The biggest victory of the NFL’s Week 1 happened in the run-up to Week 2: No players were added to the COVID-19 reserve list Monday through Friday, signaling a successful first weekend of travel for teams amid a pandemic.
Outside of a lab contamination that turned up 12 “false positives” on Aug. 23, the Vikings have been without a player on the COVID list since Aug. 13. Strict leaguewide traveling protocols are designed to keep it that way during the team’s first road trip of the season for Sunday’s game against the Colts in Indianapolis.
Players often talk about road games as “business trips” to avoid distractions that come with visits to places like Los Angeles and Miami, but under new road rules for the 2020 season they won’t be able to do much but focus on the game. Hosting family, taking an Uber ride and eating at a restaurant are among the prohibited actions for road teams this year.
“My family in previous years have flown to games and I’ve met them at the hotel,” cornerback Mike Hughes said. “Obviously, we can’t do that this year, so it’ll be pretty different. It’s a business trip at the end of the day. We go there to do one thing, and that’s win a football game, so that’s what we’re focused on.”
Personal responsibility has been a topic in Vikings team meetings throughout the pandemic. Because all NFL teams — home or away — are required to stay at a hotel the night before games, the Vikings got a dry run of sorts before the season opener against the Packers for the protocols they’ll follow in Indianapolis.
“The whole thing is different, but it was different last week, too,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
He added, “This might be a little bit more normal now that we’ve been through this one time.”
Road trip rules
Vikings players, coaches and personnel took the week’s final COVID-19 test on Saturday before boarding flights for Indianapolis. The NFL has encouraged teams to charter two planes to maintain social distancing requirements. One empty seat is required between members of the traveling party, which is limited to 70 non-players, including coaching and medical staffs and other essential personnel. Players are not being tested on game days, and therefore aren’t allowed in team facilities the day after games.
When the Vikings arrived in Indianapolis, chartered buses weren’t supposed to carry more than 50% capacity to the team hotel. Players need to handle their own luggage the entire time. A separate entrance for the team will be secured at the hotel, and a block of lower-level rooms was arranged so elevators aren’t needed.
“Got a little bit of a taste of what that’s like,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said of staying at the team hotel last weekend. “If anything, it’ll just be very simple and we’ll be focused on football and won’t have a lot of other distractions of any kind.”
Masks and proximity devices (for contact tracing) will continue to be required on team planes and buses, and during meetings at the hotel. All people in close contact with the team, whether working for the hotel or transportation, must clear COVID-19 screening beforehand.
Players get their own hotel rooms, where nobody from outside the team is allowed, and are barred from using shared facilities like the gym. Meals will be prepackaged, takeout or through contactless delivery.
“Typically, guys go out to restaurants the night before, and they can’t do that,” Zimmer said. “Those things are going to be different, but once you get to the stadium, I think this week will be more normal than it was last week. Last week there was a lot of things going on, a lot of uncertainty.”
The NFL requires road teams to hold at least three empty hotel rooms near the game for anybody exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Those were seemingly unneeded last weekend as players returned unscathed. The Colts were in Jacksonville, where in a quasi-bubble nearly 60 players were sustained by food in Styrofoam containers instead of buffet-style catering.
“Pretty seamless,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “Our operations crew did a good job being out in front of everything and made it real easy for the players and coaches. The biggest difference was getting to the hotel, where a lot of times guys are heading out grabbing something to eat. With the new protocols, that doesn’t happen. The food modifications were probably the biggest noticeable difference.”
The NFL may update travel protocols as data is analyzed from proximity trackers, which can record interactions within 6 feet of each other. The league is also working with health officials in Kansas City and Jacksonville, according to Yahoo Sports, to monitor whether a spike in COVID-19 positive cases follows fans attending games in those areas.
Official Week 1 testing results, for Sept. 13-19, won’t be released until next week. The NFL announced this week only two confirmed positive tests among players and five confirmed positive tests among other team personnel for Sept. 6-12, a span including 40,479 tests and the Sept. 10 season opener.
“From planes to buses to hotels to staffing to meals to transport to and from the stadium, that will be consistent across the league,” Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, said on Sept. 1, “and ensure we put our teams in the safest possible environment wherever they may be.”
The way of the road
The Vikings’ road map changes weekly. They’ll go from no fans at U.S. Bank Stadium to 2,500 fans on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Then it’s back to no fans for the Sept. 27 home game against Tennessee, and possibly as many as 15,000 fans on Oct. 4 in Houston.
The season-opening loss to the Packers showed how COVID-related changes can affect the game, too. Without fans inside U.S. Bank Stadium and amplified crowd noise hovering around 70 decibels, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ hard count resulted in three early jumps by Vikings defenders in their own building, “something that hasn’t happened around here in a long time,” Zimmer said.
He hopes Vikings coaches and players have adapted after one game and many questions.
“I had one player come up to me before the game and said, ‘Do you think we should make our calls quieter because the other team can hear us?’ ” Zimmer said. “I think they just understand a little better now what it’s really going to be like.”
Coaches and players otherwise downplayed the impact of possible “sign stealing,” in the football sense, if calls or checks are clearly picked up on the broadcast or during games without the aggressive backdrop of an NFL crowd. But it’s one more possible adjustment in 2020.
“You also can’t get paranoid,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “You got to play and play to the confidence of your players and have them confident in what you’re doing. I think it’s a fine line whether you’re playing in an empty stadium or playing in a full one and using hand signals, it’s the same thing.”