CloseESPN Staff WriterCovered the 49ers, Raiders and Warriors for the San Jose Mercury News. She joined ESPN in 2017.
Welcome to NFL game day in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic. Please remember to wash your hands, wear a mask and stay six feet apart.
When the NFL decided to push forward with starting the 2020 season on time, the league implemented rigorous protocols and procedures to keep its players, coaches and team personnel safe. And even those have had to be altered — sometimes weekly — as teams battle COVID-19 outbreaks within the walls of their facilities.
Getting to game day each week has been a challenge for almost every team as the entire aesthetic of NFL games has changed during a season unlike any other. From the number of buses teams take to the stadium to maintain social distancing to the way quarterbacks call plays in the huddle, the coronavirus has forced teams to adapt and adjust the way they operate.
Travel has changed. Schedules have changed. Competitive advantages/disadvantages have cropped up for many teams. The look and feel of game day is totally different in 2020, but the NFL has marched on, aided by an understanding of the need for flexibility.
We asked players and coaches to describe the differences they’ve experienced on game day — from travel all the way into the huddle — as the NFL continues to forge ahead with the 2020 season.
Road life and pregame
Team travel has extra complications in 2020. No longer are players, coaches and staff allowed to explore the cities they’re playing in during what little downtime they have on the road. They’re not permitted to leave the hotel to eat in restaurants open to the public, can’t jump in an Uber or use other forms of public or private transportation. They can’t have visitors to their room other than members of their traveling party or use shared hotel facilities (such as the pool or fitness center) unless it has been designated for use by the traveling party and thoroughly disinfected.
To limit exposure to COVID-19, the NFL reduced the number of staffers on road trips from 110 to 70, which includes coaches, medical staff, equipment and front-office personnel.
Just getting to and from cities adds a new wrinkle to the week’s preparation.
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) October 3, 2020
Joe Judge, New York Giants head coach: “Anytime you have a mask on, it slows down your hydration. Also when you’re on the [team] plane, you naturally dehydrate from the air pressure and the way it affects the cells and the moisture in your cells. We need to make sure we do a really good job traveling with hydrating on the plane, even though we have masks on.”
Adam Gase, New York Jets head coach: “I think it was a little odd, though, when you get on a plane. It had been so long since any of us had really done anything — traveling, being in a different hotel. It felt like it had been a long time.”
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach: “My experience has been, you arrive at the hotel and if you go to get a workout in or sauna, it’s packed with your travel party, packed with coaches. I rarely have ever seen players in there, but that’s like one of things that I had to make sure the coaches [know]. I’m like, ‘Look, [you] better get a workout before you go’ and then Sunday morning if you’re going to get a workout, get it at the stadium. You’re not going to be able to get it at the hotel, but these are the things you have to go over to keep everybody safe.”
Matthew Judon, Baltimore Ravens LB: “I usually find one of the best pizza spots in town — one of the highest rated — and I eat pizza the night before a game. We aren’t allowed to leave our hotel, I think. So, they’re just going to have to bring it to me and we’re just going to have to be chilling up in a hotel.”
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes goes through warm-ups before a game on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Sean Ryan, Detroit Lions QB coach: “If you’ve got friends or family in that area you used to be able to see them, even if it was briefly you’d be able to say hello and talk to them a little bit. That’s obviously not the case and also they are obviously not at the games so that’s probably the biggest difference. There’s none of that interaction with friends or family on the road, and in some ways, there’s no distractions, either. Which is a good thing.”
For the past few years Ezekiel Elliott’s mom, Dawn, would sit in one of the end zone field suites at AT&T Stadium with the running back’s sisters or other family and friends. But not this year. Elliott’s mom will remain in St. Louis for games even though AT&T Stadium is one of the few NFL venues — so far — to allow fans at games. The money Elliott might have saved by not booking a suite didn’t last long.
Elliott, Dallas Cowboys RB: “Me and my mom, we had a trade-off. I told her that she couldn’t come down this year, so I finished her basement and got her a nice TV and couches so she has somewhere nice to watch the games.”
Jordan Akins, Houston Texans TE: “The meals are like individually packed. It’s not like you can sit there and say I want a chicken salad, or I want this, or I want that. It’s like pre-ordered. You sit down and you write down what you want. They have everything set up for you. It’s kind of more isolated and it’s not just out for the open.”
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Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings QB: “There’s scheduling differences. There’s subtle differences, like, when you have the pregame meal at breakfast, there’s only four players at a table instead of maybe having six or eight. So we’re a little more spread out. We’re doing our chapel virtually, so we’re sitting in our rooms on a computer instead of being in a room together.”
Hank Fraley, Lions OL coach: “Normally you go somewhere, you wake up extremely early [on game day] and it’s a chance to go out and just have a cup of coffee down the street instead of the hotel if you’re able to do it, you know, and just take a walk around the block and come back in. Since that’s going on now, there’s none of that. It’s fine. It’s just the new norm, right?”
The atmosphere of game day
More teams are allowing fans into stadiums at limited capacity as we enter Week 6 of the season, but many remain closed to patrons for the foreseeable future. That means the continued use of artificial crowd noise. Players need to provide their own juice with little to no crowd energy to boost them.
Wes Martin, Washington G: “It was very quiet. It was almost kind of eerily quiet. Even in pee wee football in fourth grade you’d hear your parents yelling and screaming. For the first time ever you’re out there in a game and it’s really, really quiet.”
A fan holds a sign supporting the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott at AT&T Stadium. Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams head coach: “In terms of the crowd noise, it was extremely irritating, but I didn’t notice it until — it was kind of like white noise until I realized that it was crowd noise. Then I couldn’t stop hearing it. It was like, you want to talk to someone, but you couldn’t because you realize there’s this white noise just drowning out anything you wanted to say.”
Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans QB: “Definitely no energy coming from the stadium; you have to bring our own energy on the sidelines, within the huddle. At the end of the day it’s still football though. We have to be able to go out and play, feed off of each other instead of the crowd, and be the best at playing in that circumstance because both teams are dealing with the same stuff.”
Kevin Byard, Titans S: “It’s all about being locked in and being more detailed.”
Ty McKenzie, Lions LB coach: “When I first went out there I am looking and there’s no one in here. It’s dead silent and quiet. This is weird. This is strange. Once you kind of felt the energy of the teams. You always want the fans there.”
Fans keep their distance in NFL stadiums that allow a reduced number of spectators. Jamie Squire/Getty Images
J.J. Watt, Texans DE: “I mean even comparing just last week with whatever it was, 15,000 to this week with none I was surprised at how big of a difference even just 15,000 fans makes. So as an athlete, as a competitor, did it make a difference in how you play? No. But you can definitely tell just the atmosphere, the excitement, the energy is definitely different.”
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs QB: “It’s like practicing in the locker room with nobody else in there. There’s literally no noise. It is different. It’s not like practice because in practice, you can at least get music playing.”
Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints DE: “Looking up and seeing the Superdome — the Superdome — just sorta felt like we were at a Tampa Bay game.”
The lack of crowd noise makes it easier for television broadcasts to pick up some of what’s being said on the sidelines, such as defenders yelling out to declare passing situations or players cheering for their teammates in celebration after a big play.
Without the boost from fans, the sidelines have a different feel in 2020.
Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders QB: “Do you do this for fans’ appreciation? Do you do it for fans to pat you on the back? Or do you do this because you love it and you’ll get up whether there’s noise or not. And if you’re one of those guys, which I think we have a team full of guys like that, then you just go out there and you just love making plays with your teammates. That’s where our juice comes from, within our sideline, within our team.”
Lions coach Matt Patricia says wearing a mask on the sidelines is an extra challenge for him on game days. Michael McLoone/USA TODAY Sports
Jared Cook, Saints TE: “Pretty much the whole game we were on the sideline talking about how different it was. Everything from start to finish was weird. It was eerie. … You could hear a lot. The music was not loud enough. The crowd noise we felt was not loud enough. The only crowd noise we had was some of our inactive players that were in the stands cheering so loud.”
The best teams are a well-oiled machine on the sideline. There’s someone in charge of signals while another staffer handles substitutions. As always, coaches with headsets roam the sidelines as they communicate with everyone, including other coaches up in the booth. Orchestrating an effective communication strategy has taken some getting used to for coaches.
Tim Kelly, Texans OC: “[A quiet stadium has] made [communication] it easier. You’re not dealing with 70,000 screaming people.”
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Matt Patricia, Lions head coach: “Honestly, for myself, I don’t really hear that well anyways, so I do a lot of lip reading, and that’s real hard when you have masks on from that standpoint. I know the players do out on the field too. There’s a lot of times where I’ve had players that — they’ll read my lips. They don’t necessarily get the call through the helmet, and they might just be able to understand what we’re running based on the communication based on looking at somebody’s face. Sometimes it becomes really difficult.”
Ryan, Lions QB coach: “Up in the [coaches’] box it’s not a huge difference because once you put your headset on, you’re kind of locked in to the field and the crowd is not that distracting to you. So not a huge difference up there. Other than we’re in two separate boxes now so there’s a lot more spread out to work. It’s actually pretty nice.”
And don’t even think about pulling that mask down to call a play.
Gase, Jets coach: “There was a suggestion by our starting quarterback that maybe I need to pull it down sometimes when I’m calling plays. I’m glad I didn’t … I’d rather not get fined $100,000. That would not go over well.”
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On the field
While the protocols and procedures in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 have affected nearly every part of the game-day operation, the X’s and O’s remain the same. It’s how they’re being executed, though, that adds another element to these weekly chess matches.
Ron Rivera, Washington head coach: “I will say there were a couple times where I wished we had a little bit more of a crowd noise, especially fourth quarter when they got the ball with a couple minutes to play. I was kind of wishing we had the crowd going right now. That would be cool.”
Nick Martin, Texans C: “When you play you’re so zoned in you don’t really notice it, to be honest. It’s more like the big plays you noticed it, when your defense is out there, running out of the tunnel, kind of little things like that, momentum shifters. But when you’re actually in the framework of the game, the play, you really don’t notice it because you’re so locked in on your job.”
Without fans, many players say it’s up to them to create their own energy throughout the game. Mark Hoffman/USA TODAY NETWORK
Martin, Washington G: “We tried to stay alert to [line calls] like with some of our line communications let’s do certain things not to show our hand. But some things you can kind of try to hide. With some things it is what it is.”
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers QB: “I feel like it was going to be an advantage for guys like myself who have cadence that can be rhythmic enough to draw people offside. At the bare minimum, it definitely keeps them at bay; they’re not really able to jump the snap count. Which, for us, is all it needs to do. It’s a new world we’re living in, playing in.”
Mahomes, Chiefs QB: “[A verbal snap count] is definitely an advantage. The only thing that’s kind of a disadvantage is that you have to change a lot of code words for a lot of your audibles because everybody can kind of hear you on the TV copy and everything like that.”
Drew Lock, Denver Broncos QB: “I wanted to call the play quietly in the huddle because I didn’t know if they could hear us calling plays.”
Cousins, Vikings QB: “I’m used to saying it [the playcall] at the top of my lungs in an away stadium. Sunday, I’m actually trying to say it with some level of quiet and calm in my voice. And I want a tight huddle. I want the linemen to create a wall so the defense can’t read my lips or get a feel for the play across the line of scrimmage.”
A legendary home-field advantage in Seattle has been reduced to virtual fans on video boards. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Joel Bitonio, Cleveland Browns G: “A few times, I wanted to be like, ‘Should we be this loud? I feel like we are calling the play too loud,’ or something like that.”
Carr, Raiders QB: “People hear calls and checks all the time. That’s every game, every week. So, you’re used to that, you’re used to changing them and you’re used to saying the same thing and it meaning something else the next week and things like that. That’s nothing new in the NFL.”
Aaron Donald, Rams DT: “It just felt more like a little league game back when I was 6, 7 years old playing. The only thing that wasn’t there was my mom and dad screaming ‘Aaron!’ That was the only thing that was different.”
Drew Brees, Saints QB: “It’s like, you gotta visualize people jumping up and down at home or something like that. But yeah, you gotta worry about what we can control. You know, create your own emotion and lock in on the game.”
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Jared Goff, Rams QB: “I thought it was really cool that we could really, throughout the game, hear our sideline. I told those guys, I thought it was really cool being able to make big plays and hear our guys kind of erupt and could hear like individual voices.”
Anthony Weaver, Texans DC: “The thing I think I miss the most, particularly as a defensive guy, is when you have a situation like we did against Baltimore when you’re having a string of sacks. When J.J. Watt gets a sack and Charles Omenihu and Zach Cunningham, when those things happen, typically that ignites the stadium and the defense feeds off that energy. Now we’ve got to make sure we bring all that energy and juice within ourselves.”
Bitonio, Browns G: “Before the first game, I was just thinking I did not know how quiet it was going to be and I don’t want to get up to the ball and they are hearing us call passes or call runs. We do not want to give them any advantages in that sense.”
Aaron Jones still did the Lambeau Leap after his touchdown even though there was no one to catch him.
Jones, Packers RB: “I definitely miss the fans, the pats on the helmet, the pats on the back, them screaming. But I mean, anytime I get in the end zone. I like the Lambeau Leap. It’s a tradition we have here. Hopefully I picked up some sponsors, leaping on FedEx, Invisalign.”
Fans or no fans, Packers running back Aaron Jones was still going to do the Lambeau Leap after a touchdown. Mike Roemer/AP Photo
Big-play celebrations don’t yield the same feeling as before.
Donald, Rams DT: “It was like a more intense scrimmage. You make a play and it’s a high-five; you don’t have the crowd to celebrate to.”
In Week 4 during the Colts-Bears game, field mics picked up Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers’ friendly trash-talk of Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith as he tried to draw the defense offside in the fourth quarter.
Even the smack talk between the lines carries a different feel this season.
Sheldon Richardson, Browns DT: “If anything, [trash-talking] has picked up more. Not at home games for us, but the first away game felt like a little scrimmage or something like that with no fans in the stands at all. If you were trash-talking, if anything, it got picked up more and more low-toned so your guys are not yelling and just talking to them and talking to you.”
Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons RB: “You hear [trash-talking] a lot more, for sure. That’s really like the only thing to do is to trash-talk. You can’t talk stuff to the fans, so you might as well just do it to the opposing team.”