TAMPA, Fla. -- As the rate of COVID-19 infections in the state of Florida approaches 500,000 this week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are adjusting to a new normal in the hopes a full 16-game regular season can be played.
But their biggest obstacle won’t be immersing Brady into coach Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” offense at the age of 43. Just like the 31 other NFL teams that reported to training camp last week, it will be keeping themselves and their families safe from the coronavirus pandemic that has infected nearly five million people and claimed more than 154,000 lives in the U.S., and doing so without the safe confines of an NBA bubble or the NHL’s hub cities, with bigger roster sizes and more physical contact.
“There’s going to be risk involved because you can’t social distance playing football,” said tight end Cameron Brate, who contracted the coronavirus this summer and has since recovered. “You’re tackling, you’re blocking, you’re sweating and spitting on each other, whatever. There’s just a lot going on in the game of football.”
They’ve already seen what can go wrong with another Florida professional sports team playing in a hot spot. The Miami Marlins, who have 21 infected players and staff members, had to postpone more than a week of games.
“There are so many unknowns with the virus," Brate said, "and obviously paying attention to what’s happening in baseball with the Marlins -- there could be a case like that with an NFL team, and I don’t know if an NFL team would be able to play a game if a third of the team tested positive the Thursday or Saturday before a game."
But Arians believes the NFL -- which has daily testing and a designated infection control officer strictly enforcing protocols -- can safely operate.
“It’s going to [take] coaches, players and staff being smart outside the building,” Arians said. “Nobody is going to get sick over here because everybody’s got a negative test that’s in the building, so you’re going to get sick somewhere else. We’ve just got to have a lot of discipline this year and I have a lot of confidence we’ll get it done.
“Our travel -- as far as what baseball’s going through -- is totally different than what they’re doing. Baseball’s got to travel to the cities and stay a lot longer than we do. We’re in and out. There won’t be any going out to restaurants and that type of thing. We’ll try to sanitize the hotel that we’re at as best we can, and the visiting locker room. Then, just get back on the plane and come home.”
Some NFL teams are considering traveling the day of the game, to avoid staying in hotels, to minimize risk.
NFL players and coaches will face major discipline if they are found to have engaged in what the NFL and NFLPA deem “reckless behavior,” which includes using rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft or going to restaurants while on the road. Players and team employees who travel are permitted to use only team transportation.
But even getting to the practice field each day -- not only for players and coaches, but those who work inside NFL facilities -- involves clearing major hurdles.
Before players can even enter the building, they must take a prescreening survey and undergo a test in a trailer adjacent to the facility. A nurse swabs each nostril. Players then go to a website, where they can retrieve their results from the previous 24 hours.
If a player tests positive, he and the team are immediately notified and he must quarantine. Not only is that player then placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but other players who had contact with that player, even if they tested negative on their most recent test, are placed on that list.
Running backs Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Aca’Cedric Ware and Raymond Calais were all placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list last week (the team does not distinguish which players tested positive and which players were merely in close contact). The team immediately signed veteran running back LeSean McCoy.
In camp, the Bucs will have the luxury of extra bodies. But during the regular season, when they have three or four running backs on the active roster, it has the potential to wipe out an entire position group for two weeks. Players who are not symptomatic must wait to return for at least five days and test negative. Symptomatic players must wait 10 days and test negative.
The facility has been totally reconfigured. The team converted the media workroom and media relations offices into meeting rooms. The media relations department has moved into the sales staff offices, and media has been moved into a separate air-conditioned trailer adjacent to the facility so that the 10 Tier 2 media members can still have a space to work after practice.
There will be no open locker room, which is where most interviews are conducted for 45 minutes daily. All interviews will be conducted via Zoom calls, with no face-to-face contact permitted between media and players for the 2020 season.
“Outside of actually playing, the facility is probably one of the safest spots you can really be in,” said Brate, who was lectured when he attempted to bring his goldendoodle, Archie, previously a fixture at the facility, inside the gates on reporting date.
“The way they’ve reconfigured everything and the protocols they put in place, guys should feel as safe as they possibly could when they’re in the building.”
Lockers have been set up inside the indoor facility for social distancing purposes. Players now use outdoor showers.
“There’s people checking in on the locker room to make sure people are wearing their masks,” Brate said. “The lunch table -- that’s something I loved -- catching up with the guys. A group of eight guys talking during training camp is some of the best stuff to really learn your teammates. They removed six of those chairs, so now there’s two chairs per table.”
“The only time we’re really all going to be together is when we’re actually practicing. It is going to be weird in that regard, especially with some big additions that we’ve made, trying to get everyone on the same page to feel like one cohesive unit. It’s going to be a challenge for every team across the board. I think it’s going to take a little bit of an adjustment period, but we should be fine with it.”
They also now have an outdoor weight room for the same reason. Players and coaches wear masks at all times, including in the weight room, even outside when the heat index is over 100 degrees. Rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs, whom the Bucs selected in the first round of the NFL draft, tries to see the positives in it.
“That’s a big change. Working out with a mask is pretty tough, but it’s what we’ve got to do, so that’s part of our job,” Wirfs said. “It’s been a big change. When I was running and lifting these past couple of months, I wasn’t wearing one. Now, putting a mask on and doing all that training is pretty tough. I think in the long run it might help even more and help you get in better shape.”
"We've just got to have a lot of discipline this year and I have a lot of confidence we'll get it done." Bruce Arians
Players and coaches must also wear electronic tracking devices in plastic lanyards around their necks. They’re given a designation of Tier 1 (the highest clearance) or Tier 2. The chips must be worn at all times, and at the end of the day they are recharged (each charge lasts about 12 hours) and sanitized. If a Tier 1 person gets too close to a Tier 2 while in use, an alarm goes off.
“They will blink red a bunch if you’re too close to somebody,” Wirfs said. “Then, if two Tier 1 people are close to each other, it will vibrate. It’s pretty handy. I think we’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone is safe and healthy.”
“Really the only time we are going to be in close proximity to one another is going to be while we’re actually playing football,” Brate said. “Those interactions are obviously going to be inevitable, but I think the main thing is just eliminating exposure to each other when we’re not actually on the playing field.”
Arians is 67 and has survived bouts of prostate, kidney and skin cancer, and has struggled with blood pressure issues, putting him at a higher risk for complications if he contracted COVID-19.
But he believes players and coaches are safe at the facility, and that it will come down to not only players being disciplined away from their facility, but families too.
“You’ve got to be smart,” Arians said. “You’re not going to find me out at any of my favorite restaurants or bars, so you’re welcome to come over to the house. That’s about the only place I’ll be -- in the office and in the house. You’ve got to be as safe as possible. It’s going to take a lot of discipline.”