Opening night: one month from tonight. The Houston Texans likely will be significant underdogs at Super Bowl champion Kansas City, and rightfully so. But the important thing in 2020 is something else, on the weekend we passed 5 million documented COVID-19 cases as a country. It’s actually whether Houston-Kansas City, and the 268 NFL games after that, will be played.
“I believe Week 1 will happen,” J.J. Watt told me the other day. “I’m optimistic.”
I think so too. There’s good reason to be optimistic, at least for this season to kick off. The NFL Players Association reported that as of Thursday, 56 players had tested positive for the virus, including pre-camp and daily testing once camp started; the majority of those players returned to their teams, virus-free. But the key, obviously, will be how players handle more post-training-camp freedom once they’re in regular-season mode.
More about a new twist, a potential COVID-19 kitchen cabinet for Roger Goodell, later in the column. On Thursday, I spent the day virtually with the Houston Texans, to see what a team is going through to prepare for a most unusual season. Talk about enlightening. My day included learning about facial-recognition software, John Lewis, Rock The Vote, a schedule accommodating five distinct teams-within-a-team, the mental guilt of players and staff about bringing the virus into a team, what the biggest adjustment to COVID camp is for a head coach, one hour (just one hour) spent together as a team all day, and a rookie from Penn State who seems pretty wise.
A day in the life of an NFL team . . . in a pandemic:
Geoff Kaplan, the Infection Control Officer of the Houston Texans, wakes up—no alarm needed—in the guest room of his Houston home. Guest room, in his own home? Kaplan is married with 17 and 15-year-old sons, but for the last two weeks, while he tries to keep COVID-19 out of his own house and tries to avoid carrying it into an NFL practice facility, the guest room has been his room. “I can’t ask my sons and my wife to not live their lives,” Kaplan said. “This is a way to protect them, and to protect me.”
Kaplan set the alarm for 4:45 just for insurance, but didn’t need it. Because when Kaplan begins to stir on training camp mornings this year, he finds himself a little jittery, thinking, What type of curveball will I be thrown today? He’s the point of the spear for the Texans on COVID-19, and if any of the 180 Texans’ players/coaches/staff test positive for the coronavirus, there will be an overnight email from the NFL’s testing lab, BioReference Labs, in his Texans inbox informing him. Thus the reason for reaching for his phone when he wakes up, first thing. Every morning.
Good news this morning: no email from BioReference. For the eighth straight day, the Texans have zero positive tests for COVID-19. Kaplan will wait for a more expansive email with a spreadsheet of every Texan test—that lands in his box at 6:05 a.m. daily, like clockwork—before informing coach Bill O’Brien and executive VP Jack Easterby the team has gone another day COVID-free. Impressive so far, but opening day at Super Bowl champion Kansas City is exactly five weeks away, and Kaplan, the COVID gatekeeper for an NFL playoff team, knows there are no medals for a perfect testing day on Aug. 6. He’s got to have five more months, somehow, of keeping an NFL team in a COVID hotspot on the field.
“This is truly one of the biggest challenges in NFL history,” Kaplan said. “And we’re all in this together.”
O’Brien in his car, on the 10-minute drive to team offices at NRG Stadium, thinks about the text he’ll get from Kaplan, wondering if the winning streak in testing will continue. But O’Brien is really thinking more about his roster. Strange thing, but this is still NFL training camp, and O’Brien has to prepare for a season, regardless the oddness of it. In this season, he’ll value versatility more than in a normal year, because of the potential in any week of any number of players being lost to injuries or COVID-19. “Versatility of positions is big,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot these days—a guy being able to do two or three different things.” Or more. Like second-year fullback/special-teamer Cullen Gillaspia, who will get practice reps this month at running back, tight end, and in an empty backfield. “You got to plan it out. What happens if one week you lose two or three running backs?” O’Brien said.
That’s what a coach thinks about on the way to work in a pandemic. He also thinks about what the looming text from his Infection Control Officer will say, and whether O’Brien will get a surprise today at 3 p.m. That’s the deadline for players who want to opt out of playing this year because of COVID fears. He thinks he’s in the clear, but he’s not sure. And one or two players have been thinking quite hard about it.