Coronavirus: What next for the NFL’s key dates?
The coronavirus pandemic has been responsible for the most unconventional NFL offseason in recent memory, but how will it impact the key dates approaching on the calendar?
A traditional September start to the season leaves the NFL with time on their side, unlike the majority of sporting competitions across the globe, many of which have seen their campaigns suspended indefinitely.
While COVID-19 is yet to disrupt the league’s on-field action, there remains an uncertainty over the 2020 schedule between now and the beginning of the season.
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What’s happened so far?
One of the first changes to free agency saw the deadline for teams to franchise tag players moved from March 16 to March 18, coinciding with the official start to the new league year.
It was also announced during the start of the legal tampering period on March 16 that players were prohibited from travelling for workouts and physicals. This left teams unable to officially confirm deals, many instead referring to ‘reports’ of the agreements.
In some cases players found a way to conduct their physicals elsewhere, with Tom Brady undergoing his in New York ahead of signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The league eventually altered its policy amid the circumstances, ruling that physicals could be carried out when possible in the future, thereby allowing teams to officially confirm transactions.
As of March 12, multiple NFL sides had started to suspend all business-related travel for scouts and coaches as representatives were preparing to meet with college prospects on the back of the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
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This was followed by the cancellation of various Pro Days, which are designed to give scouts another glimpse of prospects working out in their respective college environments ahead of the NFL Draft.
In addition, the annual league meeting, scheduled for March 29-April 1, was also cancelled and replaced by a conference call. It was during the call that owners voted in favour of the new playoff expansion approved by players in the new collective bargaining agreement.
A new-look NFL Draft
The NFL Draft had been scheduled to go ahead between April 23-25 in Las Vegas, however it was revealed on March 16 that all public events typically associated with the occasion had been cancelled.
There has been a persistence from the league since then to stick by its originally-planned dates, despite concerns among general managers over the access to physical and psychology information surrounding potential draft picks.
NFL announcement on its draft plans: pic.twitter.com/ynRG3Bw6fw
Restrictions on travel have meanwhile forced coaches to meet with players virtually as opposed to in person as would usually happen at this time of the year.
With teams only able to arrange 30 pre-draft visits each year, the new measures mean they are now allowed to schedule three one-hour phone or video call interviews with prospects per week.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Saturday that team officials are preparing to make their picks from their individual homes later this month.
What about offseason activities?
Among the March 16 announcements was the news that offseason team activities had been delayed ‘indefinitely’.
“During this period, the league and union, through their respective medical consultants, will develop a standard set of protocols for clubs to implement regarding facility cleaning and maintenance, equipment preparation, steps to identify players and staff who may be at an elevated risk for the coronavirus and other preventative measures,” the league said in a press release.
Joint statement from the NFL and NFLPA pic.twitter.com/JjzNqGQi9M
Offseason workout programs had been due to get underway on April 6 for teams with new head coaches, with returning coaches looking at an April 20 start.
The activities mark valuable time for newly-appointed head coaches to begin their operations and bring their players together. Former Vikings offensive coordinator and new Browns coach Kevin Stefanski is still currently living in Minnesota after his move to Cleveland was put on hold due to COVID-19.
Is the 2020 season under threat?
The NFL are aiming to release the 2020 schedule no later than May 9 after wisely pushing back the usual pre-draft release.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, NFL executive Jeff Pash explained that the league still had every intention of playing a full season.
“On the season itself, our planning, our expectation is fully directed at playing a full season, starting on schedule and having a full regular season and a full set of playoffs, just as we did in 2019,” Pash said.
“That’s our expectation. Am I certain of that? I’m not certain I’ll be here tomorrow. But I’m planning on it, and in the same way, we’re planning on having a full season.”
“I want fans back in the arenas. Whenever we are ready. As soon as we can, obviously. The fans want to be back. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey.”
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The closure of team facilities raises serious doubts over the ability for scheduled three-day post-Draft rookie minicamps to take place from May 1.
Such are the ever-changing circumstances in the United States that there is also uncertainty over whether training camp will begin on time in mid-July.
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