Six unique perspectives from NFL Week 1 during a pandemic

Kareem Elgazzar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Balancing no crowds and low crowds, policing mask-wearing and social-distancing, with some of the people who made 2020 NFL Week 1 the event that it was.

Clete Blakeman
Houston at Kansas City

“I don’t know where to begin,” Blakeman said, about the bizarre offseason and the fairly clean opening-night game.

Begin here: Blakeman got a reconfigured crew once the NFL decided to shuffle the eight-man groups (including replay official) into regional crews to limit travel because of COVID-19; all seven officials on the Blakeman crew were new to him from 2019. The first time he saw them in-person was on the bus from the hotel to the stadium Thursday afternoon—all previous meetings were on Zoom. Plus, no preseason work. Blakeman, who lives in Omaha, asked the coach at Westside High in Omaha if he could go to a few practices to visualize football flow. “I probably went to six or seven practices,” Blakeman told me Saturday.

Then there was the rookie field judge, Joe Blubaugh, making his first regular-season appearance. Pretty tough gig, not even meeting the guys on your crew till three hours before the game. “Just work your position,” Blakeman told Blubaugh before the game. “Fall back on what you’ve done. If we need to bail you out, we’ll bail you out. You’ll do fine.”

In the days before the game, Blakeman convened a Zoom meeting with his crew and put up these numbers: “2012.” That was the year the NFL locked out the officials and used replacements for the first three weeks. When refs returned in Week 4, they had to hit the ground running—the same way Blakeman’s crew would have to do in Kansas City. “Think back to 2012,” Blakeman told his veteran (except for Blubaugh) crew. “We performed. This has happened before.”

As for the game, the best thing you can say is the officials—mostly—were not noticed. Two first-half touchdowns were reversed on review, both on plays hard to diagnose in real time. Blubaugh ruled a touchdown on the second, though it was overturned when Sammy Watkins’ elbow was shown to hit the turf about six inches from the goal line as he stretched to score. As Blakeman vowed, Al Riveron bailed out Blubaugh with a reversal from New York. Neither had much to do with the outcome of the game. The crowd of 15,000 felt odd to the crew, which was masked. “It did feel like a game,” said Blakeman, “but there was a different kind of energy. For me, a [tough thing] was, ‘How do I blow this whistle—lift up the mask? Pull it down?’ ” Turns out on sudden needs to blow it, Blakeman pulled the mask down with his left hand and blew, and when he knew he was about to blow, he pulled the whistle up into his mouth, lanyard hanging down.

After the game, in the officials locker room, Blakeman told his crew: This is one of those games where they won’t be talking about us on ESPN tonight, or writing about us tomorrow in USA Today. We controlled it.

The crew gave Blubaugh a game ball.

Rick Peterson, Derrick Norman
Bills Fans
New York Jets at Buffalo

Peterson and Norman, both 54 and Bills’ season-ticket-holders since 2001, missed attending their first Bills home opener in 30 years. Normally, they’d be in line to enter the stadium parking lot in their 35-foot RV by dawn Saturday, and they’d cook, commune, and relax (and maybe sleep a little) for 30 hours before heading to their seats in section 126, row 1, in the corner of the end zone. But this weekend, they met at Peterson’s Buffalo-area home Saturday morning, grilled some ribs and sausages, and then reconvened Sunday at Norman’s home to watch the game on the big screen with a few friends. Norman wore his Tre’Davious White jersey, number 27. Peterson went with a classic—Thurman Thomas, 34.

bills fans in NFL Week 1

“We’re treating it like an away game,” said Peterson, a Buffalo transit worker. “I’ve only missed one game since 2001, but I’m trying to stay even-keel. It’s out of our hands. It’s a pandemic.”

“It’s killing me,” said Norman, a Buffalo firefighter.

Norman got up at 5 (“I couldn’t sleep—too antsy!”) and started cooking with his wife: mac-and-cheese, yams, deep-fried egg rolls, potato salad, fried chicken. It’s the food they’d have feasted on in the parking lot a few miles away; but today, it’s a huge spread in his own house. By halftime, with the home team up 21-3, Peterson and Norman were too giddy to complain about not being in section 126, row 1.

“Can you imagine?” Norman said, gearing up for the second half. “Can you imagine if we were there today, and the place was packed? Pandemonium! We’d be going crazy!”

Jason McCourty
Patriots Cornerback
Miami at New England

No fans in Foxboro. So weird, seeing the empty parking lots, the empty four-lane Route 1 alongside Gillette Stadium on game day (it’s usually packed like a parking lot before and after the game), hearing the silence that welcomed the six-time Super Bowl champs when they came out for pre-game warmups.

“The atmosphere,” McCourty told me after New England opened the post-Brady era with a 21-11 win over Miami, “from the time we came out of the tunnel, was unlike anything any of us have felt . . . You can’t really envision what an NFL game is like without fans. This felt more like a high school scrimmage. Maybe you travel somewhere for a scrimmage, and your parents come, but no other fans. When you play in a stadium with no fans, no noise, you’ve got to bring your own energy for three hours.”

On the sidelines, it was a constant topic of conversation. “Guys were like, ‘This ain’t it,’“ McCourty said. “And you win, nobody to high-five, no kid to throw your gloves to. You come to the realization that we’re going to have to do a lot of this ourselves, generate a lot of the energy ourselves.”

Ian Eagle
CBS play-by-play announcer
Cleveland at Baltimore

Eagle’s broadcast partner changed last spring, from Dan Fouts to Charles Davis. Usually, new partners meet a few times in the offseason, get to know each other, talk about how they like to work. Not in a pandemic. CBS had 16 weekly Zoom calls for the Eagle/Davis broadcast team in the spring and early summer. “It was like 12 hours of speed-dating for me and Charles,” Eagle said. Their first face-to-face? Saturday afternoon, sitting outside at a deli in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, socially distant, for 45 minutes.

Ian eagle and Charles Davis
CBS play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle, left, and color analyst Charles Davis. (CBS Sports)
On an average weekend, the broadcast team watches home team practice Friday; interviews home team coach and players in person Friday; interviews visiting team coach and players in person Saturday. Lots of time to be social with the crew at dinner Friday or Saturday, lots of time to study or nap. Now, everything is done virtually. Eagle lives in north Jersey, 193 miles from downtown Baltimore, and so he did his Ravens interviews Friday before driving to the hotel. Then a COVID test Saturday morning at the hotel, then virtual interviews with the Browns late Saturday afternoon. Then the game.

The first weird thing: the plexiglass partition between Eagle and Davis. “Sometimes you want to touch your broadcast partner,” he said Sunday evening. “Today, we made eye contact instead.” Usually there’s a procession of friends and well-wishers streaming through the booth. Not Sunday. The door closed before the game and didn’t open till the end of the game, with Eagle, Davis, audio tech Al Boleau and spotter Jim Stamos the only ones in the booth; statman Butch Baird was in the empty stands, three rows ahead of the booth, per league rule.

“It’s a little eerie,” Eagle said. “Usually in Baltimore there’s 70,000 juiced-up fans in one of the unique venues in the NFL, just a great atmosphere for a game. Like, Lamar Jackson does something in the moment, and if I miss a little something, the crowd picks it up and draws my attention to it. But today, obviously, not there. They’re keeping score, though, and so you do get into it.”

Eagle said this is one of the stadiums that broadcasters have to walk into “the teeming masses of people” around the stadium to get to the parking lot at the end of the game. Last year, after a game in Baltimore, it took him one hour to inch his car onto I-95 for the trip home to north Jersey. “Today, no one. Took me 90 seconds to get to 95,” he said. Thank God the New Jersey state troopers weren’t out around dinnertime Sunday. Eagle made it home at 7:03, in time for the dying moments of Bucs-Saints.

Anthony Lynn
Coach, Los Angeles Chargers
L.A at Cincinnati

The Chargers traveled Friday, arriving at their Cincinnati hotel at 11 p.m. Players were advised to not leave the hotel, but they weren’t banned from taking a walk. But in the 38 hours before they took buses to the stadium on Sunday in Cincinnati for the late-afternoon game, well, Lynn didn’t want his players to be prisoners.

“To me, travel is the real test this year,” Lynn told me from the bus on the way to the airport Sunday evening after the Chargers edged the Bengals 16-13. “How disciplined can we be? How patient? How understanding of the inconveniences? So we’re not going to have many in-person meetings when we travel. Here, the offense had a 15, 20-minute meeting in the meeting room at the hotel Saturday night, then the defense had one. Specials teams were on Zoom. The other meetings, Zoom. Coaches want to have their hands on the player. I get that. But these are different times.”

Anthony Lynn in NFL Week 1
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn. (USA Today)
As for the game: “Just different. Really different. I had to watch what I was saying, and be careful how loud I was, because I didn’t want their guys [the Bengals] to hear me, obviously. Being on the sideline, I felt like I could hear every word guys were saying on the field. The other thing is the fans. Without the fans and the noise, it was such a different feeling. Fans are a big part of the game, and I think we’re starting to realize just how big after seeing a stadium without fans. It has an impact.”

I asked Lynn: “What do you think of the NFL testing 3,600 people from 30 teams, players and staff, on Saturday, and not a single person testing positive?”

Lynn was blunt. “It’s pretty simple: We want to play football.”

Bob Condotta
Seahawks beat writer, Seattle Times
Seattle at Atlanta

I don’t know how many beat writers did what Condotta did Sunday morning in Seattle—set up in his living room, laptop on his lap, watching the team he covers play on his 55-inch TV—but it was more than a few. Welcome to NFL coverage 2020, the same as MLB and NBA and NHL coverage for many media outlets in the pandemic. With reporters now cut off from locker-room access at home and on the road, and cut off from sidling up to players and coaches to get little tidbits to make or break stories, Condotta, for the time being, is covering road games from his home in Auburn, Wash. He’ll be in the Seahawks’ press box for home games. Most access to players and coach Pete Carroll will come via videconference. After covering the team home and away weekly since 2013, this is Condotta’s new world.

seattle writer Bob Condotta

As the Seahawks were routing the Falcons 2,600 miles away, Condotta said: “I miss the pre-game, seeing how the guys look. You don’t see on TV all the time what defense they’re in, or who’s on the field, whether the defense is in nickel or dime. Today part of the story was what the team did before the game, and I think Jamal Adams raised a fist, and Russell Wilson was in a prayer circle—but I’ll find out about those things.

“But I’m not upset. I think we’ve all come to the realization that there are many, many bigger problems in this world than me not covering a football game.”

At the bottom of his story in today’s Timesthere was this editor’s note: “The Times declined to send reporter Bob Condotta to Atlanta for this game because of COVID-19 safety concerns.”  

Read more in Peter King’s Football Morning in America column