The NFL’s last “normal” moment was the annual scouting combine, held from Feb. 23 to March 2 in Indianapolis.
Amid the routine of that week, league executives focused on finalizing a new collective bargaining agreement with players. Teams locked in on scouting college players and setting plans for the start of free agency. The global spread of COVID-19 had just started to seep into the national consciousness, but few had conceived a future in which the virus could impact a regular season that was six months away.
And yet here we are. The NFL is set to open Thursday night amid a set of coronavirus pandemic protocols that have transformed its operations at every level. You know about the major changes: a virtual offseason program, no preseason games and a softened training camp that centered on preventing soft-tissue injuries after months of football inactivity.
What follows are 15 of the smaller changes, from the slightly weird to the completely wacky, that you might never have imagined would be necessary to safely play football. All of these protocols are subject to change but will be in effect at least for Week 1.
Electronic whistles are in
The NFL and its teams have ordered hundreds of handheld, push-button whistles that eliminate the potential spread of virus droplets from traditional breath-activated models. Some coaches are using them in practice, and officials have been given the option to wear them during games (or use regular whistles under their mandatory masks).
The electronic version, built by Fox 40 whistles for train conductors and lifeguards, works off a battery. It fits into the palm of a hand, is triggered by a thumb depression and emits a sound of about 100 decibels. Fox 40 will release a new model later this fall that will be water resistant and feature a rechargeable battery.
Cheerleaders and mascots are out
As part of their effort to minimize exposure to players and coaches during games, the NFL and NFL Referees Association have pushed most nonessential people off the field. That includes cheerleaders and mascots. Some teams will find other ways to incorporate them into team activities. The 49ers’ cheerleaders, for example, will perform a routine at the plaza entrances of Levi’s Stadium during the team’s online pregame shows, according to SFGate.com.
Jersey swaps and handshakes are gone, too
This sentence from the NFL’s gameday protocols does a lot of work: “Home and away teams are prohibited from post-game interactions within 6 feet of one another.” That covers handshakes as well as the relatively new tradition of players signing and exchanging jerseys for their personal collections.
Coin toss entourages are … smaller
Only one player per team can participate in the pregame coin toss, and everyone involved must be wearing a face covering. (Editorial comment: Would anyone care if the coin toss were eliminated entirely? What if the home team just always “wins” and chooses whether to kick, defer or receive to start the game, and then the visiting team “wins” in overtime, if needed?)
‘Sideline’ reporters will need binoculars
Like cheerleaders and mascots, television sideline reporters won’t have access to their normal spot on the field. Alternate plans vary between networks and stadiums.
Michele Tafoya, the veteran Sunday Night Football reporter for NBC, said she will be positioned in the first row of the stands, an area production crews will call “the moat.” Tafoya will conduct interviews either by phone or remote cameras, and she said: “I’m bringing binoculars to the game for the first time in my career. I want to be able to see things up close like I usually can.”
Real (fake) crowd noise
Only five of the league’s 32 teams are allowing fans to their first home games, and even then, capacities will be significantly limited. To minimize the awkwardness of (mostly) empty stadiums, teams can play previously recorded crowd noise of up to 70 decibels from the public address system. Meanwhile, broadcasters will use sound curated by NFL Films to smooth out the television product. The NFL hired local audio operators to run a sound board that can transition from five levels of fan intensity depending on the game situation. The tracks also include individualized team chants such as the New York Jets‘ “J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets Jets.”
No bottle sharing
Hydration will be much more organized in 2020. Instead of grabbing the nearest cup or Gatorade bottle, or asking an athletic trainer to squeeze the bottle for them, players will need to find their own designated bottle or drink from a disposable cup. They’ll also have access to a mouthguard cleaning solution if anything goes awry.
Skip the buffet
Like the rest of the country, NFL players and coaches can’t graze the buffet any longer — including at their team facilities. And if they’re going to eat a postgame meal, it must be individually packaged with disposable utensils. Third-party meal delivery is permitted, as long as its delivery is contactless.
Take the stairs
Players will be required to stay in the team hotel the night before games, whether they are the home or visiting team. Team travel coordinators have been instructed to request room blocks on lower floors so that everyone — players, coaches and staffers — can avoid elevators whenever possible.
Cleanliness is next to …
In team facilities, the NFL is requiring all “high-touch” surfaces to be cleaned at least three times a day with solution that qualifies as hospital-grade EPA List N disinfectant. “High touch” is defined as any surface that is in an area accessible to multiple members of the party. That includes tables, desks, countertops, door and drawer handles, cabinet handles, light switches, phones, television remote controls, handrails, toilets, sink handles, touch screens and elevator buttons.
One thing the NFL hasn’t changed this summer: Its teams’ fanatical desire to cloak personnel strategy. So while we don’t have many details, we do know that some coaches have considered isolating one quarterback from the rest of the team as a hedge against potential breakouts. Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson is definitely one of them. The Eagles signed veteran quarterback Josh McCown to their practice squad and will let him live in Texas during the season as an insurance policy. The cost of quarantining a practice squad quarterback surely outweighs the possibility of entering a game with one (or no) available quarterbacks.
Showering is fine … at a distance
Players may use the showers in team facilities, and are encouraged to especially after strenuous physical activity, but they must maintain a distance of 6 feet if there are multiple showers in use. From the policy: “Clubs may consider shutting off some shower heads to ensure physical distancing is maintained.” Saunas and steams rooms, however, are out. They pose “additional risk,” according to the protocol.
Gatherings limited to 15 people
Teams are prohibited from having in-person player meetings with more than 15 people present, and everyone must be distanced at least 6 feet away from each other. Anything larger must take place virtually. No more than 15 people are allowed inside a weight room unless a special exception is approved. And trips to the athletic trainers must be made by individual appointments to keep numbers down.
Two charter planes encouraged
In most years, NFL teams charter one large plane for road games. In 2020, the NFL is encouraging them to charter two in order to maintain social distance requirements. At a minimum, every member of the traveling party must have at least one seat between them. To assist, the league is allowing only 70 non-players to join each traveling party. That count includes coaches, medical officials and all other essential staff.
Private planes on standby
When on the road, teams must hold at least three empty hotel rooms near the game site to be used for any member of the traveling party who reports COVID-19 symptoms or tests positive and needs to be isolated. The NFL has also retained a private air-charter service to transport those people home without coming into contact with the rest of the team.