Life as we know it has been drastically changed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the sports world has also been hit hard by the national health emergency. Pro football — at least of the NFL-variety — is in a bit of a different situation than other leagues across the United States and the rest of the world, however: the 2019 season came to an end before the outbreak reached a new level, meaning that “only” the offseason is affected for now.
That said, the NFL’s 32 teams still need to adjust to the circumstances created by Covid-19 over the last few weeks: college player pro days have been canceled all over the country, free agency physicals needed to take plays in different forms, and offseason workouts will take place in a virtual setting for the time being. Whether or not the league can start its on-field work and training camp — let alone its season — on time remains to be seen.
Those challenges also impact the New England Patriots as head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick pointed out during a media conference call on Monday. Belichick was asked about how the current circumstances would complicate his team’s evaluation of players and whether or not they may have an impact on the Patriots’ draft strategy further down the line, particularly in regards of player development.
“Really the answer for us is how to try to maximize the opportunity that we have,” said Belichick. “If you compare this year to the lockout year, everybody had a lot of facilities available and they could work out wherever they wanted. That’s more limited this time, but we weren’t allowed to have any contact with the players. We couldn’t talk to the veteran players, we couldn’t talk to the first-year players, and in fact we couldn’t even sign the players that weren’t drafted until right before training camp.”
“So, the opportunity to communicate and teach was very, very limited then,” the future Hall of Famer continued. “Now, I’d say we’re looking at a situation where the opportunity to train for some players may be more limited, but our opportunity to communicate with them and teach them, even though it’s remote, is infinitely better than what it was during the lockout. So, we’ll just have to see how all that plays out.”
The communication between clubs and players, and the structure of the first phase of workouts that was originally scheduled to begin on April 20, was regulated by the league in a recent memo sent to its clubs: even with facilities closed, the Patriots and the other 31 teams will be allowed to conduct three consecutive weeks of virtual work that may include classroom instruction, workouts, and non-football-related education until May 15.
“I do think that from a teaching standpoint, we can get a lot of teaching done that we weren’t able to do nine, 10 years ago in a similar but different situation. I think with the teaching part that we’ll hopefully be okay,” Belichick said. “I think the fundamental part of it, the execution part of it, the timing and so forth is going to be probably similar to what it was in the lockout in 2011 when you’re just dealing with training camp and you have to really accelerate the teaching or the execution and the teamwork and so forth.”
“You just don’t have that good base to fall back on that we’ve been used to in the spring,” Belichick added. “At least, it doesn’t appear that way now. Maybe that will change, maybe we will be able to work with the players — we’ll have to see how all that goes — but even if we don’t, relative to the 2011 season, I think we’ll have a better opportunity to teach. And that’s what we’re focused on in the spring is to get as much teaching done as we can and then we’ll see what kind of opportunities we have to actually work on the field.”
The situation remains a fluid one for all parties, as Belichick pointed out, similar to how it was during the 2011 offseason. Back then, players were locked out for 130 days between March 11 and July 25 as part of a labor dispute between the league and its player representatives. All pre-training camp offseason work was canceled as a result — an outcome that could be in the cards in 2020 as well, even though the circumstances do obviously differ.