Sunday, January 23, 2022

NFL insider notes: What new COVID protocols will mean, plus top six Super Bowl contenders, John Madden legacy

It did not take long for the NFL and NFLPA to adopt the new CDC recommendation on length of quarantine and when infected individuals should be cleared to return to work. As expected.

In the last two weeks, NFL team officials were scrambling wildly, as the recent protocol changes between the league and the union were not lessening the load of players on the COVID restricted list; in fact, the ranks of players withheld from practice and play were soaring like never before. More than 300 in just a few weeks, and in some cases over 100 players a day. While all would be remiss in trying to predict much in this pandemic, it certainly appears that government officials, the NFL and the NFLPA are anticipating that the new five-day window for vaccinated and unvaccinated players to be eligible to return to their teams should cut down on the absences and give clubs a better handle on when to anticipate players returning.

As always, there are caveats. A symptomatic player cannot automatically return after five days, and the onus remains on individual responsibility to be honest about that information. Unvaccinated players remain subject to daily testing. But the vast majority of the league’s population will not have to test out of quarantine, though they will be required to wear a mask for the following five days, as the CDC recommends as part of its changes this week.

“It feels like an important step forward,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, during a media conference call Tuesday night.

And it is one Sills said he and his team anticipated, given what the data was already indicating among the NFL’s cohort. Sills said the NFL has been in regular contact with the CDC, sharing its metrics on how the virus was operating, and “the updated protocols are based on emerging data and emerging science,” as Sills put it. A vaccinated player could still conceivably test out of protocols in as little as 24 hours, and under five days, but based on what the league has seen thus far, “we don’t expect that to be an extremely likely event.”

Players will still have to cleared to return by a team physician, again, based on symptoms and not necessarily a negative test. After five days, the threat of spread appears to mitigate, with the virus generally clearing one’s system more quickly in this Omicron variant.

“We’re comfortable with this change because it mirrors what we’ve been seeing in our own data,” Sills said.

These changes, however, will not significantly alter the league’s daily testing load. Any player can request a test at any time, unvaccinated players must still test and the new random selection process will require players to test each week as well. High-risk close contacts must also continue to test. “There’s quite a bit of testing going on,” Sills said.

The NFL has yet to release any numbers on the number of boosted players – league sources indicated at the start of last week the number was below 5% – but Sills said the trend is going upward. At this point, the biggest takeaway for teams is that there is now a five-day window in place – any player who tested positive this week falls under the new protocols, the league said – and there should be more clarity about when clusters of players should return, while the large group of players who tested positive this month will be within the 90-day window of not requiring further testing moving forward with the idea they should be healthy from here on out.

“We expect this will assist our clubs in better managing their rosters,” said Dawn Aponte, the league’s chief administrative officer, “and more specifically increasing player availability.”

While the timing of these changes will certainly perturb some teams that felt like they were being slighted in some shape or form from the previous protocols, the overwhelming immediate reaction by teams I reached out to is that they should provide a more dependable and streamlined return-to-play process. There is no control as to when the CDC will make any COVID recommendations, and the process and science is always changing.

Perhaps, from a roster-crunch standpoint, the worst of this is over for NFL teams.

A half dozen Super Bowl contenders

How many teams are truly Super Bowl contenders? Are there a half dozen or so that look ready to run that gauntlet? In a year where so much was so muddled, it’s an interesting question to ponder with just two weeks remaining in the regular season.

It’s no surprise the Chiefs are now the Vegas favorites. They are balanced and very hot with a Super Bowl pedigree and a dynamic head coach/QB combination. They are relatively healthy and fortified and they are locking in on the top seed in the AFC. They are at the top of this list for me, with the Bucs a close second. It’s still Tom Brady, it’s still a Super Bowl roster, and while the secondary gives me some pause, you have to be really silly to bet against Brady this time of year.

I don’t like the Rams‘ overall depth, but you have to love the top blue chip talent. They seem to be quite healthy and playing their best ball. They know exactly who they are and they live in 11 personnel and dare you force them out of it; most defenses can’t. Sean McVay has been to a Super Bowl and is a master tactician and motivator. Don’t discount their chances. Aaron Donald could take over the postseason.

The Packers defense is suspect and I’m not sure the calvary is coming from a health standpoint. The offensive line has issues and Aaron Rodgers‘ toe injury is a wild card. They seem to be fading a bit to me, but they could get the top seed and it’s still Rodgers. The Bills have the mix of defense and QB that can carry you to glory, and I’d lean to the Bengals — yeah, the Bengals — as the sixth team in this mix. Great balance on both sides of the ball, no expectations, can take a game over on offense. If they avoid bizarre turnovers I think they can do damage in the playoffs (assuming they get in).

Eagles‘ Wilson deserves a long look

Any prospective head coach trying to put a staff together or any team looking for a dynamic young defensive coordinator should take a long look at the Eagles’ Dennard Wilson.

Wilson is a self-made guy, a hard worker and an under-heralded gem. He didn’t move up the coaching ranks as a secondary coach because of nepotism, or some well-connected agent or the way it works too often in this league. He’s worked under some great coaches, players love him (he played in the NFL), he got a good run coaching college at the time when many of these spread concepts and RPOs were coming in vogue and what I love most about him is that unique background.

Wilson has a mix of college and pro background and he also spent four years with the Bears as a scout learning to evaluate talent and understand personnel. Honestly, every rising young coach should strive for that sort of mix. Wilson has coached DBs with the Rams and Jets and is completing his first year with the Eagles. He’s been in the NFL since 2008. He’s served as a passing game coordinator, and he’s ready for a coordinator role.

John Madden’s legacy

John Madden deserved as much credit for the rise of the NFL to the behemoth that it is today as anyone. Anyone. No one was a better ambassador and you cannot tell the story of the ascent of this league without in many ways telling it through him. But amid all of that, let’s never lose sight that he took over an iconic franchise at age 33, was out of coaching at age 42 and won a staggering 76% of his games. He could have returned to coaching in his 50s and won another 150 games, easy. Legend in all he did. RIP.

Two more coach/GM candidates to watch

  • Been a rough year for the Panthers, but the defense has held up despite getting nothing on the other side of the ball. Al Holcomb, their running backs coach, is another candidate with a distinct background and someone who should merit defensive coordinator interest. He has coached on both sides of the ball and served previously as defensive coordinator in Arizona (2018). He has been stuck on some teams short on talent and struggling for wins, but people I trust speak very highly of his work and he has coached linebackers, running backs and defensive line … 
  • Buffalo’s assistant GM Joe Schoen is going to be in demand this hiring cycle if/when GM jobs open. Teams have been keeping a close eye and he has been a part of some searches in the past. He and the Colts‘ Ed Dodds are two guys who their peers expect to be running their own teams soon enough … 

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