thursday, I spent the day virtually with the Houston Texans, to see what a team is going through to prepare for a most unusual season. Talk about enlightening. My day included learning about facial-recognition software, John Lewis, Rock The Vote, a schedule accommodating five distinct teams-within-a-team, the mental guilt of players and staff about bringing the virus into a team, what the biggest adjustment to COVID camp is for a head coach, one hour (just one hour) spent together as a team all day, and a rookie from Penn State who seems pretty wise.
The Lead: Texans
A day in the life of an NFL team . . . in a pandemic:
Geoff Kaplan, the Infection Control Officer of the Houston Texans, wakes up—no alarm needed—in the guest room of his Houston home. Guest room, in his own home? Kaplan is married with 17- and 15-year-old sons, but for the last two weeks, while he tries to keep COVID-19 out of his own house and tries to avoid carrying it into an NFL practice facility, the guest room has been his room. “I can’t ask my sons and my wife to not live their lives,” Kaplan said. “This is a way to protect them, and to protect me.”
Kaplan set the alarm for 4:45 just for insurance, but didn’t need it. Because when Kaplan begins to stir on training camp mornings this year, he finds himself a little jittery, thinking, What type of curveball will I be thrown today? He’s the point of the spear for the Texans on COVID-19, and if any of the 180 Texans’ players/coaches/staff test positive for the coronavirus, there will be an overnight email from the NFL’s testing lab, BioReference Labs, in his Texans inbox informing him. Thus the reason for reaching for his phone when he wakes up, first thing. Every morning.
Good news this morning: no email from BioReference. For the eighth straight day, the Texans have zero positive tests for COVID-19. Kaplan will wait for a more expansive email with a spreadsheet of every Texan test—that lands in his box at 6:05 a.m. daily, like clockwork—before informing coach Bill O’Brien and executive VP Jack Easterby the team has gone another day COVID-free. Impressive so far, but opening day at Super Bowl champion Kansas City is five weeks away, and Kaplan, the COVID gatekeeper for an NFL playoff team, knows there are no medals for a perfect testing day on Aug. 6. He’s got to have five more months, somehow, of keeping an NFL team in a COVID hotspot on the field.
“This is truly one of the biggest challenges in NFL history,” Kaplan said. “And we’re all in this together.”
O’Brien in his car, on the 10-minute drive to team offices at NRG Stadium, thinks about the text he’ll get from Kaplan, wondering if the winning streak in testing will continue. But O’Brien is really thinking more about his roster. Strange thing, but this is still NFL training camp, and O’Brien has to prepare for a season, regardless the oddness of it. In this season, he’ll value versatility more than in a normal year, because of the potential in any week of any number of players being lost to injuries or COVID-19. “Versatility of positions is big,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot these days—a guy being able to do two or three different things.” Or more. Like second-year fullback/special-teamer Cullen Gillaspia, who will get practice reps this month at running back, tight end, and in an empty backfield. “You got to plan it out. What happens if one week you lose two or three running backs?” O’Brien said.
That’s what a coach thinks about on the way to work in a pandemic. He also thinks about what the looming text from his Infection Control Officer will say, and whether O’Brien will get a surprise today at 3 p.m. That’s the deadline for players who want to opt out of playing this year because of COVID fears. He thinks he’s in the clear, but he’s not sure. And one or two players have been thinking quite hard about it.
“Good morning,” the yellow-shirted medical technician says to O’Brien as he stops his car in a lane to enter Gate 10 at the stadium.
Temperature-taking lane. She is masked. The coach is masked.
But first, O’Brien has to answer a 17-question quiz on his phone, sent each morning at 4 a.m., on the state of his health. Questions like: “In the past 48 hours, have you experienced any symptoms of COVID-19?” When O’Brien answers the 17 questions satisfactorily, an email with a big green PASS shows up in his inbox. That PASS sign is what the med-tech needs to see. (O’Brien takes the test before he leaves his house.)
The tech sees the PASS, then points what looks like a little water pistol at O’Brien’s forehead, six inches away.
She says, “96.4. Good to go!”
“Thank you,” O’Brien says, and drives in. He parks and walks to the BioReference Labs trailer.
Nasal swab next. He gets a mid-nasal swabbing of both nostrils.
Facial-recognition orb next. Entering the complex, O’Brien must look up at the dual facial-recognition orbs at the gate. (This way, the Texans employee won’t have to do what he did to get in last summer—touch a touchpad of numbers, then pull the door open.) Pause, for maybe three seconds. The orb recognizes O’Brien and, CLICK, no touch. Open door. He’s in.
KINEXON proximity device next. That little square disk, the size and width of a Ghirardelli mini-chocolate square, will alert him if he’s too close to anyone for 10 minutes or longer during the day. One of these is handed to O’Brien and every one of the 80 players and 100 club employees—coaches, staff who touch the players—and they’ll wear it (O’Brien like an Apple watch on his wrist) till they walk out of the building at the end of their day.
Coffee next. The Massachusetts guy can’t get his own Dunkin’ Donuts “Coach’s Brew” (the cafeteria workers named it for him) in the main cafeteria as he did last year because of pandemic rules. A gloved cafeteria attendant, masked like O’Brien, has to pour his large Styrofoam cup of the coffee and bring it to him at the door.
Walk up the back stairway to his office next. Same as it ever was.
Last year at 5:23 a.m., O’Brien sleepily pulled into the parking lot, parked, walked into the building, got his Dunkin’ Donuts coffee himself and walked up a back stairwell into his office.
This year at 5:23 a.m., O’Brien punches in answers to 17 questions on his phone, shows the PASS sign to the attendant, gets his temperature taken, parks, walks to the testing trailer, has a Q-tip-type thing shoved up each nostril, walks to the stadium door, stares at two orbs while waiting to be let into the building, walks 20 feet down a hall to pick up his KINEXON proximity device, waits in the cafeteria while a cafeteria worker gets his Dunkin’ Donuts coffee for him, walks up a back stairwell, and walks into his office. Times have changed.
“Not that big a deal,” O’Brien says. “Maybe adds five minutes to my day. I don’t really think of this as any sort of obstacle, or disadvantage. Thirty-one other teams are doing the exact same thing.”
Rookies and first-year players, 18 of them, draw the short straw this year. While Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt sleep, the pandemic-forced dicing of NFL teams has separated the 80-man Houston roster into five distinct practice groups, for the sake of social-distancing and safety. The young guys take SUV shuttles from the nearby Residence Inn—home of rookies and first-year guys during camp—to arrive in time for their COVID testing. Most of these youngsters have been in their rooms for 12 hours—since they got dropped off at the hotel last night, and since they had to board the shuttle at 5:35 for the five-minute ride to the stadium this morning. Fourth-round rookie John Reid, a cornerback from Penn State, walks past the NFL TESTING SITE: DO YOUR PART sign, sticks his hands under the sanitizer dispenser, rubs his hands with it, waits two minutes, then enters the testing trailer for the double-nasal-swab test.
Interesting situation this year for rookies. Imagine you’re a defensive player in college, drafted by the Texans, and you and your family get all excited. I’m on J.J. Watt’s team! And you get to training camp, and here it is, more than a week into it, and, because the team has been divided into five units, Reid has met Watt once, and just in passing picking up a prepackaged meal in the food room. COVID rules camp. Camaraderie wanes. The five players groups, color-coded (all but the green aligned with Texans team colors) with their arrival times/COVID testing times on this day:
• Green: Rookies, first-year players (5:45 a.m.)
• Silver: Defensive players who play special teams (10:45 a.m.)
• Liberty White: Vet quarterbacks, non-special-teamers, vets of more than six years (11:15 a.m.)
• Battle Red: Offensive players who play special teams (12:30 p.m.)
• Deep Steel Blue: offensive and defensive linemen (1 p.m.)
The 180 daily tests are shuttled to the BioReference Testing Labs, less than two miles away, to be read. Some teams—Saints, Seahawks for two—have to put their tests on airplanes to a BioReference Lab in a different state each day. For the Texans, they’re dropped off five minutes away.
Kaplan, the Infection Control Officer, texts O’Brien and Easterby. All clear. For the ninth straight day, no positive COVID tests for the 180 players and team employees who work with players. Kaplan should be giddy, but this is the NFL, and he knows this is the early in first quarter. It’s like he doesn’t want to jinx it.
“Looooong way to go,” Kaplan says.
NRG Stadium is where the Texans offices, locker rooms, food rooms and weight rooms are. Across adjacent six-lane Kirby Drive are the practice fields and indoor practice bubble (air-conditioned, of course), and players must walk across a footbridge over Kirby to get there. (Poor rookies. Their morning walk is about 500 yards because their locker room is farthest of the three locker rooms from the bubble.) On this day, three video staffers, led by director of video operations Tim Brog, take a flatbed cart across to tend to the seven video stations/position-group meeting areas in the bubble.
Because the league has made six-foot-distancing mandatory in all team settings, many teams have changed how they do meetings this year. Instead of comfortable but cozy windowless classrooms, the Texans do their position meetings and many team meeting in the practice bubble. The quarterback “meeting room,” for example, is in the north end zone, set up—properly distanced—for the three QBs on the roster, plus a work station with a whiteboard, touch-screen computer and a 12-foot-by-7-foot video board that, later in the morning, will host a meeting run by QB coach/offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. Take a spin around the bubble when you walk in the place, counter-clockwise from the entry door, and there are meeting setups, in order, for running backs, then quarterbacks and wide receiver (shared space), then offensive linemen, then an auxiliary weight room, then special teams/outside linebackers (shared space), then defensive backs, then inside linebackers, then defensive linemen.
Brog and his aides check on the electronics. All in good working order.
A meeting of the Football Performance Team, which is the coaching staff, Houston-based Tier 2 scouting staff, and Easterby. They meet to plot the day, and to discuss what they’ve seen so far in the 80 players. Still way, way early to draw judgments, but O’Brien and Easterby like a daily rundown of what the braintrust thinks, particularly about those in tenuous positions. This year, particularly, there will be a short runway to pick the 53-man roster and the all-important 16-man practice squad; many of those 16 could play key roles if a COVID outbreak hits the Texans. They all pay attention to the virus, raging outside their doors. “We had 1,100 new cases in Houston yesterday,” O’Brien said.
Want to know a major difference between training camp 2019 and camp 2020? “A lot of mental guilt,” says Kaplan, the Infection Control Officer. And this morning, as he’s done many times in the first month back in Houston, Easterby, the team’s father-confessor as well as de facto GM, meets with a member of the organization. (Anonymity requested.) This employee, who has contact with players, has a family with children, and is worried about the risk of infecting them or infecting people with the team. The employee worries about being a burden, and what will happen if he tests positive and can’t work for a while. Job worries, contagion worries, family worries . . . all stuff this employee didn’t have to be concerned with in 2019. No one did.
Easterby said in words approximating these: Don’t worry. There’s a contingency plan for every employee here. You are not a burden on our team. We support you. Be sure your family is okay, and just take all the precautions you know you should be taking. This evening, Easterby will videoconference with family members anxious about the same stuff.
Texans are on Coughlin time, sort of. The daily 8:45 team meeting kicks off two minutes early in the southwest end zone, chairs at least six feet apart. The green group is here in person, as are the coaches. The rest of the team, about 60 players, join virtually via Zoom videoconference, from homes and apartments and hotel rooms and a couple from the facility across Kirby Drive.
With a dark blue mask covering his chin, mouth and nose, coach Bill O’Brien begins the 12-minute meeting by talking about the late Congressman, freedom-fighter and Martin Luther King ally, John Lewis. The George Floyd murder caused a bit of an awakening in O’Brien, and O’Brien said he watched the eulogies at the Lewis funeral—from former presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama—and got inspired. He told me: “I said, I want to read about John Lewis’ life.”
O’Brien shares the bio of Lewis—third of 10 children of sharecroppers from Troy, Ala., dreamed of being a preacher, practiced preaching to chickens, and then his parents, met Rosa Parks at 17 and King at 18.
“Lemme ask a quick question,” O’Brien says. “Who was Rosa Parks? Nate Hall, you know who Rosa Parks was?”
Hall, a linebacker from Northwestern, indeed knows that Parks, in 1955, would not give up her seat to a white patron on a crowded Alabama bus, leading a boycott of Montgomery, Ala., buses by Black people. O’Brien went on with the Lewis bio, how he wrote to King out of the blue and got an audience with him, about his bravery in the face of beatings as a Freedom Rider on public buses in the segregated south, with a dream of bettering lives of Black people and all people.
“Thinking about why this is such an important time,” O’Brien says, slightly muffled through the mask. “What I would say to you is, as a person, not just as a football player, I would say, ‘What is your dream? Who are you practicing in front of to get right? What are you thinking about each and every day relative to what you want to accomplish both on and off the football field? Are you passionate enough to win the dream with people who are not like you?
“We’ll talk about this more as a team as we get closer to the regular season. Right now, our job is very important to put a foundation in place for our football team. We’re in the ramp-up period. We’re in a walk-through period. We’re meeting. A lot of what we do is mental. Then we have strength and conditioning . . . How much are you willing to put into it to accomplish your dream? Are you willing to understand that some guys’ dreams may take a little longer than other guys’ dreams? Are you willing to understand that? Are you willing to put one foot in front of the other, brick upon brick upon brick, and lay the foundation?”
“One thing: When we go against each other, again, that’s a quick whistle, so please play to that whistle. Tone that down a little, and let’s go on to the next play. That’s basically a formation adjustment period, communication period. That’s not football. We are not playing real football right now. We are in T-shirts and shorts. We are not playing real football. Real football will come on Aug. 14.”
Now a football coach in training camp, laying the wood a bit.
“Some of you guys, as I look around—I’m talking to the rookies, not the guys on the Zoom—you guys have some sleepy eyes. To me, that’s f—ed up. Wake your s— up now and realize what I just talked about relative to the dream that you have. I’m not sure why you have sleepy eyes. Rookies, I’m talking to rookies. You need to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep at night, that you’re not staying up all night. Everybody understand that. You don’t want to get into these morning meetings and be sleepy. That’s not a good sign. Let’s make sure we wake up, we go out here, we have a great day, and we think about, ‘How am I gonna improve today from where I was on Tuesday?’
“Special teams in two minutes.”
Morning quarterback meeting: No Deshaun Watson, no A.J. McCarron on the premises. On site: Kelly, the coordinator, teaching at the workstation, with assistant T.J. Yates and third-stringer Alex McGough on chairs in the end zone, eight feet apart on the “E” in TEXANS.
I keep wondering: When are there real position meetings? Like, with 16 defensive backs—vet, first-year, undrafted, all of them—in the room or on Zoom? At this time of year, say with the defensive backs, position coach D’Anton Lynn (son of the Chargers coach, by the way) will schedule a meeting at some point during the day, either after the special-teams meeting in the morning or, more likely, after the full defensive team meeting in the evening, around 7:30 p.m. Things can change daily because, the Texans early in camp are trying to jigsaw-puzzle together five personnel groups so they all get their work in.
Early day for J.J. Watt, because he’s got his preseason drug tests at 10 a.m. The rest of his Liberty White mates don’t have to be in the building till their 11:15 COVID test. “Street drugs and steroids,” Watt says of his drug test, a urine test. Then he’s got time to kill before early-afternoon conditioning. “So I get some body work done [in the weight room].”
Watt, lifting. The NFL’s not entirely abnormal this summer.
On the turf field, for about 45 minutes, rookies, first-year players and a couple of players coming off injuries do conditioning and individual drills, in masks. Outdoor practice in August in Houston is a test. Today, it’s 91 degrees with a heat index of 97. It’s not a dry heat.
Press conferences. Today, Houston-area reporters can talk to two new offensive pieces, Brandin Cooks and David Johnson, and O’Brien, between 10:30 and 11:40. The reporters, about 30 of them, are at home. The three Texans appear in the media workroom, in front of a Texans-themed backdrop, via Zoom. This is going to be a strange year in mediaville, league-wide. Coaches can choose whether to talk to reporters via videoconference or socially distant in person, and most are choosing videolinks. For now, no in-person interviews with players are allowed by the league.
Aaron Wilson, Houston Chronicle beat writer, at his desk in his bedroom four miles from NRG Stadium, questions Johnson: “What is it like being in the facility in this COVID-19 era with the new safety protocols and mask-wearing?”
Johnson, in the NRG Stadium media room: “It’s definitely been weird. We only can be in small groups. Not being able to see the whole team and being able to interact with the whole team or seeing everyone in the locker room together has been different. It’s been tough figuring out how to learn guys’ names and putting faces to names because of that reason. We have to be split up, coming into the building at different times and so that has been pretty challenging.”
Wilson, 47, has covered the league for 21 years. He’s a tenacious fellow. “This is completely different than anything I’ve experienced,” Wilson says. “The value of a beat writer is being there. This year, I’ll have the privilege of going to practice, but otherwise, no informal chats with players or coaches, hard to go off-the-record, hard to sidle up to new guys and get to know them, hard to build relationships. Do I think coverage will be as good? No. But I am taking a survive-and-advance approach to the season. No reasonable editor will say, ‘Wow, this story is not as in-depth as usual.’
“If you think about it, we’re lucky. We’re in the middle of the pandemic, we’re employed, we’re writing about football.”
Lunch for many in the building. Pretty good fare for grab-and-go food; there’s no communal meal-eating this year. There are four meal stations through the building, with pre-cooked meals in coolers. The meals are called “Take and Bake.” (A popular one on this day: baked salmon, squash, black beans and rice, baked cauliflower mash, collard greens.) Instructions are easy. Warm the meal up in a microwave or oven and eat. That’s it. Many players take one, warm it up, and take to the locker and eat.
The three locker rooms are humming a bit now, before the full-squad work at 2. But the locker-room scene is just not the same.
First of all, there are no big crowds. Three locker rooms house the 80 players; showers are staggered to avoid crowds, with every other locker taken out of commission. “A bit odd,” says Reid, the rookie cornerback. “As a football player, you’re used to having interaction in the locker room before and after practice. A locker room’s like a barber shop. A couple guys start talking, other guys join in, and it’s just a big conversation. Given the circumstances this year, that’s not happening. We got thrown a curveball.”
There is one hour all day with all 80 players and the full coaching staff in the same place, in person. This is it, the full-squad walk-through, in the bubble.
Quick whistles. We’re not playing real football, in the morning words of O’Brien. But think how important this is, and not just for X-and-O’s reasons. Normally in camp, the new guys might sit with first-time teammates at lunch or dinner, and might stop and talk to new coaches in the hall, and might sit next to a total stranger (for now) in a team meeting. Because no one met anyone in the spring (no one met anyone till the team gathered in late July), and because now many conversations are held between two masked people, there are awkward meetings like the one recently between offensive coordinator Tim Kelly and free-agent receiver Randall Cobb. Cobb, the former Packer and Cowboy, will be a huge piece of Kelly’s game-planning puzzle this year. As they chatted one day, Cobb was not positive who he was with. He called Kelly later and said, “Was that you I talked to today? Thought it was you—couldn’t really tell.” It was Kelly.
For the last few minutes of this 50-minute period, O’Brien brings players and coaches together, relatively speaking. The group of about 100 players and coaches spreads out from the goal line to about the 20, and O’Brien does the lesson for the day. Bill Parcells used to do this. Take one or two game situations and teach them to your full squad every day. Today: O’Brien explains the slightly byzantine rule about end-zone fumbles. Don’t reach the ball near the goal line toward the end zone, he says. If you fumble as an offensive player approaching the end and it goes out of bounds, the defense takes over at its 20; touchback. (This is the Bane of Rich Eisen’s Existence Rule. He absolutely hates the fact that if the ball is stripped near the pylon and goes out of bounds at the half-yard line, it’s the offense’s ball 18 inches from a touchdown . . . while if the ball is stripped near the pylon and bounces out a half-yard into the end zone, the defense gets it with a free 20 yards going the other way, the ball placed at the 20-yard line with a change of possession.) O’Brien preaches that penalties, turnovers and takeaways could be far more important in an unpredictable year like this one, because teams could be forced to play neophytes and who knows what other factors will come into play in a pandemic.
Just another day at training camp. Sort of.
“The biggest adjustment,” O’Brien says, “is coaching with a mask.”
Whew. The deadline for players opting out of the 2020 season was 3 p.m. CT, and the Texans had no more to accompany their only one, reserve defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes. But wide receiver Kenny Stills, one of the league’s brightest and most politically active players (he was arrested at a Breonna Taylor demonstration in Kentucky in July), thought about it. Now he’s back in with the team. “He needed a little bit of time,” O’Brien says. “He’s a bright guy. Very passionate. Loves our team. Loves football.”
Stills wasn’t the only one who might have been on the fence. “I thought about it a lot,” Cobb says, sitting in his new locker room. “I talked to my wife about it a lot, going back to April. I would say I was pretty close.”
Cobb turns 30 this month. Entering this year, he had career earnings of $54.1 million, according to Over The Cap. In achievable bonuses and salary this year, he could make $10.1 million. It didn’t sound like a financial decision. “We’re taking all the steps we can as an organization, and we haven’t had a positive test yet. I have a 6-month-old and my oldest turns 2 next week. My wife’s safety and my kids’ safety, those are the most important things to me. If the time come that we have some positive tests, I may look into getting a hotel or something, not putting my family through this.”
Silver group, free to go, after 5 hours, 15 minutes on premises. “With five different player groups,’’ says Kaplan, the Infection Control Officer, “it take a Ph.D to make out this schedule.” One group’s daily slate, approximately, the 18-player Silver group:
8:45 a.m.: Full-squad meeting via Zoom
10:45 a.m.: Be at stadium for COVID test
11 a.m.: Wellness period. Weigh-in, daily hydration measurement, choose a lunch, get handed a bag with snacks/bars chosen for that player’s daily nutrition needs
12:30 p.m.: Lift
2 p.m.: Full-squad walk-through/conditioning in masks
3 p.m.: Stretch, shower, dress
4 p.m.: Free to leave stadium
5:45 p.m.: Team meeting via Zoom
6:45 p.m.: Special-teams meeting via Zoom
7:15 p.m.: Offense/defense meetings via Zoom
7:45 p.m. or so: Possible position meetings.
8:15 p.m.: Final announcements for the day from Bill O’Brien, via Zoom
8:35 p.m. (approximately): Players free.
Fighting traffic on the drive home to make the 5:45 team evening Zoom team meeting (and to prepare his Korean beef-and-rice Take and Bake), Watt, always opinionated, rips through his day, then opines on the state of 2020 football:
• On the risk: “It’s physically impossible in what we’re doing to make it a zero-risk venture.”
• On whether he thought of opting out: “Uh, no. I’m in a situation where my parents are up in Wisconsin. My grandma’s up in Wisconsin. My wife’s family is in Utah. It’s me and my wife and my dogs in our household. People we come in direct contact with, we don’t have any underlying risk factors or high-risk people. Now if I had family, or a condition, or was living with someone with a condition I would completely understand why guys opt out. I don’t think that anybody should have any sort of stigma attached to them for opting out.”
• On what other sports have taught him: “The NWSL [women’s pro soccer league, in which his wife plays] had a successful year in a bubble. One team dropped out. MLS had two teams drop out, but they’ve been successful mostly in a bubble. NBA, bubble, that works. NHL, bubble, that’s working. MLB is the closest situation to us. They travel, like we’ll be doing, even though they travel a little bit more and stay in hotels more. They live at home. And they’ve had struggles. So, for us, we’re off to a good start, but I think it’s hard to say. It’s early.”
• On the NFL being able to play in 2020: “I believe Week 1 will happen. Because again, in the situation that we’re in, we have a great amount of control over our building. It’s not a bubble so we can’t control what guys are doing outside of the building. But we have the fines in place and obviously you hope for accountability and trust within your team. But theoretically, until that first game, you can somewhat control everything around you. Once you get on a plane, you go to another city, we’re still gonna try and control as much as possible. But then you get into the fall season as well, you start getting the flu and other things mixed in. Then your risk level goes up. But as far as Week 1? I’m optimistic.”
Nightly meeting, often featuring something non-football. For the third time in three days, there’s a social element to a Texans meeting. On Tuesday night, Chris Singleton, the son of one of the Mother Emanuel church murder victims in Charleston, S.C., entered the team videoconference to talk about the times we live in, civil rights, and forgiving your enemies. Singleton has forgiven Dylann Roof, the white racially motivated killer of nine Black parishioners. Singleton’s lesson: Love is greater than hate. Then the O’Brien talk this morning about John Lewis, and tonight, the team will hear from a Rock The Vote representative, urging the players to vote and urging them to use their platforms to get out the vote locally and in the presidential election. The first two talks were Texans ideas. Rock The Vote was a league mandate, but the Texans supported it.
The program, over Zoom with charts and photos and stats, lasts maybe 40 minutes, too long to hold everyone’s attention. But the point gets made. I asked O’Brien about a couple of hours in camp in one week being used for socially conscious and civil-rights causes. “Our main objective, obviously, is to win,” he says. “But we’ve got a lot of guys on the team who are very socially active. There used to be a saying in football: There’s no place for politics or religion in the locker room. Those days are over. We have to understand what’s important to our players, and I can tell you, these things are important to our players.”
Now the assistants will run special teams, offensive and defensive meetings for the next 90 minutes or so.
Jack Easterby convenes his standard nightly next-day planning meeting with multiple football program people—O’Brien and heads of equipment, security, athletic training, football operations, video, nutrition/team wellness, analytics. Wearing a red-and-navy mask, Easterby stresses to heads of divisions to be better at communicating (a few emails going unreturned), praises them for the string of all-negative COVID tests (“You’re doing awesome”), tells them to make things smooth for late-arrivers Kenny Stills and Albert Huggins, advises them if it gets to be 110 degrees heat-index they could re-work the lifting schedule (“You may not get your best version of the players”), and suggests if all the videoconferences start to wear on the players be ready to adjust (“Be prepared for some walk-throughs if we start losing ‘em”).
This is the kind of meeting that reinforces normalcy in the most bizarre training camp any of them will ever experience. Some of the stuff Easterby is talking about is stuff he’d talk about in a non-pandemic year. Later, Easterby frames the task they all share.
“This,” he says, “won’t be as easy as we think. And it won’t be as hard as we fear.”
After his nightly meeting with Easterby—20 minutes, analyzing how the day went and what to change for tomorrow—O’Brien walks down the back stairs, turns in his KINEXON device, gets in his car, connects his phone to the car speakers via Apple CarPlay and listens to music on the short trip home. At home, he has a Coors Light, watches CNN for a half-hour, and goes to sleep.
The Massachusetts native is a single man this week; his family always stays at their summer spot on Cape Cod through the early days of training camp before coming home because of his 17-hour days. O’Brien’s son Jack, 17, has a rare neurological disorder. Jack needs constant care, and the threat of the coronavirus is on the minds of O’Brien and wife Colleen a lot. “We talk about it all the time,” Bill O’Brien says. “It’s gonna be a hard fall relative to that because I think when I come home, I’m going to have to sleep in a separate part of the house because if my son Jack got it—or if anybody got it, but especially people that have pre-existing conditions . . .”
It’s an emotional subject for O’Brien. “Jack’s a very handicapped young boy who’s a great kid but he was dealt a bad hand in life. He was dealt a great hand with his mother though, an unbelievable mother. It’s a nervous situation.”
Bedtime for Watt. At home, he followed his meetings with a few minutes in his pool, aqua-cycling to “flush out” his legs and make sure they’re fresh for the next day of a new-wave training camp. I ask him how he feels about the strangest training camp of his high school, college or pro career.
“I mean, if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s somewhat nice from an actual football standpoint,” Watt says. “Think about a normal training-camp day: You’re in the building from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. And you got a whole bunch of meetings. Now, we are very efficient in our meetings. We get things done. Nobody’s screwing around. Everybody’s locked in. It’s just really been good with our Zoom meetings. Just purely being in the comfort of your home doing your Zoom meetings, and not having to rush into the stadium early in the morning. It is a nice feature.”
The shuttle dropped Reid and the rookies back at their hotel around 5:10. Reid ate his “Take and Bake” meal, had his team and defensive meetings, studied his defensive and special-teams plays from the day. He says he never left the room before going to bed at 10. For Reid, no nighttime sneaking out after curfew, apparently. North Dallas Forty, this ain’t. Reid says: “I’d be in my room at night anyway, studying my plays and making sure I was asleep by 9:30 or so. But COVID’s just another reason to not leave the room at night. I’m not taking any chances.”
The coaches like Reid—24 and mature for a rookie. He’s been on O’Brien’s radar since starring at the Penn State football camp when O’Brien was the coach there and Reid a 15-year-old south Jersey phenom defensive back. Now he’d better be this football nerd, studying and staying in to avoid the virus. The Houston corner situation is in flux, and Reid could be on the field as the last line of defense against the most dangerous passing game in football on Sept. 10. Seven months ago, Kansas City put up 51 on Houston. That’s the last time the Texans played a game.
“In one month,” I say to Reid, “you guys face Kansas City. Looking forward to maybe playing against Patrick Mahomes and that offense?”
“I just try to worry about today,” Reid said.
Good football answer. And, in the age of COVID-19, the right answer.
News Of The Week10
In brief, what you need to know:
The Matthew Stafford Clause changes the game. On Friday, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to a rules change in testing that will incorporate “point-of-care” instant testing in the NFL’s regimen—in a limited but important way. We know now that Stafford, the Detroit quarterback, tested positive for COVID-19 at camp, and it apparently was a false positive. Stafford hadn’t tested positive in multiple tests before that, and multiple subsequent tests came back negative. Now a new clause in the testing rules. If a player who has consistently tested negative tests positive once, he can have two tests the morning of the positive test: a point-of-care (POC) instant test and a regular test. If both come back negative, he resumes his regular role with the team. That would take no more than 24 hours, and perhaps less.
The upshot: Say a player who had been consistently negative tests positive on the Friday before a game. The team gets the negative result Saturday morning. The player would get a point-of-care test and another regular test that morning. If the POC test is negative, and the regular test comes back negative sometime before the game, this player can play in his Sunday game. Because players are likely to be tested either daily or three-plus times during the week, a false positive (the regular NFL tests are believed to be better than 95-percent accurate) without a POC test could knock a player testing positive on Saturday out of the game. This way, if he’s clean, he plays. The POC test doesn’t need to go to a lab; results are known within 30 minutes. The regular test would still have to go to a lab, and in most cases, the team would have the result back early the next morning.
Lots of team execs and coaches want the POC test to be used now. As Mike Florio reported, the POC test is thought to be 80 to 85 percent accurate. (Thus the mistake on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s POC test by the White House last week.) So the league, understandably, doesn’t want to rely on it till it’s more accurate. But it’s clear from talking to several influential people around the league, some coaches and team medical people want to see it used now, and more than in just an insurance-policy kind of way.
There could be an independent panel of football advisers for Roger Goodell on competitive COVID issues. Until now, it’s been thought that the commissioner would have to decide the fate of a game during the season if multiple players for one team—say four or five starting offensive linemen—were out after positive virus tests. After a league-run meeting Thursday with football and medical people, there is some sentiment for Goodell to use a panel of three, four or five football people not working for any team for advice on the issue. I’ve been told it could include a former coach (Tony Dungy?), a couple of former GMs/personnel people (Bill Polian, Scott Pioli, Ozzie Newsome?), a plugged-in league office person (Dawn Aponte?) and a former player (Joe Thomas, Brian Mitchell?). That’s all speculative now, but it might be sensible for Goodell to convene his COVID Cabinet at 4 p.m. Friday to consider all such competitive issues, so he could decide and inform the teams and networks involved that evening whether any action would be taken to postpone or call the game.
Daily testing could continue, regardless of the positive results in the first two weeks. Lots of team support for this on the Thursday call with the league. It makes sense to continue it, so potentially a player or staffer with the virus can’t be around a team for 24 or 36 hours before being tested.
The officials make a deal. In a deal with the league announced Sunday, the NFL officials union got significant protection for its members. Any of the 117 NFL officials has until Thursday to opt-out of the 2020. If an official opts out, that official will receive a payment of $30,000 and be assured of retaining the same job for 2021. Seems sensible. If there are many opt-outs, it may not hurt the NFL much if some or all of the major-college football leagues decide not to play this season. The NFL would have to hustle, but the league routinely has a pipeline of top college officials when the need arises for new officials in the NFL.
Quotes of the Week
“The NFL privately has a high degree of confidence that the 2020 season will be played in full, pandemic notwithstanding.”
—Mike Florio, writing in Pro Football Talk on Sunday.
“We’re playing football in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t know if any of us can say we see the end of it coming soon.”
—Houston coach Bill O’Brien.
“I don’t think it’s monumental. But certainly there are adjustments, none of which are, I would say, particularly inhibiting.”
—Patriots coach Bill Belichick, on the difference in training camp this year from a normal year.
“I have personal views that would probably not sit well with my professional occupation right now. I think I’ll just leave it like that.”
—Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, asked by Ben Standig of The Athletic how he feels about healthy players opting out of the 2020 NFL season.
I am reminded of an agent who told me recently: “You watch. Coaches won’t say it, but they’ll hold it against players who opt-out with medical reasons to do it.”
“I’m out all year so I have all this time to mentally get better, physically get better, kind of re-adjust and kind of find that flame again.”
—Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley, in an event staged for Wounded Warrior Project, on his mindset entering a season where he has chosen to opt out.
Imagine you’re Jets coach Adam Gase, and Mosley was the $87-million free-agent centerpiece of your defensive rebuild when you took over as coach in January 2019. Mosley will have played two games in his first two seasons and earned $29 million for it (with $8 million more guaranteed whether he ever plays another snap), and you read that Mosley needs to “mentally get better” and “kind of find that flame again.”
Just a hunch, but I bet Adam Gase would like to “kind of find a way to make that contract disappear.”
I covered some of this above, but think of this: When the results of the 11th day of COVID testing for the Houston Texans were reported Sunday morning, the 80 players and 100 staff members (coaches and staff who have contact with the players) all tested negative. According to a Texans spokesperson, it’s the 11th straight day of zero positives for the Texans.
Extrapolating: Of the 1,980 tests administered to players/staff through Saturday, 1,980 tests came back negative.
With Houston’s Harris County being one of the country’s COVID-19 hotspot, that is one heck of an accomplishment. Kudos, too, to the Chargers, Cardinals, Panthers, Patriots and Seahawks for not having a player test positive yet, as of Saturday.
Just another sports weekday in Pandemic America.
At 4:10 p.m. ET Wednesday, this is what you could see had you wanted to binge on sports (and had a good cable package) in the middle of the afternoon:
NHL: Tampa Bay-Boston, from Toronto . . . Arizona-Nashville, from Edmonton.
NBA: Memphis-Utah, Philadelphia-Washington, or San Antonio-Denver, from Orlando.
MLB: Yankees at Phillies, doubleheader, from Philadelphia.
We’ve gone from being starved for sports, any sports, to getting drunk on them.
Executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby, who works for Houston and lives in Houston, has a daughter named Houston. Houston, not a Houston native, was born prior to Houston hiring Easterby.
Tweets of the Week30
Prominent industry source: "I think by the end of the week the fall sports will be postponed in all conferences."
— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) August 8, 2020
Forde, of Sports Illustrated, tweeting on Saturday about the state of college football.
People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play. Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19 (1)
— Trevor Lawrence (@Trevorlawrencee) August 9, 2020
Lawrence is the Clemson quarterback. Be sure to click the tweet and read the full three-part thread.
The first few days of @chargers camp have taken some getting used to. 🤷 #HardKnocksNow pic.twitter.com/piO5NQNcvA
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) August 5, 2020
“Hard Knocks” with the Chargers and Rams debuts Tuesday night on HBO, and this was a good clip of what that might be like. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn can’t ID a trusted aide because of a mask, sunglasses and hat.
Crazy that me choosing my family’s wellbeing over a game comes with so called fans attacking and questioning me and saying I’m selfish. No you guys are selfish for thinking that football is bigger than life. Oh by the way my girl’s grandfather passed from COVID. U understand now?
— Tre'Davious White (@TakeAwayTre_) August 6, 2020
Buffalo cornerback White, as he pondered whether to opt out for the 2020 season. White chose to play.
Four summers ago I was playing town ball in rural Minnesota after posting a 7.50 ERA my freshman year of college. Last night I made my MLB debut and faced Albert Pujols. A lot can happen in four years
— Joey Gerber (@gerb_nation) August 5, 2020
Gerber, a Seattle Mariners reliever, whose major-league debut against the Angels was a 1-2-3 sixth inning Tuesday night . . . including, on a 1-1 count, getting Pujols to ground to second.
The AP's @Steve_Wine sums up 2020 baseball in one sentence.
MIAMI — Scrambling for replacements following a coronavirus outbreak, the Miami Marlins are adding a Moran, a Morin, two pitchers named Josh Smith and a former Olympic medalist in speedskating.
— David Brandt (@davidbrandtAP) August 4, 2020
Brandt is an Associated Press reporter in Phoenix.
New York City’s annual Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes cancelled for the season pic.twitter.com/wT6mrNWlyS
— Jason Calabretta (@JasonCalabretta) August 4, 2020
Calabretta, an NBC News producer, on the latest byproduct of the abject disaster that is our country’s response to the pandemic.
I got about 150 responses to my query (at email@example.com, or on Twitter) of what you’d like to read these days—heavier strict-football coverage, or coverage of football plus the COVID-related factors playing a role in the 2020 season. Thanks for the response. It was mixed, leaning slightly toward “more football please.”
Benjamin Pister, Seward, Alaska: “Football is a stress reliever from work and other aspects of life. That said, I have a hard time seeing how you could avoid talking about Covid-19 completely. It is simply having too much influence and impact on the sport. If we have a season, [Covid-19] may make things even more entertaining since I think it will make things much more unpredictable, setting aside the incredibly unfortunate fact that it means people are getting sick and potentially suffering mightily. If teams generally have a lot more third and fourth-stringers in the lineup, who knows what could happen?”
Stu Bailey, London, England: “I’m a big fan of American Football and FMIA. I’d personally like you to tweak the balance back towards pure football talk. We need some updates on the league’s preparedness, but I’d go 80/20 in favour of the pure footballing nuggets you usually dig out.”
Brad Sher, Omaha, Neb.: “You have to write about both. The COVID virus is the dominating story of a generation. It is touching everything in society and our normal lives. Besides that, write about whatever football story makes sense.”
David Nelson, Derry, Ireland: “I appreciate the importance of covering Covid-19’s impact on the league. However, even the most conscientious of us, supporters of mask-wearing and government intervention, are now at the point of exhaustion. Seeing your story with Lamar Jackson was a temporary balm amidst a wave of the almost-unavoidable Covid narrative. The players, the personalities, are often what make a sport interesting at a human level. More of this please!”
Greg Romine, Morgantown, W.Va.: “Though these are odd and tough times we are experiencing, I think we all want as much a sense of ‘normality’ as we can get right now, and that means more football coverage! Though I’m not overly confident the season will be played on-time or in-full, I look forward to your previews of the teams, as well as all the other news you are able to glean.”
David Romeral, Zaragoza, Spain: “It is not only because of football that you have a lot of readers. I think right now many of us also want to find in your columns leadership, truth, honesty, ideas, life examples (like some of the articles or books that you have recommended), both sides of a story. And bring some stories or examples from other sports from foreign countries.”
Sean Gross, Ellensburg, Wash.: “I am far more interested in all the COVID-related stuff than ‘pure football’ at this point. So please keep it up, because there is no ‘pure football’ this season.”
Jon Asher, Glorieta, N.M.: “You make the decisions, and we’ll happily follow along.”
Gary Provost: “I’d love to see more straight football coverage as has happened in years past. I am worn down by all the other coverage, most having nothing to do with football or other sports. I used to read the Denver Post (on my tablet, more recently) every morning with my coffee, but find myself avoiding it or going straight to the comics and word jumble just because I don’t want to be depressed or frustrated first thing in the morning with the craziness of the world and state of world politics. Similarly, I find myself skipping many parts of your column recently. I browse each section and if it’s COVID related, tend to skip right past it.”
Ali Ibraham: “Since the virus is going to impact whatever happens on the football field, I want to read more about it. The virus is here to stay and as long as it’s running wild across the country, it’s gonna affect everything we do.”
Don Brophy: “Continue on as you have. Social justice and Covid-19 events are camels in the tent. You would be remiss not to address them fully especially given the lack of any national plan or willpower to address eitherforcefully. How the NFL is affected by both and responds (as well as other institutions) is important considering what we can learn to do or
not to do to be successful on a wide social scale. The national government has abrogated its responsibilities in those areas so what institutions like colleges, schools, the NFL learn the hard way is critical to us to move forward successfully.”
Paul Clarke, England: “I would like to see more ‘normal’ football content. I did find the article on the Vikings’ preparation very interesting but now camps are open I just want pure football. My life has been coronavirus filed over the last 5 months. I work in the [British National Health Service] and am tested weekly. NFL coverage is my escape from all things pandemic.”
Tim, Ponce, Puerto Rico: “More football.”
Grant Weber, Buffalo: “We need football as a diversion from all of the bad things that have happened in our country this year.”
Thanks to all for writing. This week, I’m going on the road for a limited schedule of camps, and I’ll definitely keep in mind that so many of you want more football. If the opportunity to virtually embed with the Texans hadn’t come up last week, this column would have taken a different path. I don’t know where I’d have gone with it, but it likely would have been more football. I just felt the chance in such a different training-camp season to show you how a team is actually doing camp was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
10 Things I Think I Think40
1. I think that was a good first move, and the only move, Ron Rivera . . . cutting Derrius Guice when the weight of evidence suggested domestic violence by the 2018 second-round running back. With everyone looking to see how the organization would react to any domestic issues after the behavior in the organization documented by the Washington Post, the franchise did the only thing it could do when the heinous behavior Guice was accused of in Virginia—three separate accounts of battery, and one of strangulation—was made public. In this climate, it was impossible for Washington to allow the legal system to run its course. This was the right call.
2. I think these are the opt-outs whose absences will hurt their teams the most, in order:
• Dont’a Hightower, LB, New England. I get that there are three young linebackers (watch for third-rounder Anfernee Jennings of Alabama) ready for quality snaps, but Hightower is the best player who opted out this summer, a top-five defensive centerpiece in the league. Bad blow.
• Nate Solder, T, New York Giants. He hadn’t performed at the highest level last season, but now the Giants have to throw first-round pick Andrew Thomas into the left-tackle fire on day one while scotch-taping right tackle together with mediocrity. This will affect how much the Giants do with Daniel Jones in year two.
• C.J. Mosley, LB, New York Jets. This one came out of the blue, and the Jets now have the double-barrel blow of losing their two best defensive players, including Jamal Adams, so soon before the season.
• Eddie Goldman, DT, Chicago. Two straight seasons of sub 4.0-yards-per-opponents-rush by the Chicago D, and Goldman was in the center of that. Unassuming but very solid.
• Ja’Wuan James, T, Denver. The best tackle on the roster leaves a hole in front of the inexperienced Drew Lock and an overall neophyte skill group on offense. This puts more pressure on the other starting tackle, Garett Bolles, who has significantly underachieved.
3. I think the NFL’s fortunate that not one big offensive star opted out—and zero quarterbacks.
4. I think it’s cool The Rock (among other investors) bought the XFL. Kudos to them. For the sake of cities that were loving the XFL, like St. Louis, and for the players chasing the dream, I truly hope it works. But spring football, kicking off one week after the Super Bowl, is such an uphill climb. I’ve never been able to get into it. Two pieces of advice: Continue to embrace the cool new rules the 2020 XFL had (love the 25-second clock) and maybe even go further. And embrace smaller markets and/or markets that have been kicked to the curb by the NFL.
5. I think you need time to turn around a mammoth ship going in the wrong direction. I was reminded of that when a personnel man in the league who knows and respects GM Joe Douglas told me after C.J. Mosley opted out: “Good thing Joe got a six-year contract there.” You need time when taking over a franchise that had been led by three GMs (Tannenbaum, Idzik, Maccagnan) in seven years.
A month ago, the Jets’ three best players were, in some order, Jamal Adams, Sam Darnold and C.J. Mosley. Adams shot his way out of town, Mosley opted out to the shock of many in the organization, and Darnold will need to get very good very fast (and he’ll need a good year from Le’Veon Bell) for the Jets to avoid the AFC East basement for the fourth time in the last five years. For now, the Jets have a golden ticket in the 2021 draft (five picks in the first three rounds) and have to hope Douglas’ renowned personnel acumen can rebuild a roster with a terrible pedigree.
The reason the organization has to be solidly behind Douglas for at least the next three years can be seen below. I looked at the nine teams in the NFL that for the last eight years have had either the same coach, same GM or both, and I examined two categories on those nine teams: how many draft picks/undrafted college free agents/players acquired in trade have been on each team since 2015 or before (including any who might have opted out due to COVID concerns this year), and how many wins (including playoffs) that each of those nine teams have had since 2016. Then I compared those numbers to the Jets’ numbers in that time. The record shows, in most cases, that stability is smart.
6. I think, of course, it’s every player’s right to opt out. I have no idea what led to Giants cornerback Sam Beal opting out, and whatever the reason, it’s all good. But this is a draft pick the Giants would love to have back. They used a third-round pick on him in the 2018 Supplemental Draft. Beal was hurt his entire rookie year (shoulder) and most of last year (hamstring; missed 10 games). That pick would have been the 71st pick in the ’19 draft—just before Devin Singletary, Chase Winovich and Terry McLaurin got drafted.
7. I think, speaking of prime draft picks the Giants would love to have back, the news wasn’t good on Friday for Deandre Baker, the 2019 first-round pick who didn’t play well as a rookie . . . and then things really got bad. He was charged in Florida with four counts of robbery with a firearm from a spring incident at a party. If Baker is found guilty, the mandatory minimum sentence in Florida for a crime committed with a firearm is 10 years. So in the last two weeks, that’s two of the Giants’ top three corners, theoretically, plus their starting left tackle (Nate Solder, opt-out) and former Pro Bowl kicker (Aldrick Rosas, cut) gone. Poof.
8. I think I have one word for all of you who, for some reason on Twitter and in your email to me, think I hate sports or hate football or want football to shut down period or to shut down because of COVID-19: fiction.
9. I think for all of you investigators out there, I’d like you to go back into my columns for the last 25 months, since I’ve worked full-time for NBC Sports. Go back and find examples of me hating football, or wishing football would not be played. Here is my archive. Now, reporting on what might happen because of the virus does not count. I’ve done a lot of that—because it is what is happening at the highest levels of football. There was a big call on Thursday with top league and club officials discussing alternatives about testing and how to handle scenarios with multiple players on a team out with the virus in a game week. I’ve reported on things like that for months. Regarding this column: If I can find a team to get a real inside view of how they’re handling football in a pandemic, I’ll do it. I’d be a fool to not do it.
One other point: I left Sports Illustrated, which has been gutted by new ownership. I went to NBC, which had a major layoff recently. Many of my friends have been let go/furloughed, whatever. Some, or much, of that is because of COVID-19. What happens if the NFL isn’t played this year? How many more people at NBC, which annually has the highest-rated TV show in the country, Sunday night football, would be let go if there is no football? Plus: I’ve covered football since 1984. I like the game. Why oh why would I not want it to be played? So please, find examples of me openly rooting for football to not be played. I’d love to see them. Let’s stop this idiotic nonsense.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. The Pro Football Hall of Fame retired two very good veteran selectors last week, Ira Miller and Vito Stellino. Over the years I’ve disagreed with them on some candidates, but I’ve admired very much their ability to stand their ground and argue their hearts. It’s tough in that room sometimes, picking Hall of Famers, when you’ve got to make calls on the very best players and coaches and contributors ever. Calls are tough. I admired Miller and Stellino because they never shied away from speaking the negatives—which sometimes you just have to do. I’ll miss both of them.
b. In the meantime, welcome to new selectors Bill Polian and Lisa Salters. I know Polian and know he’ll work hard and be an asset. I do not know Salters but I’m sure she’ll be excellent too.
c. Speaking of the Hall, interesting change in the voting rules: We’ll be asked now to vote for no more than five of 15 modern-era finalists, one coach, one senior candidate and one contributor. My two cents: I’d rather have more spots for seniors. That pool is far deeper than coaches and contributors, in my opinion.
d. Football Story of the Week: by Ben Shpigel of the New York Times on why NFL players opted out. Wrote Shpigel:
“Half of the players who opted out are offensive and defensive linemen, who are in closest contact with other players during practices and games. Leo Koloamatangi, an offensive lineman on the Jets who opted out, said he was resigned to contracting the virus had he chosen to play. ‘Where I play, I’m literally bear-hugging another creature on the other side of the ball every single play,’ Koloamatangi, 26, said in an interview. If that guy has any symptoms, I’m going to get them.’ He added, ‘For myself, I couldn’t take those chances.’”
e. Linguistic Story of the Week: Deanna Pan of the Boston Globe. So interesting. Wrote Pan:
“‘Sold down the river,’ an idiomatic expression deployed to communicate betrayal . . . alludes to the practice of selling and transporting enslaved Africans down the Mississippi or Ohio rivers to plantations in the deep South, where conditions were notoriously brutal. Planters in states like Virginia and Kentucky often exploited enslaved people’s fears of being separated from their families and sold further south to quell insubordination and resistance. American English is riddled with words and phrases with racist origins or undertones. Since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the flurry of protests his and other Black Americans’ deaths have inspired, a growing number of public and private institutions are reevaluating their reliance on language with racist connotations or history.”
f. Now, Pan writes, those phrases are endangered, and rightfully so.
g. Last week, in my mail, I headlined a letter, “we should be slaves to the almighty pigskin.” And an old friend of mine from Kansas City, Randy Covitz, called me on it. Correctly. I’ll think more about that in the future.
h. Obit of the Week: Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post on the death of a former Yankee good guy from the bad old days, Horace Clarke.
i. College Student Email of the Week: From University of Florida student Zach Cohen, whose sports media dreams—like many college dreams in the pandemic—have taken a big hit:
I’ve ingrained your column into my weekly routine for a few years now—I even began writing my own weekly column because of yours. Ironically, out of all the times I’ve read your column, the section that hit me the hardest wasn’t written by you. It was written by Caleb Farley. I’m not a D1 athlete with an NFL future ahead of me, but I think I—and millions of students around the country—can relate to Farley’s struggle.
Farley had to make a tough sacrifice. His sacrifice embodies the countless sacrifices that students are about to make—whether they’re also an athlete or not. Every student is about to lose some combination of prime education, job/internship opportunities, time with friends and loved ones and other crucial aspects of college. They will have lost a part of their college experience. It’s a terrible time to be a student, especially in college. For me, these changes mean I’ve lost almost everything I loved about college. I know I’m lucky to mostly just be facing issues like lost social opportunities and play-by-play gigs, but it’s still depressing.
I hope more light is shed on the struggles that college students are facing, but here are two examples I can give you. My brother will join me at UF this year, and he has no idea what to expect. He’ll be joined by another friend who, after enrolling at a school across the country, switched his decision last month due to poor communication and guidelines from that school. Besides, why pay $50,000 to just take classes online? ($50,000?! Some colleges clearly don’t care that much about their students.)
Change of this magnitude has seemed unbearable at times. Don’t get me wrong, these changes are beyond necessary. Safety is of paramount importance, even though it means mass personal sacrifices from students. Yet, a feeling of hope still sits with me. I’m confident that facing the loss of a “normal” semester in college, this generation can make the best out of this unprecedented situation. We can help mitigate the depressing times by making the most out of today. COVID-19 may strip us of our college experience, but that doesn’t mean it can strip us of our inner drive, our hard work and our fun.
I hope everyone makes the best out of this damaged year. It sure seems like Caleb Farley will.
j. Having college experiences wrecked might seem a first-world problem to many, and it’s not life and death. But it’s just another way this pandemic is wreaking havoc on lives everywhere.
k. Sal Paolantonio! A quarter-century at ESPN! The man! The absolute man! Here’s to another 25 years, Sal.
l. I have never seen this before: the Miami Marlins, beginning Sept. 10, will have a 15-game homestand . . . in 11 days.
m. Four doubleheaders.
n. Including a five-day, seven-game series against the Phillies. I feel sure there will never be a seven-game interleague series again, and probably never again a seven-game regular-season series, period.
o. Speaking of interesting baseball notes: The New York Mets starting lineup on SNY Friday evening, prior to the game against Miami, was sponsored by Send In the Clowns, a New York-area party-planning company.
p. I’m serious. That is not the kind of thing one makes up. With the Mets floundering in last place in the National League East, Send In The Clowns sent them into battle against those pesky Marlins. Friday’s final in Queens: Miami 4, Send In The Clowns 3.
q. The Marlins made 24 roster moves early in the week, then went on a 96-game winning streak. Baseball is a funny game.
r. Working in the home office Friday afternoon, hockey on in the background . . . I just thought: How crazy is it that Nashville and Arizona are playing a playoff elimination game in the middle of the afternoon, in Edmonton?
s. News Item: 36 crew members, four passengers tested positive on a cruise, on a Norwegian Cruise Liner. Seriously? People are taking cruises in the middle of this? When cruises are petri dishes?
t. The human race. Crazy.
u. I wonder if, when Joe Biden goes to his Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del., and gets down on his knees in the pew, he knows that he is against God and hates God. Seems odd that a man who is a practicing Catholic is against God and hates God, but if the president of the United States says Biden is against God and hates God, well, it must be true that Biden is against God and hates God. Because President Trump said it, and we know President Trump would never lie.
v. I love the Post Office. I think it’s amazing that, for 55 cents, I can mail a card Monday afternoon in Brooklyn to my grandson or granddaughter in San Francisco, and most often, it is in his or her hands by dinnertime Thursday—and occasionally Wednesday. I marvel at that. But warts are happening. Sixteen days ago, I mailed tax payments to the IRS and New York State; never arrived, as of Friday. Someone in midtown Manhattan mailed me a book Monday, first-class mail; as of Saturday night, it hadn’t arrived. I have not spent much time investigating whether there is anything truly wrong with my mail delivery, mostly because there are other things at this time of year that occupy my time. But I am dying to know why, every so often, I hear the president ripping the Post Office. For God’s sake, of all the things in this world to criticize and malign, why oh why is the White House so ticked off at the Post Office? The Post Office is good, for crying out loud. Mail is good. Junk mail is junk, but that’s okay. We need the mail. Freddy King needs his grandfather’s nonsensical ramblings—and if the price to send some of those 3,000 miles goes up to 85 cents, I’ll pay it. I’ll pay two bucks. It’s worth it.
w. Can we please get on with some sort of sane life here?
x. Do we want a president who invites golfers/fans into press conference to jeer reporters so they have to shout above the jeering to be heard?
z. The only ruling: a four-base error. Which the official scorer indeed ruled Sunday in Texas.
The Adieu Haiku
Memo to Texans:
Share your secrets re testing.
Perfect game going.