The pandemic couldn’t cease the N.F.L. Even as transmission charges surged and staff services closed, as coaching camp was restructured and the preseason deserted and locker rooms reconfigured to decrease the unfold of coronavirus, the league pledged that the season would begin as scheduled, on Sept. 10.
And it is going to, after the most difficult low season in N.F.L. historical past, earlier than a decreased variety of followers on Thursday night time at Arrowhead Stadium, the place the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs will host the Houston Texans.
Whether the season ends as scheduled, in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 7, 2021, with Super Bowl LV — or is interrupted, by a deluge of constructive checks or participant boycotts in protest of racial injustice — stays a thriller. The reply relies upon drastically on gamers’ and coaches’ particular person self-discipline, the caprices of a viral scourge and the energy wielded by gamers, who’re utilizing it, throughout all sports activities, like by no means earlier than.
The sport will nonetheless be contested on a area measuring 360 by 160 ft, and the soccer is, identical as ever, made from cowhide, however a lot else about how soccer is performed this season will look, really feel and sound unusual and disorienting. Here is a sampling of what that entails:
Will gamers be examined for the coronavirus?
Building off the encouraging success of coaching camp, when day by day testing confirmed the diligence of gamers and staff personnel in adhering to protocols, the N.F.L. and its gamers’ union agreed to proceed to check gamers and important staff day by day of the week, besides the day of the sport.
Final testing will happen the day earlier than the sport, and if the outcomes from that check are inconclusive the participant will endure additional testing. They can be permitted to play so long as these outcomes come again as detrimental two hours earlier than kickoff.
In the league’s newest spherical of testing, which ran from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, over 44,000 checks got to eight,349 gamers and staff personnel. Only eight new constructive circumstances — one amongst gamers — have been confirmed.
The problem, now, although, can be sustaining a protected setting and the identical vigilance over decreasing publicity threat as soon as video games start, as groups journey and improve potential for contact. Anyone who checks constructive can be remoted and barred from visiting staff services or having direct contact with gamers or personnel.
“The big thing for us is to not get comfortable,” N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell instructed reporters on a convention name final week. “We’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty. We really have to adapt to the medical community. We will look at further changes to testing as we get into the season. We’re continuing to be vigilant, flexible and adaptable.”
Will groups be capable to exchange gamers who turn into contaminated?
Accounting for the probability that gamers will contract the virus, the N.F.L. provided a number of roster concessions. It expanded game-day rosters to 55, from 53, with the additional two spots taken from the observe squad — a rule certain to be exploited, because it has been by New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, grasp of the loophole, who opted to not maintain a kicker on his energetic roster ostensibly as a result of he can merely signal one to the observe squad and promote him earlier than Sunday’s sport.
The league created a definite reserve record for gamers who both check constructive or who come into contact with somebody who has. It additionally elevated rosters on observe squads — the auxiliary unit usually full of youthful gamers — to 16 from 12, with six slots allotted for veterans.
And in a transfer that ought to delight coaches and executives who love churning the backside of their rosters, groups at the moment are permitted to guard 4 observe squad gamers each week who can’t be signed to a different staff’s energetic roster. These adjustments will, in all probability, inhibit groups from trying past gamers already cleared to be in their buildings, contemplating the testing protocols new gamers should endure.
Still, groups are getting ready for innumerable conditions. In case an outbreak hits the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback room, they are going to be grateful to have stashed on their observe squad Josh McCown, 41, who will attend digital conferences however proceed to reside in Texas.
Will gamers and coaches put on masks?
All coaches and sideline personnel are mandated to put on masks, gaiters or face shields throughout video games, whereas gamers who aren’t usually substituting are “strongly encouraged” to take action. All gamers at Buffalo and San Francisco should put on them, in accordance with state and native laws. For the coin toss, lengthy a well-attended affair, just one masked participant will symbolize every staff.
What about the sidelines?
In most stadiums, the expertise can be stripped to its essence: two groups enjoying soccer. Only six groups are allowing followers in Week 1, all at diminished capacities. To fight uncomfortable silences, groups can be permitted to play league-issued canned crowd noise, explicit to their stadium, from the public deal with system at a degree of 70 decibels — the hum, roughly, of a traditional dialog.
The sideline itself, historically filled with all kinds of ancillary personnel, will seem, by comparability, barren, with no cheerleaders, mascots or sideline reporters allowed. The ban extends to pregame pageantry, as effectively, with no reside performances of the nationwide anthem permitted inside stadiums.
How will the league deal with protests towards racial inequality?
The N.F.L. is primarily populated by Black gamers however has few Black coaches, homeowners and executives. For years the league has didn’t heed the issues of its Black constituency — as Goodell acknowledged in early June, after the police killing of George Floyd.
The civil unrest roiling the country has also shaken the N.F.L., with players, coaches and owners finding their own paths of protesting racism and police brutality. Many teams, spurred by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., canceled practices, and they will doubtless continue to fight for racial equality over the course of the season.
Some Black players have kneeled, and will continue to kneel, during the playing of the national anthem, a movement started by Colin Kaepernick to call attention to racial injustice. The Cincinnati Bengals, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, are considering kneeling as a team or remaining in their locker room during the anthem. Some Dallas Cowboys including running back Ezekiel Elliott are also likely to kneel, against the wishes of the team’s owner, Jerry Jones.
Among the players who have said they intend to kneel are Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who are Black. Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Houston Texans Coach Bill O’Brien, who are white, are among those who have said they will join the protest.
To spotlight victims of police brutality, players will wear decals with their names on the backs of their helmets, a rare amendment to the league’s stringent uniform policy; Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf, for instance, has said he will honor Emmett Till, the Black teenager lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955.
During warm-ups, players will be permitted to wear a T-shirt, designed by Texans safety Michael Thomas, that says, “Injustice against one of us is injustice against all of us” on the front and “End racism” on the back. The latter phrase will be written behind one end zone at every stadium, with “It Takes All of Us” marked behind the other. The song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, will be played before every Week 1 game.
Though nothing has been announced, it’s also possible that players will choose not to play one week, or perhaps more, in solidarity with peers in other professional sports leagues, like the N.B.A., W.N.B.A. and Major League Baseball, who walked out of games in August to protest social injustice.
“They all have a choice, an individual choice and right to either sit out or protest, however one would characterize it,” Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, told reporters on a conference call last week.
Players have mobilized to organize voter registration drives before Election Day on Nov. 3, when all N.F.L. and team facilities will be closed so everyone will have an opportunity to vote — perhaps at stadiums that might be made available as polling places. There is, however, a long time until then: roughly half a season that will begin as scheduled, unlikely as it once may have seemed.