ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As COVID-19 continues to impact sports leagues around the country, the NFL appears poised to continue forward with its eyes on starting the 2020 regular season without a delay.
Jeffrey Pash, the league's executive vice president of labor/league counsel, joined several other league executives, including Troy Vincent, Brian Rolapp and Peter O'Reilly, to provide updates on the NFL's plans for the season and other tentpole events in the wake of COVID-19 crisis.
The Athletic's Lindsay Jones was among the national reporters on a national conference call with Pash and Co., and she joined me on "The Neutral Zone" to explain the key points of the conversation.
Read on for a few of the highlights from the podcast, and click here to listen to the entirety of my interview with Jones.
2020 NFL DRAFT
As the league prepares for the 2020 NFL Draft, they will likely implement a "hub and spoke" model. Commissioner Roger Goodell will be based at a central location, and the league will then have offshoots that include the 32 teams, 50 of the top draft prospects, key former players and several die-hard fans.
The NFL plans to send phones and tripods to the top prospects to set up video feeds and ensure a sense of familiarity for this year's draft.
"They're working on some of these logistics so that we can have some of the familiarity where the guy, he's not going to get his jersey right away, but to have some of that feel of your representing your new team when your name gets called," Jones said.
It's possible that these prospects will receive a hat for each of the 32 teams and will then put on the correct hat after being drafted.
The NFL is also discussing how the event will work for teams. Franchises could potentially have the option to extend their time on the clock if they're working on a trade. This may only be available once per team during the draft.
"I think there's going to have to be a little more grace applied, a little bit more patience — especially in the later rounds of the draft when the rounds are so short and that's when a lot of the trades are happening," Jones said.
And while some states' standards would currently allow teams' core decision makers to gather on an off-site location, Jones said she believes the NFL will likely have to abide by the rules of whichever state has the most stringent shelter-in-place policy. This would ensure competitive fairness.
The NFL released more information about potential draft scenarios on Thursday in a memo to general managers and head coaches.
All NFL facilities are currently closed through at least April 8.
Still, Jones believes the NFL will find a way to once again make the draft a premier television broadcast.
"It's going to be a good TV event," Jones said. "That's the big thing that they're really working on right now. It's still going to be on ESPN, on ABC [and] on NFL Network. We're all stuck at home. We can all take a break from [Netflix documentary] Tiger King and watch three full days of the NFL Draft."
THE OFFSEASON PROGRAM
While the draft is scheduled to proceed, offseason programs for all 32 teams are delayed indefinitely.
Despite the inconvenience, Jones said she thinks teams will be able to install their schemes without much of a disruption.
"From a learning perspective, I think they'll be able to get some stuff done in terms of holding meetings," Jones said. "We're all in our jobs right now — no matter what field you're in — we're doing a lot of Zoom and kind of distance meetings with our coworkers, and I think they'll be able to figure out ways that [Offensive Coordinator] Pat Shurmur can be on Zoom with Drew Lock and the rest of the quarterbacks and the offensive room going through install, and going over plays and sending them parts of the playbook and going over all the stuff that normally would happen in meetings. I think they'll be able to accomplish the meeting portion of the offseason not quite as well, but I think they'll be able to get a lot of that done. The part I don't know exactly how it's going to work yet is when they do workouts."
Jones said she believes teams' strength and conditioning staffs could send individualized workouts, but the players may not have access to the proper equipment.
There has been no indication about when teams may be able to resume their offseason programs.
"It's totally up in the air right now," Jones said. "They haven't said that the offseason program is cancelled, I think because they're trying to figure out how much of it that they can do virtually. I think they're preparing for the fact that it's going to have to be all done virtually. … I think the reality is nobody knows when this is going to calm down enough to really have dates on when anything is going to be able to resume. When this does subside, at what point will they be able to start resuming some normalcy? Is that just letting small groups of people back into the building? What is the testing protocol going to be? Will there be enough tests that every single person and player is going to be able to be screened and cleared before they're allowed back in the building? That's something they're all having to work through right now."
On the call, the NFL executives emphasized they did not want to be a burden on the health-care system and take up an exorbitant number of COVID-19 tests.
THE START TO THE 2020 SEASON
The NFL plans to consult with public health officials as it approaches the 2020 season, but the league gave every indication that it plans to kick off the season in September and play a full slate of games.
Jones said she believed that while the sentiment seemed a little "disjointed" in comparison to the grave information coming out about the virus, it makes sense for the NFL to plan as if the season will progress as scheduled. It's easier, certainly, for the league to schedule games and then cancel rather than scramble at the last moment.
"They're so adamant that they believe they can play a full 16-game season," Jones said. "We're not hearing the same stuff from other leagues right now, and all those other leagues are kind of suspended. We're not hearing Major League Baseball talk about how they believe that they'll be able to play a World Series and a full second half of the season or anything like that.
"They're optimistic. They want their fans to be optimistic. They want to be a sense of normalcy with everything else in the country and the world right now being so abnormal. I guess I can appreciate that, but as a news reporter and a journalist you're always looking for real answers and dates and timelines, and they just weren't able to really provide that yet. That's because I don't think anybody really has the answers."
The NFL also said it plans to play five international games, four in London and one in Mexico City. The Broncos are rumored to be set to play the Falcons in London.
"It's one thing to kind of be dealing with stuff domestically, but now, when you work on international games, you're having to work on international travel and international security and different testing protocols," Jones said. "I guess good for them for believing those games can happen as normal, and like I said, it's one of those things where you plan for it to happen and if they can't happen because of travel restrictions or whatever it is that might be going on internationally, those just become home games in the United States. It's maybe not that difficult to just change the location for those games from a neutral site game to a home game."
As the NFL plans for their schedule to begin on time, it could help if another major sports league is able to take the first step.
"Some of these other leagues, they might be able to provide some guidance, because there's questions about if they do resume play, is it going to be [in] empty stadiums?" Jones said. "Are fans going to be screened? How do they ensure that not just their own players and coaches and staff are safe, but how do we ensure that the fans would be safe, as well? Those are just a lot of things that I don't think anybody really knows how that's going to work yet. We'll see if the NFL ends up being a leader on that or if one of the other sports leagues is able to navigate it first."
Jones said she expects the next updates on the situation could come from the NFL after the draft later this month or following league meetings in May.