NFL may consider a playoff ‘secure environment’


The NFL will consider possibilities for a postseason bubble that would further protect players, coaches and staff members from COVID-19 during the most important games of the season, executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said Wednesday.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton broached the idea during a recent competition committee meeting, Vincent said. The league has made no commitments, and Vincent said he wasn’t sure if it was something the league could do “legally.” But he reiterated that “all things are on the table” at the moment.

“We didn’t use the term ‘bubble,'” Vincent said, “but that ‘secure environment’ to make sure that there is no risk from the outside as teams start making that [playoff] drive. … We did tell Coach Payton that it was something that both [chief medical officer Allen] Sills and the teams would explore. These are things that we just have to be flexible on.”

Bubbles that isolate players, coaches and key staff members from the local community have worked well for the NBA, WNBA, NHL and professional soccer. The NFL considered but ultimately decided against true market bubbles for the season, citing the relative practicality of what would be at least six months of isolation. Instead, it created what Sills has called a “virtual football bubble” consisting of strict protocols at team facilities and potential player discipline for risky behavior when away from it.

The approach has yielded strong early results, and as of Tuesday only 10 players remained on the league’s COVID-19 reserve list. Some teams, including the Saints and Dallas Cowboys, have created voluntary bubbles for players during training camp that allow them to shuttle between a hotel and the practice facility without significant exposure to the surrounding community.

In other league news Wednesday:

* Vincent confirmed that commissioner Roger Goodell has formed a COVID-19 advisory board to help make some decisions during the season that normally would fall under the competition committee’s purview. Vincent declined to name the members of the board, but said they would help Goodell make decisions about potential schedule changes, postponements, cancellations and other issues that could be a conflict of interest for the competition committee’s members.

* The NFL tweaked its protocol to eliminate testing for any person who was known to have tested positive in the past 90 days. The change reflects new CDC guidance that previously infected people retain immunity for at least three months. Although they won’t be tested, those people will still be required to follow mask and other personal protective equipment protocol.

* The league distributed travel and game-day protocols to teams this week. In order to minimize the number of people on the field before a game, the league has barred cheerleaders, mascots, sideline reporters and fans from the field at all times.

* Sills said that the league is following advancements in saliva testing but gave no indication that it would switch from its current protocol of PCR tests. “Anything we do has to be filtered through the lens of having the most accurate and efficient test that we can,” he said.

* Sills said that feedback has been “mixed” on a plastic mask designed by Oakley that attaches to helmets and is designed to minimize spread of the virus during practices and games. Concerns about the breathability of the mask have led Oakley to develop a new version that will soon be distributed, Sills said.

* There has been no decision on whether the league will continue to conduct daily COVID-19 testing during the regular season, Sills said. The NFL and NFL Players Association testing agreement expires Sept. 5, after which they will have to decide whether to extend the daily tests or, if infection rates remain low, reduce it to every other day.

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