These are strange times for everybody but perhaps strangest for NFL coaches, who normally would be screaming at players to their heart’s desire during training camp but instead are reduced to watching them do jumping jacks these days.
OK, maybe not jumping jacks. But strength and conditioning work. And walkthrough choreography. Certainly not hitting or blocking, those activities commonly associated with football. COVID-19 has forced the NFL to ease into tough-guy activities this summer. Hitting won’t commence until padded practices begin Aug. 17.
This probably doesn’t need to be pointed out, but football is a contact sport and social distancing isn’t. What are football coaches without large human beings smacking other large human beings? Coaches without nourishment, that’s what.
But coaches are coaches. They can find meaning in anything. An offensive lineman is busy clipping his toenails, and his position coach is amazed by the attention to detail. A quarterback sits reading something other than the playbook, and his coach, while slightly concerned about communist tendencies, raves about the kid’s intelligence.
The Bears are very proud of their response to the pandemic, with players dutifully wearing masks and avoiding each other like the … coronavirus. They also think their approach to COVID-19 might be a competitive advantage this season. My initial response: That’s such a Bears thing to think. Over the years, I’ve railed against the franchise’s preoccupation with things that are secondary (team history, practice facilities, etc.) and its failure at things that should be primary (winning games). I’ve criticized coach Matt Nagy for praising quarterback Mitch Trubisky for his leadership skills, his devotion to football and his desire to be great. What about, you know, his ability to play quarterback, we’ve asked and asked. Any news on that front, coach?
So when Nagy gushed the other day about the team’s response to the coronavirus, my antennae immediately started vibrating. Was Nagy really going there? Was he saying the Bears would have a competitive advantage in 2020 because their devotion to masks would make an epidemiologist cry tears of joy?
Yes, he was. And maybe he was right to say it.
Let’s assume that what the coach is telling us is true, that the Bears are being oh-so careful in this early part of camp. Let’s say they’re living like masked monks. Let’s even go so far as to say that other teams are not being as attentive. It might follow that the Bears would have fewer players testing positive for the virus in the coming weeks and months. What seems to be obvious throughout all of sports right now is that the teams that stay healthiest during the pandemic will have a leg up on the field or court or ice. Roster depth will be a huge issue.
It really would be like the Bears to succeed this season because they were the most meticulous about following the rules. You take success however you can get it with this franchise.
So let’s give Nagy his reasoning. Given his history of blue-sky observations about everything, there is the chance he’s painting a prettier picture of the Bears’ virus response than it deserves. For all we know, the offensive line, sans masks, might have piled into an SUV last night and gone out for chicken wings. But if Bears players are indeed devoted to staying healthy, then that’s a good thing. Should it be a rallying cry for a season? I’d rather go with “Our defense is the best in the league!’’ but that’s just me.
The problem, of course, is that the players eventually will have to start hitting players from other teams. You might have been aghast at recent photos of college-age kids throwing caution and masks to the wind on crowded beaches. Or of high school students massing in hallways like cattle. Well, football is way worse than that. Players breathe, spit and bleed on each other.
No matter how observant the Bears have been about following COVID-19 protocols, it might not matter much on Sundays against teams that have had players out on the town. The NFL is testing new mouth shields meant to slow the spread of the virus. Will they work? Like a lot of things with this pandemic, we don’t know.
Let’s salute the Bears for their heedfulness when it comes to guarding against the virus. If they are to be believed, they would dominate the voting for a Conscientious Pro Bowl roster. If it somehow leads to more winning, I’m all for it. Winning isn’t the only thing, but it’s right up there.