Virtual offseason, protocols produced ‘smarter way of playing football’

The NFL is three days from completing the 2020 season without a single game being canceled, a task that required the players, 32 organizations and league office working in unison to carry out. It’s a tremendous feat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was only six months ago that all preseason games were canceled, in the aftermath of an entirely virtual offseason. COVID protocols ultimately brought upon a plethora of changes to both offseason and in-season work for the players. In short, they, like many throughout the country, were able to take care a lot of business from home.

With just one game left on this season’s docket, the focus will soon be on protocols for the 2021 league year as the pandemic continues. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith both addressed that topic during Thursday’s annual Super Bowl press conference.

“I think we have learned a great deal,” Goodell said. “We want to look at the data, look at the information. It’s not time to take positions publicly. …

“Virtual is going to be part of our life for the long-term. … So I think we’ll see more of that.”

That initiative would surely be supported by the players. Smith said there’s ongoing discussion about certain measures becoming part of the league’s new normal, independent of whether there’s a pandemic.

“I think that every one of these guys who have lived in a football world for a very long time saw their teams do a lot of things differently,” he said. “But let’s just put differently to the side. It was smarter. So the fact that you just didn’t have guys holed up in a facility for hours on end and just killing time, the fact that we are actually able to do things via teleconference and Skype and Zoom, it’s all about being smarter. …

“We’ll continue to talk to the players about the things that they think were a better and smarter way of playing football and I think some of those things, most of things don’t have anything to do with COVID.”

Despite less time at team facilities and limited interaction between position groups, the quality of football didn’t suffer. The regular season produced a new record for points scored, setting the stage for a thrilling postseason and marquee matchup in Super Bowl LV between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Athletes, especially the greatest in their respective fields, are known to be creatures of habit. But this past season proved they’re capable of adapting to new ones without a drop-off in performance. Cleveland Browns center and NFLPA president JC Tretter asserted change was actually for the better.

“We did things differently this year,” he said. “I know myself and many of my teammates and players across the league that I talked to felt both physically better and mentally sharper at the end of the season. The amount of hours at the facility were down, the amount of reps were down. We’ve had this false reality that that’s necessary, a ton of reps are necessary, as we watch our bodies break down by the end of the year every year. And then we jump right back into an offseason program and grind our bodies down to jump right back into training camp, and it’s a never-ending grind.

“We saw that we can do things differently this year and the level of play didn’t go down. We still had maybe one of the most exciting seasons of all time heading into an amazing playoffs. We went through change this year, and change is always scary, but we’ve come out on the other side in a much better position. And now it’s the point of getting down with the league, talking with them about which of these changes we should move forward (with), because they are better for everybody involved. The game is growing and getting better and we are healthier and can play longer and the players can stay on the field. That is good for everybody involved.”