If a bubble is not a real bubble then it's not a bubble at all.
Troy Vincent, the NFL's EVP of football operations, revealed Wednesday that Saints head coach Sean Payton had raised the possibility of teams "bubbling" in the postseason to ensure an uninterrupted playoff march. The league is not ruling it out, but bubbling teams would require an agreement with the NFL Players Association, and we aren't close to that yet.
"I'm not sure that's something we could do actually legally, but the concept itself as you start driving towards the championship run, the players could do it if they choose to do it — not club driven — but to create some sort of bubble, so to say," Vincent said on a conference call with reporters, highlighting that players can decide for themselves whether to band together at a hotel but can't be forced into it right now.
"We didn't use that term, 'bubble,' but that secure environment that make sure that there's no risk of outside as the teams start driving toward that championship run," Vincent said. "The concept was discussed on the last competition committee call. We did tell coach Payton that it was something that both [chief NFL medical doctor Allen] Sills and the team would explore. Those are things, we just have to be flexible. Is it something that we're considering? All things are on the table, frankly, at this juncture during this fluid environment."
First of all, and to repeat yet again, if you aren't doing a bubble like the NBA or NHL, then you aren't doing a bubble. A large majority of the Cowboys are staying at a nearby hotel during training camp, but if the whole team isn't doing it then it's not a true bubble.
The number of people associated with a football team isn't necessarily a problem. There are enough hotels in major cities that can house a few teams. But if you're going to have more than two teams in one location, it's about finding practice fields that meet joint NFL-NFLPA standards. Then it's about finding weight rooms that are comparable to what NFL teams have at their own facilities. Then it's about scheduling the teams practice and workout times in an equitable way. Then it's about making sure there's enough privacy for individual teams so as to avoid any potential snooping — especially during the playoffs.
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I believe if you told players at the start of January that they had to go live in a hotel away from their families for up to six weeks in order to ensure they can get to and win Super Bowl LV, most would agree to it with very few exceptions. Whether that means quarantining all 14 playoff teams at one hub (extremely unlikely due to the logistical nightmare) or splitting them up at a few hubs (more plausible but still several logistical headaches), I believe NFL players would buy in.
If we as a country are at a point in January where this is the only way to have a postseason and ensure a legitimate champion, then so be it. But I also believe that top seeded teams and the respective team owners would balk at going away from home for both the on-field and financial advantages. Many teams are not ruling out having fans at games later this season, and team owners will not want to pass up postseason gate revenue, even if 20 percent of the stands can be filled.
There are a lot of kinks to work out in a postseason bubble format in terms of money and competitive (dis)advantages.
Washington's eye on the prize
Before I begin this week's notebook I want to say my thoughts are with Ron Rivera, his wife Stephanie and their children Christopher and Courtney in light of the recent news that Ron is battling squamous cell carcinoma. Ron's as good a person as there is in this business, and I'm heartened to know this was caught early and is very treatable. Keep pounding, Ron.
New Washington Football Team president Jason Wright has his sights set on the near-term, as we discussed in this piece earlier this week. But he has a keen eye focused on a sparkly new stadium for his franchise.
"We have a chance to innovate the fan experience with new disruptive technologies," Wright told me. "We don't have fans in the stands this year … alright, well, let's prepare and experiment for next year. And eventually we're going to build a new stadium. And that is a great opportunity not just for the fan experience and the productivity of the club, but also it's an economic development engine for the region."
The WFT has been in FedEx Field since 1997, and team owner Dan Snyder has publicly discussed finding a site for a new stadium since at least 2014. DMV lawmakers made it abundantly clear they wouldn't help until the team changed its name, and this summer's retirement of the name clears the path for Washington.
The obvious site is RFK Stadium, which is scheduled to be razed next year. The land is owned by the National Park Service, and it makes ample sense to place a state-of-the-art stadium in that spot. A new domed stadium in the mid-Atlantic would all but guarantee a Super Bowl and Final Four for the franchise.
I asked Wright what sort of bridges need to be (re)built or fences mended in order for the stadium talks to pick up steam. Wright, who starts in his new role Monday, also wants to know.
"That's a good question that I don't yet know the answer to, my friend," Wright says. "I guess I'll find out over the coming weeks. I'm eager to dive into that. There are some near-term priorities around establishing the culture that earn us the right to have those conversations in the first place, frankly. And that's where the near-term focus has to be.
"But stadiums are complex beasts and they take time. Wherever those conversations are, they need to be picked up quickly and I'll be on top of that."
College coaches with a leg up?
During the pandemic I've heard a lot of people saying NFL coaches with college experience will have an advantage during training camp and into the start of the season because they don't play preseason games at that level.
I think that's only partially true. I asked first-year Panthers head coach Matt Rhule how his staff will adjust to the speed of NFL games and he had an insightful answer.
"We try to do a lot of game-like situations. But it's never really the game until you get to the game," Rhule said. "For those of us coming from college football, [offensive coordinator] Joe [Brady] from LSU, [defensive coordinator] Phil [Snow] and me from Baylor, we're used to that game where plays are coming in every 15 seconds and there is constant tempo and it's chaotic. Getting back to getting back in a huddle is kind of fun for me. It's what I grew up with. I think we'll be OK with it. The biggest thing we can do is create as many game-like situations as possible so that when we get to the games we're prepared for them."
On the other side of the country, Pete Carroll's Seahawks are going to hold in-stadium scrimmages on Aug. 22 and 26 to simulate exhibitions as best they can. Plenty of other NFL teams are doing the same thing, but I highlight the Seahawks because of Carroll's history as a title-winning coach at Southern Cal.
"This is just a unique time. There's nothing like it. We're going to put together a camp that's going to take us right to the opening game and away we go," Carroll said earlier this month. "…I don't feel uncomfortable with that because we just came out of the nine years at SC where your first game you're playing for the national championship, because if you don't win that game you may be out of it. It's the same thought and the same approach."
Here's the thing about that, though: The Seahawks are 5-5 in Week 1 games since Carroll arrived, including a dismal 1-5 on the road. Seattle opens the 2020 season in Atlanta on Sept. 13.
First-year Giants head coach Joe Judge made waves this week when reporters saw players running laps during practice. Judge also had stripped the names off the back of the practice jerseys after he had spent the first few months of his tenure refusing to call a Giant by his name publicly.
Judge immediately drew criticism, most of which centered on being yet another Belichick disciple trying too hard to be Belichick. This sort of stuff doesn't work in the NFL, according to many.
And they may be right! One thing I've learned is that there's no one-size-fits-all for "culture change" in the NFL. Sean McDermott got to Buffalo in 2017 and took out the pool table, air hockey table and video games and the Bills immediately made the playoffs for the first time this century. Meanwhile the Saints, winners of the NFC South the past three seasons, play video games all the time in the locker room. Ron Rivera just got rid of the ping pong table in Washington's locker room.
Anyway, a coach texted me earlier this week about Judge's way of coaching with a little perspective. He had tried some similar tactics with positive results, and his advice was "the sooner they know your intent it helps them find their way."
Players in the trenches have been struggling with the first iteration of Oakley's face-shield.
I'm told mostly offensive and defensive linemen have been complaining not only about ventilation with the shield but how it smacks up against their jaw during contact. Players who face contact on a snap-by-snap basis have shared this feedback with the league.
An updated version of the Oakley shields should be in the players' hands in a week or two, Sills said on a conference call. You should expect to see some players use the shield and others use neck gaiters. Face coverings will not be required for players during games, but encouraged on the sideline.
Costly cuts in Carolina
Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper has a net worth of $13 billion and is ranked as the 101st richest person in the world, according to Forbes. He is the richest team owner in the NFL, and he has promised to pour resources into a franchise with a below-.500 record while adding a pro soccer team to his portfolio.
Earlier this week, the Panthers furloughed or laid off 20 employees, according to sources and first reported by the Charlotte Observer. I'm told 15-to-16 people were furloughed through Jan. 31 and three-to-four people were outright fired, and another source indicated the number of cuts could be as high as 24. Those cuts were pandemic-related, and they follow 10 layoffs from this spring that were characterized as performance-based. Two team sources told me independently that morale inside the building is, as has been, low.
These latest cuts focus mostly on game-day operations: entertainment, stadium operations, community relations and ticketing. Even though the Panthers still haven't announced their plans for fans with just more than three weeks before the Raiders come to town for Week 1, it seems like (at least) September home games will be played in front of no one.
I'm not saying Tepper has to make his employees charity cases. Indeed, he has every right to hire and fire who he pleases. He paid $2.275 billion in cash for the franchise in 2018, after all. But he took over a team that was stuck in the 20th century on the business side and promised to transform it. Then he added a second pro sports franchise — whose start has since been delayed until 2022 — and had many staffers working double duty for months. Tepper got $115 million in tax breaks to build his team headquarters across the border in South Carolina and later he displaced 380 PSL holders when he turned seven rows of premium seats into bunker suites. He added staff and planned to add more before the world stood still in March. And now about 30 of his people are without jobs and half are still getting benefits (while still paying their premiums.)
Tepper has been charitable in the past, and he's been a good steward of his new Carolinas community in the two years since taking over. But I haven't heard of 30 cuts at any other NFL team in the past six months, and it stands out that so many have happened with the team whose owner has more wealth than all but 100 people in the world.