The pandemic could not stop the N.F.L. Even as transmission rates surged and team facilities closed, as training camp was restructured and the preseason abandoned and locker rooms reconfigured to diminish the spread of coronavirus, the league pledged that the season would start as scheduled, on Sept. 10.
And it will, after the most challenging off-season in N.F.L. history, before a reduced number of fans on Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium, where the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs will host the Houston Texans.
Whether the season ends as scheduled, in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 7, 2021, with Super Bowl LV — or is interrupted, by a deluge of positive tests or player boycotts in protest of racial injustice — remains a mystery. The answer depends greatly on players’ and coaches’ individual discipline, the caprices of a viral scourge and the power wielded by players, who are using it, across all sports, like never before.
The sport will still be contested on a field measuring 360 by 160 feet, and the football is, same as ever, made of cowhide, but so much else about how football is played this season will look, feel and sound strange and disorienting. Here is a sampling of what that entails:
Will players be tested for the coronavirus?
Building off the encouraging success of training camp, when daily testing confirmed the diligence of players and team personnel in adhering to protocols, the N.F.L. and its players’ union agreed to continue to test players and essential employees every day of the week, except the day of the game.
Final testing will occur the day before the game, and if the results from that test are inconclusive the player will undergo further testing. They will be permitted to play as long as those results come back as negative two hours before kickoff.
In the league’s latest round of testing, which ran from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, over 44,000 tests were given to 8,349 players and team personnel. Only eight new positive cases — one among players — were confirmed.
The challenge, now, though, will be maintaining a safe environment and the same vigilance over reducing exposure risk once games begin, as teams travel and increase potential for contact. Anyone who tests positive will be isolated and barred from visiting team facilities or having direct contact with players or personnel.
“The big thing for us is to not get comfortable,” N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters on a conference call last week. “We’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty. We really have to adapt to the medical community. We will look at further changes to testing as we get into the season. We’re continuing to be vigilant, flexible and adaptable.”
Will teams be able to replace players who become infected?
Accounting for the likelihood that players will contract the virus, the N.F.L. offered several roster concessions. It expanded game-day rosters to 55, from 53, with the extra two spots taken from the practice squad — a rule bound to be exploited, as it has been by New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, master of the loophole, who opted not to keep a kicker on his active roster ostensibly because he can merely sign one to the practice squad and promote him before Sunday’s game.
The league created a distinct reserve list for players who either test positive or who come into contact with someone who has. It also increased rosters on practice squads — the auxiliary unit generally filled with younger players — to 16 from 12, with six slots allocated for veterans.
And in a move that should delight coaches and executives who love churning the bottom of their rosters, teams are now permitted to protect four practice squad players every week who can’t be signed to another team’s active roster. These changes will, in all likelihood, inhibit teams from looking beyond players already cleared to be in their buildings, considering the testing protocols new players will have to undergo.
Still, teams are preparing for innumerable situations. In case an outbreak hits the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback room, they will be grateful to have stashed on their practice squad Josh McCown, 41, who will attend virtual meetings but continue to live in Texas.
Will players and coaches wear masks?
All coaches and sideline personnel are mandated to wear masks, gaiters or face shields during games, while players who aren’t regularly substituting are “strongly encouraged” to do so. All players at Buffalo and San Francisco must wear them, in accordance with state and local regulations. For the coin toss, long a well-attended affair, only one masked player will represent each team.
What about the sidelines?
In most stadiums, the experience will be stripped to its essence: two teams playing football. Only five teams are permitting fans in Week 1, all at diminished capacities. To combat uncomfortable silences, teams will be permitted to play league-issued canned crowd noise, particular to their stadium, from the public address system at a level of 70 decibels — the hum, more or less, of a normal conversation.
The sideline itself, traditionally crammed with all sorts of ancillary personnel, will appear, by comparison, barren, with no cheerleaders, mascots or sideline reporters allowed. The ban extends to pregame pageantry, as well, with no live performances of the national anthem permitted inside stadiums.
How will the league handle protests against racial inequality?
The N.F.L. is primarily populated by Black players but has few Black coaches, owners and executives. For years the league has failed to heed the concerns of its Black constituency — as Goodell acknowledged in early June, after the police killing of George Floyd.
The civil unrest roiling the country has also shaken the N.F.L., with players, coaches and owners finding their own paths of protesting racism and police brutality. Many teams, spurred by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., canceled practices, and they will doubtless continue to fight for racial equality over the course of the season.
Some Black players have kneeled, and will continue to kneel, during the playing of the national anthem, a movement started by Colin Kaepernick to call attention to racial injustice. The Cincinnati Bengals, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, are considering kneeling as a team or remaining in their locker room during the anthem. Some Dallas Cowboys including running back Ezekiel Elliott are also likely to kneel, against the wishes of the team’s owner, Jerry Jones.
Among the players who have said they intend to kneel are Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who are Black. Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Houston Texans Coach Bill O’Brien, who are white, are among those who have said they will join the protest.
To spotlight victims of police brutality, players will wear decals with their names on the backs of their helmets, a rare amendment to the league’s stringent uniform policy; Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf, for instance, has said he will honor Emmett Till, the Black teenager lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955.
During warm-ups, players will be permitted to wear a T-shirt, designed by Texans safety Michael Thomas, that says, “Injustice against one of us is injustice against all of us” on the front and “End racism” on the back. The latter phrase will be written behind one end zone at every stadium, with “It Takes All of Us” marked behind the other. The song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, will be played before every Week 1 game.
Though nothing has been announced, it’s also possible that players will choose not to play one week, or perhaps more, in solidarity with peers in other professional sports leagues, like the N.B.A., W.N.B.A. and Major League Baseball, who walked out of games in August to protest social injustice.
“They all have a choice, an individual choice and right to either sit out or protest, however one would characterize it,” Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, told reporters on a conference call last week.
Players have mobilized to organize voter registration drives before Election Day on Nov. 3, when all N.F.L. and team facilities will be closed so everyone will have an opportunity to vote — perhaps at stadiums that might be made available as polling places. There is, however, a long time until then: roughly half a season that will begin as scheduled, unlikely as it once may have seemed.