Early in what undoubtedly will be the strangest training camp of his career, Washington Coach Ron Rivera talked to his team about winning. Not winning with talent or scheme or all the other traditional ways football teams push themselves to victories, but with something so simple and effortless that anyone, regardless of athletic ability, can do it.
"One of the first things he told us [was]: 'When it comes down to the end of the season, it's probably going to be whichever team is the smartest outside of the facility,'" Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller said.
It is a message being repeated by coaches and players across the NFL: The teams who win the most games this season, which will be played amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, might be the ones whose players are the most disciplined off the field – the ones who resist the temptation to break the invisible cocoon that protects them from the virus outside.
"One team will do this better than the other 31, trust me, and it might as well be us," Los Angeles Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn told his players in an address featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks". He added later: "The team that handles this thing the best is going to have the best chance of winning that trophy."
In a way, this NFL season is an outlandish experiment, a daring attempt to have roughly 150 people in each of the 32 organisations operate daily inside loosely controlled atmospheres, where players essentially shout and grunt and exhale sprays of saliva while falling on top of each other for two hours of practice before heading out into a world the teams cannot control.
The NFL decided against a closed environment like the NBA or NHL bubbles, because football organisations are too big to corral in one place. And while some teams have attempted to create their own bubbles – like the New Orleans Saints, who have put most of their players in an empty luxury hotel near the French Quarter – most are doing some variation of what Washington has planned: letting players and coaches who live nearby return to their homes each day and putting the rest up at a hotel.
It's an easy concept: stay inside when you are away from the football facility, and everyone will be safe. But with 80 players and dozens of coaches and trainers and equipment people crowding the practice fields and locker rooms and meeting rooms, there are many variables involved. Someone, somewhere is going to want to go to a restaurant, or a small party at a friend's house, or a club.
Back in June, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allegoric and Infectious Diseases, told CNN that unless the NFL's players aren't sequestered in a hard bubble with almost daily tests "it's very hard to see how football is played this fall". Major League Baseball, the other major US team sport operating without a bubble, provided its own cautionary tale earlier this summer, as outbreaks of positive tests ravaged the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals.
This is why Mr Rivera said he and his coaches push the message to their players each day, often delivering the reminder "let's be smart about this" at the end of the afternoon's meetings, just before players get in their cars to go home.
These rules "don't just apply to the players, they apply to everybody," Mr Rivera said. The other day he held a meeting with every team employee who has access to the facility and the players, to say that even those working in offices who will have little contact with players or coaches also must stay away from places where they could be infected, since they too could bring the virus into the building and get everyone sick.
"We had to make sure everybody ... understood that there are consequences if we fail to follow those protocols," he said.
So far, Washington's bubble appears to be holding, and the same can be said of the entire NFL. The league announced Wednesday that less than 1 percent of the novel coronavirus tests of NFL players, coaches and team staff members conducted since they arrived for training camps have produced positive results
"We're doing everything that we can on our end to be safe and smart," Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said this week of his team's approach, adding: "I think we all have a common goal to have this season, and I think people are more focused than ever to really achieve that."
Still, every NFL team is sitting on a bomb that threatens to blast its season into pieces, "a domino-effect," as described by Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who said "one person can mess up 20 people and then you don't have enough people to fill a roster on game day".
Without a true bubble like the NBA or NHL, the simple odds say there will be infections of players and coaches this year. The nightmare scenario that Haskins described might happen several times this fall, wiping out starting lineups, possibly sending Super Bowl contenders to the bottom of the standings and lifting those who managed to keep the virus away.
"You definitely have to police yourself," Washington tackle Morgan Moses said.
"We're all in it together," Mr Fuller said.
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