How well-equipped are Bears to handle training camp during COVID-19 pandemic?


Want football in 2020? Wear a mask.

That was the overarching message Friday from the NFLPA, with executive director DeMaurice Smith and president J.C. Tretter making clear that your actions – meaning you reading this right now – can help determine if the NFL can not only start, but finish, its 2020 season.

“What goes on in our communities has a direct effect on how football works this year” Tretter, a center for the Cleveland Browns, said, “or if it can work this year.”

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(It shouldn’t take the threat of losing football games for you to wear a mask, by the way, when there’s a threat of losing the lives of thousands more Americans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Still, the NFL might be the only professional sports league to have a “normal” 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As in: No need for a bubble in Orlando; or host cities in Canada; or playing fewer than half their games; or holding a tournament in Utah. But that hardly means the 2020 season will have any semblance of normalcy.

Some teams, surely, get this. I think the Bears are more likely than not one of them (more on that later). But apparently, there still exist some Football Men who can’t quite understand the lengths everyone has to go to play a regular season while a deadly virus spreads, largely uncontained, across the United States.

“We've had coaches come forward and talk about protocols being too much to ask, coaches come forward saying they think everybody's going to get sick and we'll see how sick they get,” Tretter said. “Those attitudes can't happen because this is all of us in it together. And no one can just wish this away or expect this to go away. There are consequences for getting sick, there are consequences players’ families have to face.”

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Those unnamed coaches are both mind-numbingly ignorant and ridiculously stubborn. Don’t they understand that everyone’s life has been upended by the pandemic? Shouldn’t they be happy they still have jobs as so many Americans have lost theirs since March? Can’t they realize how adapting to an unprecedented set of rules is the only way they’ll actually coach football in 2020?

It’s clear the NFL and NFLPA still have plenty to hammer out before training camps begin for most of the league, with the expectation still those will happen on time July 28. There’s not yet a protocol for what happens if a player tests positive (despite four months to come up with one) or an agreement on a pandemic season’s impact on the future salary cap (which could drop $70 million in 2021 if nothing is done).

But the NFLPA’s leadership seems to have embraced a strict set of guidelines for pulling off training camp while COVID-19 rages in cities like Miami and Houston and Phoenix. The NFL, starting with its owners and trickling down to its coaches, has to embrace those, too. It needs to include no preseason games, too.

“We believe the right focus for our players and our business is not only coming up with a way to start the season, but to contemplate a way to finish the season,” Smith said. “And engaging in two games where players would be flying all over the country and then meeting together to engage in work, we feel that doing that prior to the season doesn't properly influence or increase the likelihood of starting and finishing the season on time.”

Smith is 100 percent right in his assessment there. There should be no preseason games. There should be a three-week “ramp up” period to begin training camp focused solely on strength and conditioning before practices can even begin. And when practices begin, there needs to be 10 days of non-contact work before two weeks of full-contact practice leading up to the regular season.

Otherwise, in addition to potential team-to-team transmission of the novel coronavirus, there could be an even greater rash of training camp injuries than we saw back in the lockout year of 2011.

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Anyways, there’s a lot to unpack here. But I want to pivot for a bit to how this all impacts the Bears.

The Bears are both well-equipped and massively disadvantaged by what training camp should – and hopefully will – look like in 2020.  They’re well-equipped because of Matt Nagy; they’re ill-equipped because they don’t know who their starting quarterback will be.

Let’s start with Nagy. Every indication I got from this spring’s virtual minicamps and OTAs was that Nagy not only embraced the challenge of holding virtual “practices,” but set the tone for his entire coaching staff and roster to embrace it, too. It’s not surprising given what we know about Nagy; he’s a strong, positive leader, the kind of guy you want heading up your franchise during difficult, unprecedented times.

I have little doubt Nagy will successfully navigate his team through a new, difficult situation. He doesn’t come across as the kind of Football Guy who might say some of the abhorrent stuff Tretter relayed from other coaches.

But then there’s the whole quarterback issue.

Nagy was going to play both Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles in preseason games, along with his starters, to generate the clearest picture possible of who his Week 1 starting quarterback should be. Having only two preseason games would’ve been fine; having none means every single data point in this quarterback competition will have to come from training camp practices – which may not actually begin until mid-to-late-August.

For a team that urgently needs to find its offensive identity quickly in 2020, that’s not a promising setup. If Nagy can overcome holding a game-free quarterback competition, fix his offense and get the Bears back to the playoffs, though – he’ll have earned a second coach of the year award.

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