GamePlan: Inside the NFL’s Most Recent COVID-19 Saga – Sports Illustrated

There are lots of areas of an NFL facility where a player might expect his personal space to be intruded on. Normally, the hot tub isn’t one of them. And yet, there Joel Bitonio and Austin Hooper were 10 days ago, when a Browns trainer came in to, more or less, break up their pool party.

“The guy just came in, he was like, ‘Hey Hoop, you tested positive. You gotta get out,’” Bitonio said on his way home Wednesday. “And he said, ‘What? What do you mean’ And I’m standing five feet away from him and I’m like, ‘Uh, what’s happening here?’”

The Browns’ COVID-19 outbreak of 2021 was happening, and the weird moments were just starting for a team that would, over the course of just a few days, prepare for a game on a short week down more than 20 players; face the threat of having that game canceled and players’ pay for it eliminated; and then, finally, endure a reschedule that moved the contest to a Tuesday, and created an even shorter week to be capped with a Christmas Day game.

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski talks with quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) during the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium.

If your head’s spinning, you probably weren’t paying much attention to how things have gone in the NFL of late. The league’s return to (relative) normalcy in 2021 has, officially now, been blown up with the Omicron variant wreaking on the NFL schedule. The Browns were one of three teams to experience outbreaks last week, which led to six teams having to go through a very 2020 circumstance.

Those six got through it and, for now, the three teams hit hard with COVID-19 have stemmed the tide. But if the problem is waning in Washington, Cleveland and Los Angeles, it has exploded elsewhere, with the Texans, Jets, Ravens and Saints all counting more than 10 players on their COVID-19 reserve lists.

The NFL has three weeks left in its regular season, then five weeks of playoffs after that. Maybe this is a short-term blip, and Omicron rips through the NFL fast (that’s actually what seems to be happening in South Africa, where the variant first popped up), and things are O.K. by the time we get for January. But hoping for the best isn’t a plan. And all this has left everyone—the league, union, teams and players—looking for a good one. The past week necessitated that.

Welcome into the Week 16 GamePlan, and we’re ready to roll with all need to get ready for Christmas weekend in the NFL. Inside this week’s column, you’ll find …

• A breakdown of the biggest games, leading with a two-team reckoning on Saturday night.

• Things to keep an eye on, including a look at where the QB for America’s Team stands.

• My (NOW GOLDEN!) gambling advice.

• An assessment of the chances that a non-quarterback wins MVP.

But we’re starting with a thorough look, through the eyes and words of those who lived it, at the week COVID-19 made its comeback in pro football.

When the $6 billion SoFi Stadium opened to fans for the first time this year, one promise of opulence from the Rams to their audience was that they would get a culinary experience uncommon for a football venue—they even had events to tout the chefs that would help to craft it. On Tuesday, the team treated their paying customers to hot dogs and pizza.

That was just one reality that the Rams, and the other home teams, in Cleveland and Philadelphia, faced on Monday and Tuesday. Stadium workers scheduled to be there on Saturday and Sunday couldn’t necessarily work two days later, and because of that, in L.A., the concession stands were short-staffed, with everyone making do as best they could in a less-than-ideal situation.

Despite everything, the Rams did get the stadium mostly full (the game had long been sold out, and the number of no-shows for it was relatively normal). But even that took effort—the team messaged fans to give tickets to friends if they couldn’t make it, and encouraged donations to a program that gifts tickets from would-be no-shows to disadvantaged area kids. And that made the week one no one will soon forget.

“We did do little things to try to make the gameday experience better, but it’s great credit to our fans,” Rams COO Kevin Demoff said on Thursday. “They showed up, they were loud. The crowd was unbelievable, it was one of our best environments of the year and you completely lost track that it was Tuesday at 4 p.m.”

Call that a reward for a week full of hurdles and jumping through hoops. And mostly, just a long week for everyone—teams, players, league and union—involved.

The Rams’ outbreak was the one that moved the NFL and NFLPA to action. Their respective task forces had monitored the spread of Omicron in South Africa, and the patterns that followed in Los Angeles matched it closely enough to sound the alarm.

“We knew something had to change pretty drastically,” said one involved source.

As things worsened, NFL owners gathered in Dallas for their annual December meeting, just the second in-person summit they’ve held during the pandemic, and very quickly conversation started to center on finding an effective way to adjust the COVID-19 plan for the changing dynamics spurred on by Omicron. The NFL’s medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, delivered the message to the group that this variant was more contagious, with milder symptoms, than previous variants. And support gathered among teams to reduce testing.

Meanwhile, a union that had pushed consistently for daily testing was facing a very similar challenge to the league’s—its membership was overwhelmingly opposed to continuing forward with ramped-up testing and/or enhanced protocols. Mostly, the players, hit with another wave of COVID-19, were tired of dealing with it, and wanted a return to normalcy, complaining to the union that they’d be promised by their teams that if they got vaccinated, they wouldn’t have to live the lives they did in 2020.

So last Thursday night, the NFLPA’s executive committee met virtually to discuss a plan going forward. Those on the committee agreed that the union should reinforce with the league the need for daily testing, and advocate for less mitigation (masking, distancing) to respect the larger group of players’ desire to keep their work environments as normal as possible.

And as the league and union went into meetings on Friday, it became clear, pretty quickly, that cancellations were on the table. There were questions over whether spread was coming from unvaccinated players—it was too soon to figure that out definitively, and because Omicron was moving so quickly it’d prove almost impossible for the experts to decipher where each outbreak had started anyway—and whether or not protocols within the three teams effected were followed.

All three games were in peril, Washington-Philadelphia more so than the others, and that meant, for the NFLPA, the priority wound up shifting to getting those games played. If they weren’t, the six teams involved wouldn’t get paid, which is why, over time, players from the Raiders, Eagles and Seahawks stopped crying foul.

“The Raiders, I think, were very angry about it,” Bitonio said. “Some of the players were like ‘This isn’t fair, they should forfeit. We haven’t done anything wrong.’ And I don’t think they realized that even if it was a forfeit, they weren‘t gonna get paid. So [NFLPA president/Browns center] J.C. [Tretter] talked to some of the guys over there, and they were like ‘Oh, that makes more sense.’ …

“After the fact, J.C. said there was a real chance that these games were gonna get canceled. And then that would lead to an avalanche effect of, ‘Alright they have precedent to cancel other games.’ It happened in other leagues last year, the NHL canceled like 50 games where guys didn’t get paid—They didn’t get paid for those games.”

The league and union were able to avoid that, and eventually agreed to spot testing, rather daily testing, replacing weekly testing. The overarching idea was to emphasize reporting and treating symptoms. Prior to last week, one high-ranking league official said, spread was happening because guys would “test negative on Monday, then have mild symptoms on Tuesday and Wednesday, but think they were alright because they had the negative test.”

Those players would then transmit the virus and, in the more recent cases of Omicron, that could mean a good percentage of a roster would be gone almost instantly. Of course, basing testing on symptoms puts it on players and staff to self-report at a critical point in the season. But so far, so good—the league has administered over a thousand tests already since the new system went in at the end of last week.

As was the case with the other two teams, the Rams were hit fast. Donte Deayon and Darrell Henderson returned positive tests on the Saturday before L.A. played the Cardinals, and right tackle Rob Havenstein self-reported symptoms that Sunday morning. The team traveled to Phoenix later in the day, then tight end Tyler Higbee and corner Jalen Ramsey—close contacts of Havenstein and Deayon—popped positives tests on Monday morning.

“To have two show up in one day on Saturday was concerning, but you figured ‘O.K., we have a fully-vaccinated team, we followed the protocols. Essentially in California, we operate in an outdoor environment most of the time. We’ll be O.K.,’” says Demoff, “When Rob Havenstein showed up with symptoms on Sunday, that’s when we were concerned that this could turn into something larger.”

Indeed it did. That Monday night, the Rams posted their biggest win of the year—knocking off Arizona to keep hope of an NFC West title alive—and by Tuesday, they figured out they’d done it with several COVID-19–positive guys on the field. Through the regular weekly testing, nine more Rams (some on the active roster, some on the practice squad) came up positive on Tuesday morning, off tests taken on Monday before the game.

By Tuesday, Demoff, VP of football and business administration Tony Pastoors and football administration analyst Kassandra Garcia (who works with head trainer Reggie Scott to run the Rams’ COVID-19 protocols) were in Dallas for the league meeting. They’d made the call to shut the team facility in Thousand Oaks down, and met in Texas with NFL execs Larry Ferazani, Dawn Aponte and Dave Gardi to map out their next steps.

The focus for the Rams was to get players back faster than most teams had been over the course of 2021 season—players weren’t testing out of the protocols the same way they had in 2021, which led to more than 80% of them league-wide having to sit out 10 days without symptoms before returning. That helped lead to the league’s new testing thresholds that would make it easier for guys to get back on the field.

From there, the Rams made it clear with the league that they weren’t interested in canceling. And because they’d been through a reschedule before—they had to move a game from Mexico City to L.A. in 2018 because of field conditions in Mexico, then had to practice for that game in Colorado Springs because of wildfires in California—they were confident they could pull another one off.

Still, there were going to be challenges.

“You have concerns for season ticket-holders,” says Demoff. “If there’s a good week to push a game back, it’s the week leading up to Christmas. Schools are not in session, for the most part, and people might have a little bit more flexible schedules. But a lot of people are traveling. So you certainly were concerned for people who had bought tickets just for this game to travel in, who might not be able to make it Tuesday. And then when you find out the game could be Tuesday at 4 p.m., that’s such an odd time in the threshold of L.A. traffic, on a Tuesday afternoon, just making sure you can fill the building was a challenge.”

As for the team itself, its ability to just prepare for the Seahawks was stressed—the players got back on the field on Saturday for a walkthrough, amid positive tests continuing to snake through the coaching staff and football operations, and, per Demoff, “their heads were clearly not there yet.” And part of that was the changing cast of characters, with nine new players identified and brought in by GM Les Snead and pro scouting director John McKay to fill in the gaps that the virus had created. Another part was the human element of it all.

“You wake up with a cough, normally you’d kind of joke for the last two years about it, ‘Haha, I might have COVID,’” says Demoff. “In this case you really were like, I might have COVID. And I think that resonated, certainly, with everybody. Especially those with young kids who aren’t able to be vaccinated yet, that’s the group you worry about the most.”

The Rams, in the end, wound up gathering themselves. The extra two days resulted in L.A. getting seven players back they wouldn’t have had on Sunday, including Ramsey and Von Miller. That helped as preparation ramped up, and served as the precursor for a 20–10 win over Seattle that has the team now on the doorstep on making the playoffs for the fourth time in Sean McVay’s five years as Rams coach.

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay celebrates against the Seattle Seahawks in the second half at SoFi Stadium. The Rams defeated the Seahawks 20-10

“I’m biased, but I thought our organization shined throughout this time, from our trainers to our doctors to our coaches to our staff to our players to our stadium operations people,” Demoff says. “It was one of those where you looked around and you could take pride in who the Los Angeles Rams are, and what they were able to accomplish … for those eight days, which were an odyssey.”

The Browns didn’t get the benefit of coming out of all this with a win like the Rams did. Even still, Bitonio thinks they came out of the experience leading up to the 16–14 loss to Raiders—Vegas won on a field goal at the wire—with something valuable.

“We‘re at the point in the season when moral victories aren‘t helping,” Bitonio said. “Win there and we‘d be in first place and we can control our own destiny. But I do think you saw the way Coach [Kevin] Stefanski handled day-to-day operations as a team help us in those situations, where it’s out of our control. He‘s so even-keeled, day-to-day—he’s always the same guy. And so even when he tested positive and wasn’t there, you couldn’t really even tell in our [virtual] meetings, he was just so focused on the task at hand.

“And I think it just showed that culture is building here, and it might not matter this week or next week or this season even. But I think the culture and the people are right. And you saw the way the guys battled and fought, even when we were down 10–0 and it looked like, oh man, they’re just not very … good today, the guys came back in the second half and battle. We were there. Again, it’s not a moral victory. But I think you saw the guys’ resilience.”

Like the Rams, the Browns also benefited from experience. Bitonio, corner Denzel Ward and receiver KhaDarel Hodge, along with Stefanski, missed last year’s wild-card playoff game in Pittsburgh due to COVID-19, so this wasn’t their first rodeo.

But this was decidedly different, in how quickly the virus ripped through the facility, and the number of players it took out—eight on the first day of the outbreak, then starting quarterback Baker Mayfield and his backup Case Keenum on the next day. The Browns also had the perspective of having Tretter as a teammate, and seeing what he was going through in trying to help not just the guys in his locker room, but guys in all 32 locker rooms.

“I don’t think he was going to be ready to play in the game if we played Saturday, just because of the amount of meetings he was in,” says Bitonio. “He was really trying to just protect the players across the league. He doesn’t want guys losing checks, and he’s been an advocate since really Day 1 of testing daily, if we want to truly protect player safety and stuff. And that just wasn’t going to happen with the league. And, honestly, a majority of the players weren’t going to be wanting to test every day.

“So it’s a tough job for him. We have 2,500 guys that have differing opinions on things, that are all at different points in their career. It’s a tough job, but it was never for the Browns. It was for the betterment of the players and really the league as a whole.”

On a personal level, Bitonio’s concern was first with his family. He’s vaccinated, and boosted but still had a healthy fear that he’d bring it home, where he and his wife have a 3-year-old and another child under 1.

And then, from a football standpoint, he had to play left tackle in a real game for the first time since college—he’d really only moonlighted there some in preseason games. Line coach Bill Callahan told him on Saturday morning, after losing both starting tackles, and from there it was full steam ahead. That Bitonio has always played on the left side, at guard, helped, and some of his weirder moments on Monday weren’t what you’d expect.

“In the huddle, I was worried about going to line up in the wrong spot,” he says. “Things like that where you think it’s such common sense, but I’ve been doing the other thing for eight years. I’m just so locked into that, that doing that stuff was a little bit different and it had me thinking a little bit more than a normal game. Even sitting on the bench, I was one seat over and it just felt a little bit more lonely out there.”

He adjusted, and the Browns adjusted as night went on. Nick Mullens showed something at the end of the first half in two-minute, and so Cleveland started leaning on him, and the quick passing game a little more. And it was almost enough.

And the teams that had outbreaks weren’t the only ones adjusting.

The others, again, weren’t happy—generally upset that they had to pay a price for the virus taking hold in other places. The Eagles, for their part, instituted what amounted to a self-imposed cool-down period, refraining from speaking publicly on Friday, after the Washington game was moved, while issuing a two-sentence statement.

On Saturday morning, Nick Sirianni gathered the staff with a message for everyone.

“We’re in the NFL, we deal with adversity every day,” Sirianni told the group. “This is an adverse situation. We gotta overcome it. Regardless of the situation, we’re playing on Tuesday. We need to make sure the players refocus.”

With a week’s work already done, Sirianni adjusted the Saturday schedule and let the players sleep in, then had them come in to lift and meet (to comply to the protocols, the offense met while the defense lifted, and vice versa), before giving them the rest of the day off. On Sunday the players had a half-day, with meetings and a walkthrough. And Monday was what Saturday would’ve been—with meetings and a 10 a.m. walkthrough.

Meanwhile, Sirianni had the staff use Sunday and Monday afternoons to start gameplanning for the Giants, the Eagles’ Week 16 opponent, while VP of football operations John Ferrari and VP of football technology Pat Dolan dealt with most of the heavy lifting logistics-wise (they even personally moved chairs and tables for distancing purposes), and VP of sports medicine/head athletic trainer Tom Hunkele and head team physician Dr. Arsh Dhanota managing the medical end of things.

The Eagles wound up leaning on their vaunted run game, which grinded out 238 yards of the ground to cut the path to a 27–17 win over a COVID-19-racked Football Team.

And after that, the Eagles were right back on the horse. The players came into lift on Wednesday, had two walkthoughs on Thursday, and will have a full speed practice today, on Christmas Eve, with a lighter work schedule planned for Christmas Day.

Oh, and along the way, Sirianni himself tested positive for COVID-19. Tretter did, too. Which is as sure a sign as any that as far as the NFL, NFLPA, teams and players had to come in dealing with the last couple weeks, there’s still a long way to go.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) against the Los Angeles Rams at State Farm Stadium.


1) Colts at Cardinals (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET): Those skeptical over Arizona’s 2021 rise have gotten fuel for the argument over the last two weeks, with losses to a COVID-19-depleted Rams team and rebuilding Detroit. And here come the Colts, who’ve only lost once—and that was at the wire to the defending world champions—since Nov. 1. Much here will come down to Arizona’s ability to stop the run. The Cardinals have been really good in that department for most of the year, but showed cracks last week against the Lions. We’ll see if Jonathan Taylor can exploit those.

2) Bills at Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Buffalo clearly took the Monday night loss of three weeks ago hard, and Sean McDermott certainly wasn’t hiding the magnitude of the return match after Buffalo dispatched the Panthers on Sunday.

So for the Bills, this game sets up as a little bit of a reckoning—they’re defending division champs, and they’re heading into Foxboro, with the old champion having a chance to take the crown back and lock up an 18th AFC East title in 21 years (a win and a Miami loss would do it for the Patriots). A lot on the line for everyone, plus we’ve got the intrigue of this one being played under drastically different circumstances than the Dec. 6 game was, provided the weather forecast for Sunday holds.

3) Ravens at Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Cincinnati’s talked a lot about how this team is different. On Sunday, things are teed up for the Bengals to prove it. The Ravens are really, really beat up. It’s a home game. And Cincinnati’s got a shot to control its playoff destiny and nail down its first winning season in six years. Lamar Jackson or no Lamar Jackson, that makes this a big one for the hosts. Obviously, for the Ravens, it’s equally big, given that they’ve lost three straight (those three coming by a total of four points), and four of six.

4) Browns at Packers (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET): Green Bay is now in pole position in the NFC, with Cleveland, Minnesota and Detroit standing in the way of the No. 1 seed, a bye, and a playoff bracket that will run through Lambeau Field for the second straight year. Cleveland, meanwhile, comes in racked with COVID-19 problems—its quarterback will have to play on Christmas without having been around his team for two weeks (Baker Mayfield will return Saturday, but may not even be able to travel with the team to Wisconsin, in order to follow protocols). The Browns showed a lot of will and heart on Monday afternoon. They’ll need all of that again on Saturday.

5) Steelers at Chiefs (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): Pittsburgh showed its mettle in coming up big over and over in the Tennessee win, and the defense flashed a playmaking ability above what we’d seen to this point. So I’m really looking forward to seeing Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City try to build on their finish in L.A. last week against a talented, aggressive defense that’s playing for its playoff life every week from here on out. This one just has the feel of a prize fight, even if the Steelers’ record might not indicate that.

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Can Dak Prescott get back on track? The Cowboys quarterback has been very up-and-down since coming back from a calf injury—his passer rating was below 80 in four of the seven games since his return. There, of course, has been speculation on why. Maybe the injury has lingered. Maybe it’s losing guys (his receivers first, left tackle Tyron Smith more recently). Regardless, the Cowboys need more consistency from their offense, and with Washington coming to town Sunday night, this would be a good time for Dak to hit his stride and give the group a chance to do that. Especially with the chance to clinch the division there for Dallas (though they might have that taken care of prior to kickoff, since an Eagles loss would also do that for the Cowboys).

Is the Buccaneers offense in sync? Tampa is dealing with a fair amount of adversity on offense right now. Tom Brady and Co. just got shut out against the Saints on national television. Chris Godwin tore his ACL in the game. Leonard Fournette went down too, and there’s significant concern on that one, which hastened the team’s signing of Le’Veon Bell. And then, there’s Antonio Brown’s impending and controversial return. For those reasons and more, this is an interesting week for the Bucs. Yes, the Panthers are struggling, but their defense is still a problem and Brady’s got a lot of moving parts around him—something he said Thursday that he hopes others see as opportunity because, “it’s not always the same thing that’s going to win all the time.” To that end, it’ll be interesting to see Brady with Brown and Rob Gronkowski together for the first time since September. The quarterback really trusts those two, and others attributed some of Tampa’s mid-season woes to their injuries. Both project to be vital pieces down the stretch, for a host of reasons (which is one reason why the Bucs are welcoming Brown back).

Will the Jaguars and Bears show signs of life? How about the Raiders? Jacksonville didn’t get the post-Urban Meyer bounce after all, losing by two touchdowns to the Texans to give the Jags last place in the AFC South all to themselves. Meanwhile, the Bears did show some effort but not as much discipline in their Monday night loss to the Vikings. And Vegas, for its part, is still fighting for playoff position. So what do those three have in common? All could get a jump on the competition and start interviewing prospective head-coaching candidates next week. My guess is the Jaguars will be the ones that get moving (I think as long as the Raiders are in the race, Mark Davis will want to be respectful to his team; and the Bears have been hesitant to fire in-season). But obviously what happens Sunday with each of these groups could influence what happens on Monday and Tuesday.

Will Ian Book give the Saints a spark on Monday night? I know that this is probably the dumb college fan in me coming out, but Book really did have the “it” factor at Notre Dame. And I think stylistically the guy has a lot of the qualities that Sean Payton looks for in his quarterbacks. Now, to be realistic about this, if there was some sort of revelation coming from Book, my guess is it wouldn’t have taken the quarterback room getting overrun with COVID-19 for Payton to put Book in there, especially with the struggles the team has had replacing Jameis Winston. But that doesn’t mean we won’t see a little something from Book on Monday night. And I’m excited to see what that little something might look like.


Season record: 15–15 (I’m on an absolute HEATER now. After a 7–15 start, we’ve gone 2–0 four weeks in a row. And to celebrate, we’ve got more no-longer-bad gambling advice for you.)

Rams (-3) at Vikings: I really like where Sean McVay has his team, and I think playing indoors against a team on a short week only plays to their strengths. (Although this being a Minnesota defense that has a good track record against Matthew Stafford scares me a little.)

Chiefs (-8.5) over Steelers: What Pittsburgh has done is incredibly impressive, in what’s been a year of transition—and it speaks to the strength of Mike Tomlin’s program. But the Chiefs are at home here, and it feels to me like they’re starting to really take off.

On Christmas Day, football fans will get a good look at Colts RB Jonathan Taylor, who burned the Patriots for 170 yards and a touchdown last week.


Could Jonathan Taylor actually win the MVP?

In the interest of full transparency, I’ve been a big advocate of Taylor’s for a while. I asked before the 2020 draft why exactly he wasn’t held in the same regard Saquon Barkley had been a year earlier, then told you in September why he’s exactly what everyone wanted Barkley to be. I also picked him to win the rushing title in June … not to brag or anything (I do get some stuff wrong).

But I honestly never expected that we’d be here, in late December, with Taylor forcing his way into the MVP conversation.

Last Saturday, to me, was a flashpoint for his candidacy. Carson Wentz completed five (!) passes against the Patriots, and generally looked the worst he has since becoming a Colt (he only threw one interception, but easily could’ve had a couple more, and that was while only throwing the ball 12 times all night). That, of course, put more pressure on Taylor to get the job done, and Taylor did, over and over again.

Consistently, the second-year pro turned would-be stops into 3-yard gains, and 3-yard gains into 6 or 7. And when it was closing time, he beat two of the smartest defensive players in the league, Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower, telling them he was going one way with his eyes before bursting into a seam the other way for a 67-yard touchdown that shut the lights out on New England.

Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. Really, it’s who Taylor has been all year for the Colts. He’s had over 100 scrimmage yards in 11 straight games, and had 93 in the one in which he didn’t hit that mark. He’s also reached the end zone in all 11 of those games.

Now, it’s rare—and it should be—that a non-quarterback wins MVP. But without comparing them as players (because they are different), what Taylor is doing is starting to feel like what Adrian Peterson did during his MVP season of 2012—with a playoff team relying on its tailback as its engine, and building around that player.

To be clear, I don’t think I’d pick him right now. It’d probably be Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers for me. That said, Taylor is close, and he’s still got three more weeks to make his case. And he’s proven to be pretty good at making his case of late.

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