The NFL finally, and mercifully, has admitted that there will be no on-field work for players until the start of training camp. The news Thursday that teams may continue virtual workouts until June 26 has been expected and reported here for weeks, and the league can now publicly acknowledge all the focus is getting players and coaches safely on the field to begin training camps.
When that happens, what it looks like and what adjustments will be made are questions that will have to be answered within the next six weeks. Players (and football media) may be taking their summer vacation, but the league and players union will be hard at work collectively bargaining the plan for a return to play.
As it stands today and according to the freshly minted CBA, the Steelers and Cowboys will be the first to report to camp by July 22, followed by the Texans and Chiefs on July 25 and then the 28 other teams on July 28. Thirty teams will play four preseason games while Pittsburgh and Dallas will play five (including the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio) and there will be fans in the stands. And then 2020 NFL regular season kicks off in Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 10 and the league has a season uninterrupted by COVID-19.
Remember, as it stands today.
There are two main questions that have cropped up in recent days that I want to tackle. The first is, will training camps start on time? Secondly, will we see a reduction in preseason games?
Spoiler alert: No one, not even Roger Goodell, truly can know the answer to either of those questions right now. But here is what both the players and team owners will have to consider in the coming weeks to reach a decision.
The NFL went ahead with free agency, then the draft, then the schedule release because it had to hit its offseason dates in order to get to what really matters: a true training camp that starts on time so that the regular season can begin on time.
Because there has been no on-field work for any NFL team since Patrick Mahomes ran out the clock in Super Bowl LIV, the league is interested in getting teams to camp earlier than the July 28 start date. That, like everything in this piece, will have to be agreed to by the union. And from the league's perspective, it makes sense: Get players on the field safely to make up for lost time at OTAs and minicamp.
As noted at The MMQB though, players may balk at changing their summer plans or, in the case of well-paid veteran players, practice more for compensation far less than their salary.
One source laid it out simply for me. Why the rush? The NFL has enjoyed the enviable position of sitting back and observing how all the other sports leagues are working through COVID-19-related issues. Major League Baseball and the union can't agree on beginning play. The NBA will be quarantining its players and staging exhibitions throughout July before the start of the season at the end of the month. The NHL plans to begin training camp on July 10.
The NFL can learn from the successes and failures of these leagues in America and abroad. There can be great value in waiting that extra week or 10 days, beginning on July 28 and not making an error that would set you back.
Where trouble begins is if training camp is pushed back by any amount of time. Delaying camp would, to me, represent as many as two major issues: either there has been a national setback as it relates to the pandemic, or the NFL and NFLPA have not agreed to safety protocols for a return to play.
If there is a delay to the start of camp by any more than a few days, I find it difficult to believe the Steelers and Cowboys could take the field on Aug. 6 for the Hall of Fame Game. Extrapolate that out and we could be looking at a reduction in preseason games in order to start the regular season on time.
And before you say, 'Who cares about the preseason, anyway?' there are plenty of factors to consider.
According to NFL Network, the league and union are discussing shortening the preseason from four games to two. It would allow for a longer "ramp-up" time and help medical professional nail down the particulars for game-day protocol.
Yes, the NFL will soon reduce the number of preseason games from four to three. But that will only happen when the league increases the regular season from 16 games to 17.
For all the hemming and hawing about how much people can't stand watching exhibitions, they still do. The ratings are there. And in a year where we've been deprived of sports, I would imagine the return of live professional football would do quite well on the ole boob tube.
Now and in the future, team owners are guaranteed 10 games in their home stadium. As I've written extensively, each home game represents around $7-10 million in gate receipts alone (with home regular-season contests drawing even more dollars). Owners are not hurrying to throw that money out the door because people complain about watching preseason football on Twitter.
Cutting preseason games in half will be a much easier pill to swallow for team owners if attendance will be low or nil due to COVID-19. At present, we are trending in a direction where most NFL stadiums would be operating at limited capacity. Less revenue from gate receipts minus expenses for staffing an event at the stadium wouldn't be so bad for owners.
But the local TV contracts and ad money from those deals would be a problem. Add in the fact that you'd have to make your in-stadium sponsors whole somehow from the game reduction and each team owner could realistically be looking at a loss in the low-eight figures. That is not insignificant money when multiplied across 32 teams and split nearly in half with the players for the 2021 salary cap, which already figures to take a hit based off the current formula.
In recent years, more coaches have come around to the thinking that they get more out of controlled scrimmages against upcoming preseason opponents than the exhibition itself. Coaches in many cases have started resting starters earlier and more often in the exhibition after getting two or so days of good work on the practice fields between teams.
But the COVID-19 realities of the world have put a pause on those scrimmages. Teams will now be training at their own facilities and, for the time being at least, only travel for the away exhibitions. An exhibition reduction by two games would represent a loss of meaningful reps both for the veterans who need to get into game shape and the down-the-roster players looking to get film and make an impact.
It will also mean fewer chances for first-year coaching staffs to get acclimated to their new teams. Already they've been limited to Zoom meetings for the entire offseason.
Fewer "meaningless" games would certainly mean fewer meaningless injuries. But even with the hope of increased "ramp-up" time, a loss of exhibition and scrimmage reps would likely mean players won't be as prepared for Week 1. Soft tissue injuries could spike in September.
Take away two exhibitions, though, and you reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission with players. Each team would save one plane trip to a different stadium facing a group of (tested) 90 men plus coaches and support staff. Plus, host teams won't have to re-configure the visitor locker room — and other parts of the stadium — to accommodate a traveling team while respecting the six feet of physical distance required by the league's protocols.
The preseason reduction may very well happen and be necessary from practical and safety perspectives. But that reduction will also have impacts both on the field and in the wallets of all involved.