The Broncos are back together, practicing at their Dove Valley training facility as of July 28. But football’s official return—slated for September 10—brings with it mixed feelings, and plenty more questions about whether it’s worth getting excited about watching the boys in orange and blue play this year.
The NFL has already managed to blow a roughly five-month lead on developing a robust COVID-19 model or policy. Even with that head start, the sheer number of players and staff employed by the NFL was always going to prove to be a unique challenge for orchestrating a comeback. Still, the NFL had very few answers for players and coaches leading up to the start of training camps nearly two weeks ago and scrambled to come to last-minute agreements with the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) on safety protocol and scheduling for the next month at practice facilities. All four weeks of preseason games were later canceled, as well.
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And while there has been promise of helmets with special mouth shields—and whatever this is—there appears to be little indication of what the safety precautions when the actual season, slated to start in *checks notes* a little over a month, will be. One thing we do know is that, unlike the NBA Bubble or NHL hub cities that have been relatively successful so far at mitigating the spread of COVID-19, the NFL has instead decided to follow MLB’s lead by letting their players roam free—which some of us were already skeptical about.
As part of the NFL’s training-camp protocol, all players were tested for COVID-19 twice before beginning staggered practices, and teams will continue daily testing through the second week of camp. But after that, if 5 percent or less of a team’s tests—including those of staff—come back positive, then testing can switch to every other day. The Broncos appear to have added some detailed safety measures for training camp and the season ahead, with ownership contender Brittany Bowlen playing a leading role in the Broncos’ COVID-19 task force. Those procedures include distancing plans for the locker and weight rooms, sanitizing the synthetic turf, and electronic contact-tracing via a wrist tag that will apparently beep at players and staff if they get too close.
Fullback/tight end Andrew Beck is the first, and so far only, Broncos players to test positive for COVID-19 since returning for training camp. (He was placed on the Broncos’ COVID-19 reserve list on July 30 and has to quarantine for 10 days.) Kareem Jackson and Von Miller notably tested positive for the novel coronavirus during the offseason, but have recovered from mild symptoms and are looking more than ready to get to work.
Still, some Broncos players remain very concerned. Defensive tackle Kyle Peko was the first Broncos player to opt out of the 2020 season on July 28. He was followed by starting right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who penned a statement on Monday expressing concerns for his family’s health after the birth of his newborn son. Across the league, an additional 61 players have opted out, with another 97 players currently listed on COVID-19 reserve lists. (The NFL announced players have until Thursday, August 6, to opt out of the season.)
Per the new compensation terms agreed upon by the NFL and NFLPA, Peko will receive a $350,000 stipend due to his at-risk status, and James will receive $150,000 of his $10 million 2020 salary; he’ll get the rest in 2021. The Broncos have since activated tackle Elijah Wilkinson who’s looking favored to start in James’ place again this season.
Other standout players like Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson have been vocal about the lack of clear plans for safety. They’ve been joined by the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., who told the Wall Street Journal on Monday that he doesn’t think the NFL should be holding a season and that he feels the owners “don’t see us as human”—though it appears he has no plans to opt out.
All of this already appears to be taking the luster out of what should be an encouraging year for the Broncos. Believe me when I say I’m certainly not immune to the glimmer of excitement that the team offered us with Drew Lock’s debut late last season. The thought of watching Lock connect with the Broncos’ fiery first-round pick, wide receiver Jerry Juedy, or seeing Bradley Chubb back on the line gives me a bigger serotonin hit than I’ve had in months. Snagging running back Melvin Gordon from the San Diego Chargers in March guaranteed another glorious weapon for the young but promising offense, and I’m sure we can count on things getting competitive between him and walking shoulder chip Phillip Lindsay.
That being said, the offense’s inexperience means the 2020 campaign will still hinge on the strength of the defense—which is also looking more assured with an expected return for cornerback Bryce Callahan, who sat out last season with a lingering foot injury. Acquiring former Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye and guaranteeing another year with safety Justin Simmons for an $11.4 million price tag will certainly help lock in the defense. All of which appears to be a solid arsenal set to hopefully put the Broncos back on track for—at the very least—a winning season.
But even with the Broncos looking in more promising shape than their 7-9 season last year, will it even feel worth celebrating while people are actively stepping out and putting themselves and their families at risk? Or if fans can’t even come to the games? Individual responsibility across the league over the next few weeks will likely determine whether we actually get to see the Broncos hit the field on September 14 against the Tennessee Titans, let alone milk the opportunity to rip Tom Brady and Tampa Bay on our home turf in week three. But judging by the consequences we’re seeing play out so far in baseball, the real win will be if everyone makes it through the season healthy.