All will not be equal come Week 1. There will be a home-field advantage – perhaps more nominal than usual – in some NFL stadiums, while most will be entirely shuttered to fans.
That’s just the way it’s going to be.
We are now two weeks away from the start of the regular season, the NFL has yet to reverse course on this issue, and even with some head coaches speaking out about this imbalance I do not get the sense it is truly open for discussion. In fact, I get a strong sense from reaching out to league people that this is just the way things are going to go. The NFL is not going to intervene in the instances in which city or state officials – government and medical – are allowing teams to play games before some degree of fans in their home stadiums. They haven’t to this point and there is no expectation that will change now, no matter who clamors against it.
Given there has been no nationwide protocols about gathering in large (or small) numbers, don’t expect the NFL to enact one now. Like everything else in these times, it will be determined on a city-by-city basis, and if this last half year has taught us anything at all, it’s that those standards can vary incredibly widely from locale to locale. Thus where the league finds itself now with some teams pushing to have as much capacity as possible in their stadiums and others resolved to a very limited number and most, smartly, already announcing they will at least start the season sans fans and many already announcing they intend to play all season without them.
None of this should shock anyone.
Bottom line is, this is a bottom line business. No team is going to come close to hitting the profit margins they had planned for, and given how limited normal business has been during this pandemic, the NFL isn’t going to be jumping in and telling an owner he can’t sell tickets or beer or hot dogs or jerseys at his stadium, just because a vast majority of the league has opted not to attempt to do so, at least in Week 1. For most teams, it is a simple matter of common sense, risk management and erring entirely on the side of caution to keep their stadiums close two weeks from now. But clearly not for all.
According to the league, there will likely only be five or six teams attempting to play before some semblance of fans in the stands. One could argue how much of an advantage it really is to have less than 10,000 fans in a cavernous stadium, though if we are talking 20,000 or more in some instances that certainly seems like a competitive gain for the home team. There will not be on-sight testing for fans, according to the NFL, though anyone who would have access to the field in any manner will have to pass testing (and wear personal protective equipment).
One can only imagine the type of waivers fans would have to sign to gain entrance under those circumstances, but undoubtedly they will come.
The league is continuing to study which arrangements in the stands might make the most sense – how to spread out seating into pods or otherwise. And, in an attempt to level the playing field at least to some extent, there will be sound pumped into these empty stadiums; NFL Films has gone to some lengths to ensure that sound was culled from that actual stadium over the past few years and is authentic. Expect to see plenty of cardboard cutouts of season ticket holders or celebrity fans throughout stadiums and the use of those massive scoreboards to display fans cheering at home on Zoom.
While there are obvious Covid-related broadcast limitations as well, expect to see robo-cams deployed in areas of the stadium that may have been off limits in the past – perhaps more sounds from locker rooms and coaching booths, with the league and its broadcast partners studying ways to provide access to areas not usually a part of the broadcast to enhance the viewing experience.
I’m as excited as anyone to see that. And I am intrigued to see how much noise a limited number of fans can make in certain stadiums, because at this point that is the landscape we are looking at. Not all home fields will be created equally. Not close.
Notes from around the league
Still some interesting free agents available. Tight end Delanie Walker could make a difference for a team, and several clubs are keeping close tabs. Not sure what the money will look like given his injury history and age, but I’d want that dude on my team. … Little surprised to see the Cardinals pay Budda Baker huge money given his lack of impact plays in the passing game. Usually, one would have to log a bunch of interceptions in order to get a payday of that magnitude after just three years in the league, but clearly the Cardinals are very comfortable with his role moving forward. He is a thumper who plays at full speed and clearly makes an impact, and I wonder if over time Patrick Peterson moves to more of a free safety role. Justin Simmons is another “position-less” player of sorts in that secondary. Regardless, the extension sends a positive sign to the locker room and I think Arizona is going to surprise some people this season. … Have to worry about the state of the Browns secondary. Greedy Williams isn’t playing football for a while and Grant Delpit‘s rookie season is over before it began and I had some concerns about that group before the depth started getting compromised. In years past, aggressive general manager John Dorsey would have probably leaped at signing Earl Thomas, whose contract was terminated for cause by the rival Ravens over the weekend. I don’t get the sense that this regime is in any hurry to go that route. Free agent safety Tony Jefferson told me he is about two weeks away from passing a physical and playing football, and many are linking him to the Browns, for good reason. But given his strong ties to the Ravens – and aspirations to join Baltimore’s football operations department when his playing days are over – I wouldn’t expect to see him in Cleveland. “I can only see myself playing for the Ravens in the AFC North,” Jefferson told me. Jefferson is held in very high regard by the Ravens, who could find themselves short at safety as well, and a reunion there is not out of the question. … Pretty stellar early reports about Steelers rookie receiver Chase Claypool. No team drafts wideouts the way the Steelers do, and when they focus in on a particular player at that position – particularly in a generational receiver draft – you should probably take note when it comes time to draft your fantasy football team. … Another rookie receiver I could see making a significant impact right away is Jalen Reagor. The Eagles do not have a ton of other options and sounds like they trust him in a multitude of spots in their offense. … It’s still early, but the flood of 49ers injuries has given me some pause. Nick Bosa is now banged up as well. Things tend to go poorly for the Super Bowl losing team the following year, for whatever reason, and each week brings more challenges for this club’s depth. In such a tough division, it’s something you have to keep a close eye on.