By Al Thompson
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken over every aspect of human life. While first responders, nurses, retail workers and the medical community in general will and should be first and foremost in our memory of heroes, there are other stories that can’t be overlooked or forgotten.
The 2020 NFL offseason will be looked at for decades to come. The draft was hosted by commissioner Roger Goodell from his basement.
The NFL shut down all 32 NFL practice facilities. There are no OTAs or mini camps scheduled. There is a real possibility the Eagles, Steelers, Jets and Giants may not be allowed to host home games and, if they do, the stadiums will likely be devoid of any fans.
Eagles All-Pro center Jason Kelce recently was asked if this offseason could be compared to his rookie season in 2011, which was a lockout year. Kelce had no spring work and was not allowed to talk to his new coaches or even get his hands on an Eagles playbook.
“It’s really hard,” said Kelce during a recent conference call with Philadelphia reporters. “I got the playbook two days before we started training camp. I think that was when they started giving the later-round-pick guys playbooks. In some respects, it’s similar to the lockout year, but obviously this is even magnified because gyms have been closed, guys have struggled to find places to work out. The Eagles have done a phenomenal job of kind of facilitating a way for guys to be able to get their work in.”
Kelce went on to talk about how he was lucky in that the Birds were looking for a smaller, more athletic center when he was drafted.
“For me, part of it was a lucky situation. (Offensive line coach 2011-12) Howard Mudd wanted a different center, more athletic guy than what he had before,” Kelce said. “They were giving me an opportunity. And part of it, I’m a pretty smart, cerebral guy so I kind of grasp things pretty quickly.
“There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a struggle for the young guys, for rookies and even free agents. More so for rookies but you’re just going to have to hit it that much harder when everything gets cleared up. The benefit for them is they’re at least getting the opportunity to meet with Stout (O-line coach Jeff Stoutland), to meet with the coaches and get playbooks. So they’ll be getting a lot more than I got during that offseason.”
Kelce then answered a question that is now an annual event. Was he going to retire? A few weeks ago, he joked on social media that he was retiring from arm wrestling, but not the NFL.
“I didn’t really think I needed to make a statement, but I guess enough people were asking and wondering what was going on,” Kelce said. “So I decided I would make that kind of a joking post or what-not. Obviously, there’s been some articles released that I’ve been contemplating retirement and been contemplating life after football the last few seasons. This has all turned into a, ‘Well, is he retiring?’ ‘Is he retiring?’ I can’t say this enough. When I decide to retire, you guys will know. It will be a very loud and emphatic statement. It’s going to be made most likely, barring some sort of physical ailment that comes up during the season or something, the retirement’s going to happen before training camp, before free agency, before the draft. It’s not going to be sprung out out of nowhere. It’s not my goal.”
Kelce said 2019 was good to him. He experienced very few injuries and he realized how much he liked his teammates right now. Even with the coronavirus, he is looking forward to coming back.
“For me, last year, I very much felt comfortable with the way the season went,” the 32-year-old said. “I was pretty solidified early on that I was going to play another season, and I let the team know that very quickly. Physically, it was one of the easier seasons for me. I feel good. I’ve got my little stuff I’ve got to deal with here and there. That’s annoying but definitely manageable. On top of that, the reason I keep stepping back after the season and try to make decisions is the NFL season is a grueling season. It’s grueling physically and more than people realize, it’s grueling mentally, especially if you put the effort and the energy required to be put into it. And that takes its toll. It’s hard to continue to do that. You want to reflect after you’ve calmed down and you’ve gotten back to normal and see if you can do that again. So once that decision was made, once I knew that, I was very much excited. I can’t wait to get going again with the guys. That decision became pretty easy.”
Probably the most challenging obstacle the NFL will need to deal with is how to bring about 90 full grown, sweaty men together in the closed quarters that is everyday life in an NFL season.
Locker rooms, showers, training tables, meetings, not the physicality that is at the very core of playing the sport of football, could serve as breeding grounds to spread the virus.
Kelce said he has faith that the NFL will find a way to make that happen.
“It’s hard to say with the 90 guys in the locker room, it’s hard to say in a season,” Kelce said. “I’ll feel comfortable no matter what the NFL decides to do, to be honest. I believe that at the end of the day, if the NFL is allowing 90 guys in a locker room it’s going to be in a safe and controlled environment, in my opinion. I don’t think this is going to happen unless that is doable. So whether that is through testing guys before they come into the building.
“The testing procedure is improved whether statistically new cases are so low at that point that there’s not a big threat of 90 guys going into a locker room,” Kelce continued. “I think there’s a multiplicity of different factors and shake out over the next few months, especially before the season. I don’t think we’ll be back at work next to each other and I don’t think we’ll be back playing and doing games unless the NFL is fully confident that it can be done in a safe manner. I will feel comfortable the moment they give the green light.” ••
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii