Why some teams currently have higher COVID-19 vaccination rates and how the impact on their seasons will only grow.
One after another on Wednesday, the revelations came on the delayed pace NFL teams are dealing with on player vaccinations.
“I haven’t been vaccinated yet,” Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold told the local media. “Still gotta think about all those certain things that go into it. Again, it’s everyone’s choice, whether they wanna get vaccinated or not. So, that’s really all I got on it. I don’t wanna go too into detail.”
Fair, of course, since these are personal decisions.
“Obviously, [the coaches] want everybody to be vaccinated to move more freely around the facility, and with traveling and all that type of stuff,” said Washington defensive end Montez Sweat. “But everybody has their own beliefs, and they’re entitled to their own decision.”
That’s also reasonable.
But here’s the one thing that you can’t say about this issue: that it won’t have an impact on NFL teams six or seven weeks from now when training camps kick off. And if it might impact training camps, then it might impact how teams come out of the gate in September. And if it might affect how teams come out of the gate in September, then it might have an effect on what the playoff brackets look like. And you get the picture.
That’s one reason why, over the last few weeks, coaches have worked exhaustively with their players, like Sweat said, and beaten through every avenue possible to try and get them every bit of information they can on the work Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have done to get us all here, and what players will be putting in their bodies if they make the decision more than 140 million Americans [and counting] already have.
Those coaches all know this will start to count very soon.
And that’s regardless of where anyone stands philosophically of getting vaccinated for COVID-19.
We’re about a week away from the NFL’s shutting down for the summer (and my own summer break), but there’s plenty for us to dive into in this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• The next installment of our preseason award favorites series—Coach of the Year.
• A look at why the NFL is getting aggressive about growing in Germany.
• How bad predraft advice can leave promising players holding the bag.
But we’re starting with the big news topic for this week, which is how NFL teams are trying, and sometimes in vain, to get their players vaccinated.
On Tuesday night, Washington coach Ron Rivera brought in leading immunologist Kizzmekia S. Corbett—who helped lead research that aided in the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine—to speak to his players, lay out the benefits of getting the shots and answer any questions they had.
Rivera also told the local media that while 100% of the team’s Tier 1 employees are vaccinated, the player rate is just “nearing 50%.” Which, of course, would be good reason for the coach to enlist someone like Corbett to address the team.
Other NFL teams have had more luck.
The Chiefs are one with a relatively high vaccination rate, and one factor that was brought up repeatedly by those within the team is the fact that Patrick Mahomes was among the very first to get his shots. Across the league, it seems at least anecdotally, there’s been a natural effect where if the biggest names/brightest stars are getting vaccinated, others follow suit.
In fact, I mentioned the Mahomes thing to one rival GM, and he said he’d heard that of the teams with high vaccination rates, where “those teams tended to have five or six stars get it early on. And if you have five or six stars doing it, they all start to do it.”
Kansas City coach Andy Reid and head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder also have engaged players in very open and honest conversation while trying to convey what they know. “It’s basically been, It’s up to you guys; it’s all voluntary, but here are the facts,” a Chiefs staffer said. “And Andy has kept them abreast of all the rules changes, too.”
The Falcons are another team that’s approached it like that, and Atlanta has gotten a high rate of vaccinations as a result of it. That quarterback Matt Ryan, like Mahomes, was among the first to get his shots was a factor, too, as was Ryan’s willingness to discuss it with his teammates. And new Falcons coach Arthur Smith approached it with the players similar to how Reid did with his—giving them the facts, encouraging them to talk about it with the team’s doctors and trainers, and being sure not to pressure or guilt-trip them.
The Steelers are one more that’s had success, with a player vaccination rate currently sitting between 75% and 80%. Coach Mike Tomlin’s done it by deferring mostly to head athletic trainer John Norwig, who’s going into his 31st season with the team and has the players’ implicit trust. It’s also helped that team leaders, like defensive lineman Cam Heyward, have been advocates and diligent about getting their teammates educated.
Now, at this point, it’s still reasonable to say that these personal choices don’t really affect the teams, or the players’ individual ability to get ready for the season through the spring, even if it’s become obvious to everyone in these buildings who’s vaccinated and who’s not (all you have to do is see who’s in a mask and who’s not).
But things will likely get considerably less comfortable for unvaccinated players in a few weeks.
The league and union are still working out details on how training camp protocols will look, but the current state of the rules can provide a window into the future on that.
• Unvaccinated players still have daily testing; vaccinated players do not.
• Unvaccinated players have to wear masks; vaccinated players do not.
• Unvaccinated players must quarantine after COVID-19 exposure; vaccinated players don’t need to.
• Travel restrictions have been lifted for vaccinated players; they remain in place for unvaccinated players.
• There are capacity limits in the weight room for unvaccinated players; there aren’t for vaccinated players.
• Unvaccinated players have to do grab-and-go meals at the facility; vaccinated players can eat in the cafeteria.
• Unvaccinated players can’t participate in in-person marketing/media opportunities; vaccinated players can.
• Unvaccinated players can’t use the sauna or steam room; vaccinated players can.
And then, there’s the prospect that, between now and camp, the NFL and NFLPA could push over the goal line a proposal further easing restrictions on teams that have 85% of players vaccinated.
So if you look at all this, just on the surface, the impact is obvious. Teams with large groups of unvaccinated players, come training camp, will have to lift, meet and socialize with one another in different ways than teams that are largely vaccinated. The fact is, camp is a challenging time of year for every team, and, obviously, these circumstances would make it more challenging for some teams than others, tipping the competitive-balance scale a little.
After that, you can dig into the less obvious. The first one is how testing adds about 45 minutes to a player’s day, and how coaches might not be building schedules around those 45 minutes the same way they were to accommodate everyone a year ago. The second, relating to that, is how daily testing will keep guys in town on days off, during the bye weekend (Labor Day weekend) between the preseason and regular season, and then during the TNF “mini-bye” and the normal regular-season bye.
Then, there are travel restrictions—where unvaccinated players may well again be confined to their rooms on the road, and unable to visit with family and friends during trips.
And there’s more, too, that will wear on players over time, and could have an effect on performance. And yes, this is the same stuff that players went through last year. But this year, guys dealing with it will be playing against a lot of players who won’t have to.
No matter where coaches might personally come down on this, they all realize there’s a competitive advantage, or disadvantage, to be had there. Which has been enough to convince every one of them I hit up to make sure their players have every piece of information possible as the clock ticks toward training camp.
So what’s stopping players from getting the vaccine? For the most part, it’s the same things that are slowing the rate in certain parts of the country.
In discussing the subject with teams the last couple of days, most of the areas of trepidation cited are familiar ones across the U.S.—right-leaning political beliefs, conspiracy theories, the history of these things in Black culture. Others are more football-specific. One coach told me he has a holdout who’s never had a flu shot, doesn’t drink and is ultra-careful with what he puts in his body, who asked, “Why should I start now?” Then there’s the simpler, “I’m not going to be told what to do” reasoning.
Wherever guys land on it, for all of those who haven’t had the vaccine, time is running short. And teams are going to greater lengths to try to make it easy for players who are still mulling it over to get vaccinated.
The Bengals are one that set up a June 17 vaccination day for players at Paul Brown Stadium, which will be the fourth one they’ve done this spring. It’s being sold to the guys as a last chance to have a completely normal training camp—because if you get your first shot on June 17, your second would be on or around July 8, and the two-week post-second-shot waiting period would then end July 22, right before most teams have their reporting date.
At this point, Cincinnati’s in pretty good shape, hovering around 65% and needing maybe nine or 10 more guys to get the vaccine to cross the 85% threshold. So chances are, the Bengals will have a relatively normal camp.
And that might end up mattering more than people think when we get to the season.
We’re continuing our 2021 award series today! So far, we have Washington LB Jamin Davis as DROY, Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence as OROY and Dak Prescott as Comeback Player of the Year. This week, Coach of the Year (odds courtesy, again, of sportsbettingdime.com).
1) Sean Payton, Saints (+1800): Everyone’s so fixated on the quarterbacks that they may not realize New Orleans has built one of the NFL’s best rosters over the last five years. So whether it’s Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill, the guy behind center is going to be in position to succeed—and there’s a good chance Payton will get whomever that is there. Which sets Payton up to win the award for the first time since his first year in New Orleans.
2) Brandon Staley, Chargers (+1300): There’s good potential for a major breakthrough here, and successful first-year coaches are always prime candidates for this award—in fact, three of the last four winners have been in Year 1.
3) Joe Judge, Giants (+2000): Given all the offseason moves, there’s definitely some boom-or-bust potential with Judge, and the NFC East is, once again, very winnable.
4) Brian Flores, Dolphins (+1400): Flores has done a really nice job through two years, and a breakthrough in Year 3 to win the division, if the Bills slip a little, would put him squarely in the running based on the ground-up nature of Miami’s rebuild.
5) Bill Belichick, Patriots (+1800): Just because I can’t leave him off a list like this.
THE BIG QUESTION
I think the better question—with this week’s news that the NFL is officially looking for proposals to find a partner city in Germany, with the target of playing a regular-season game there in 2022—is, why not Germany sooner?
Some facts on Germany and its long-standing affection for American football …
• What became NFL Europe launched as the World League of American Football in 1991, with three European teams—one in England, one in Spain and one in Germany. It disbanded after 1992, and relaunched in 1995 with six European teams—two in Germany, and one each in Spain, England, Scotland and the Netherlands. By NFL Europe’s final season, 2007, five of its six teams were in Germany, the other close by in Amsterdam.
• The NFL currently counts 19 million total fans (including 3.5 million avid fans) in Germany, which is 3 million more than it has in the U.K., and that’s despite the NFL’s putting every European International Series game over the last 15 years in London.
• The NFL had an average-minute audience of about 600,000 for NFL games last year on its German broadcast partner ProSieben, which is better than the NHL does in the U.S. And that number bulged to two million for the Super Bowl, which doubled the U.K. number for a game that was on in the middle of the night, local time.
• Germany has actually produced NFL players. Sebastian Vollmer grew up playing for a Düsseldorf club, which is how the University of Houston (and others) found him. He grew into a second-team All-Pro and the starting right tackle for a Super Bowl champion. Björn Werner grew up playing for a Berlin club, went to prep school in Connecticut, wound up at Florida State and became a first-round pick in 2013. And those two aren’t the only examples (Markus Kuhn, Jakob Johnson) of how the game is thriving there at a grassroots level.
• The history of the game in Germany goes back further than that, with the roots seeded in U.S. military bases in the country that were established post–World War II. Hall of Famer Michael Strahan actually grew up on one in Mannheim, which is where he first played organized football.
So this week’s news is literally decades in the making. The league had preseason American Bowl games in Berlin for five consecutive summers (1990 to ’94), but this will be the first time there’s a regular-season game there.
“Actually, on every criteria, almost any way you look at it, Super Bowl audiences, general audiences and the size of the market in terms of the consumer products that we sell, in terms of video views, followers, etc., Germany is the largest market in Europe, really,” NFL head of U.K. and Europe Brett Gosper told me back in April. “So it’s exciting for us. What we’re looking to do is look at the viability and really the best choice of market and partner to manage games in Germany.”
All right, so that brings us back to my rebuttal question of the original question—what took the NFL so long to get here?
Two things, as I see it. First, the television distribution model in England, and the money to be made in England, was just better when the current iteration of the International Series was launched. Second, the NFL’s goal with the International Series was to create a model in the U.K. that it could replicate in other places, and that took time, and now the league is finally in a place where it’s confident taking it and planting it in new locales.
And that should give everyone something to be excited about. The league’s presentation to owners back in March pinpointed Berlin and Munich as possible homes for the NFL’s next big European effort—and if it’s the latter, centering a game on Oktoberfest has been one fun part of the discussion—but I know they’re going to listen to all viable proposals that come their way. I’d also say that given the foundation American football has in Germany, the potential for growth there is enormous.
So much so that I’d say the NFL is already late getting back there.
WHAT NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT
The bad advice some players get.
When I saw that Jamie Newman was cut by the Eagles on Wednesday, I thought right away of a very simple line I get from scouts on players this time of year when I ask about someone in the following year’s draft class.
“I haven’t studied him yet.”
What does that mean? It means there’s a difference between watching and studying a guy for those paid to know prospects inside and out. So, for example, while scouts have watched guys pegged for the top of the 2022 draft, like Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and LSU corner Derek Stingley Jr., just by virtue of going through their schools’ ’20 tape, most haven’t truly studied them yet. Or are just now working through that.
That brings us to Newman. Last year, around this time, you saw his name popping up in a lot of “way-too-early” mock drafts. The truth is, at that point, while people had watched Newman at Wake Forest and gotten a feel for him, few had truly studied him. And so last summer, I started asking around about him and a North Dakota State quarterback named Trey Lance, since I’d seen both in those mocks. I wound up finding a few scouts who, through spring/summer projects, had worked through their tape.
The consensus was clear: Lance was legit; Newman, at that point, was not.
And that’s not a huge knock on Newman. It’s just the reality of what he’d put on film, having started just 16 games at Wake (he only really won the starting job his final year there). Very few quarterbacks, over that short a stretch of starts, show enough to be high NFL draft picks. Lance, obviously, proved to be one of them.
Anyway, from there, Newman transferred to Georgia, which objectively seemed like a pretty good idea, given how loaded the Bulldogs’ roster was, and that they had an opening at his position after losing three-year starter Jake Fromm. It was after that when he probably got some pretty crappy advice.
He went through fall camp with Georgia before pulling the plug on his college career with a Sept. 2 tweet, opting out of the 2020 season and declaring for the ’21 draft in one fell swoop. I wouldn’t prejudge anyone for doing the former, if it related back to concerns over COVID-19. But the latter? Clearly, the latter call was a result of Newman’s believing that the NFL saw him in a light that it now obviously does not.
So instead of getting to play for a national contender in the fall, and gobble up important game reps, Newman spent the year training for the combine, and to throw at pro day, and came out of it in a worse spot than he went in. Now, he’ll have to hope to get invited to a training camp, or maybe have to try to kickstart his football career in Canada.
The moral of the story, to me, for college kids in that same spot now, that are starting to see their names connected to “draft grades”: Do your best to ignore them. Teams don’t even set initial boards until after Thanksgiving, and even the notes they’re compiling on prospects now are graded on a curve—with the expectation there’s more progress coming in the fall. And all those way-too-early mocks? Those really are supposed to be just for fun (and, full disclosure, we’re guilty of having had one on our site that had Newman in it last May).
Harmless fun? That’s the idea, of course.
But that’s only if people don’t take them so seriously.
THE FINAL WORD
With news of joint practices coming this summer (Browns/Giants, Patriots/Giants, Titans/Buccaneers), I think it’s worth keeping an eye on how much of that we see leaguewide. I’ve talked to more than a few coaches who believe those practices are more effective for evaluating players and getting their vets ready than for preseason games. And it’s also a way of keeping certain things on the roster from being exposed on game tape.
This being the summer that the league goes from four preseason games to three, there’s already a deemphasizing of the exhibition contests underway. Joint practices are just one more thing making them less relevant.