INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The NFL is preparing for a 2020 end game that might not even start.
The coronavirus pandemic has shut down much of the world and forced the cancelation or postponement of cornerstone sporting events: the Indianapolis 500, March Madness, the Kentucky Derby, The Masters, Wimbledon, the Tokyo Olympics, the Boston Marathon, the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL and on and on.
Yet the NFL is moving forward into what most definitely is the unknown.
And the Indianapolis Colts are following suit if for no other reason than they must be prepared in the event some form of normalcy returns sooner rather than later.
“As a coaching staff, we’re getting ready to go,’’ Frank Reich said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call.
At the league level, executive vice-president Jeff Pash revealed during a Tuesday conference call with reporters the NFL is planning on a “normal traditional season, starting on time, playing in front of fans, in our regular stadiums, and going through a full 16-game regular-season season and full set of playoffs.
“That’s our focus.’’
The official schedule might be released around May 9 and the regular season is expected to open with a Sept. 10 Thursday Night Kickoff game hosted at Arrowhead Stadium by the Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs. The expectation is for all four international games to go off as planned.
Also, league owners approved expanding the playoffs from 12 teams to 14, beginning with the 2020 postseason.
If there is a 2020 season.
During the conference call, Pash added a comment that might have carried an unintended but chilling possibility.
“That’s our expectation,’’ he said of the business-as-usual approach. “Am I certain of that? I’m not certain I’ll be here tomorrow. But I’m planning on it, and in the same way, we’re planning on having a full season.’’
As we sit here on April 1 with mounting infection and fatalities, it’s difficult to envision 76,000 fans piling into Arrowhead Stadium – or 70,000 filing into Lucas Oil Stadium for the Colts’ opener – in less than six months.
The NFL has done its best to carry on its business when so many other sports leagues were forced to hit the pause button. It benefitted from its calendar; there were no games or training camps to postpone. Much of its business – free agency, re-signing players – could be handled remotely.
The league closed all team facilities in mid-March, curtailed all face-to-face meetings with draft-eligible players and has indefinitely delayed the start of offseason workout programs which open in mid-April.
But the draft will be held April 23-25, although without the thousands of fans and fanfare. Team executives will handle things remotely – not from their headquarters – and must adhere to social distancing guidelines that specify no more than 10 individuals in a room and everyone separated by six feet.
The pre-draft process is Chris Ballard’s realm.
Reich certainly is involved, but he has a 90-player roster to prepare for whatever’s to come.
Players were scheduled to report for offseason work April 20. That won’t happen, but it’s possible the NFL will allow teams to start interacting remotely with their players sometime this month.
“We’re getting everything ready, planning everything out so when they give us the green light to start contacting players . . . that we say, ‘OK, you can start talking to them,’’’ Reich said. “In my mind, we’re getting ready like April 20th is the go-date.
“We know it’s not going to happen in person, but if that’s the go-date where we can do it via Zoom or whatever other tools that we have to contact them, then we need to be ready on that date.’’
Reich is interacting with his coaching staff via Zoom with daily video conferences. Nick Sirianni has remotely conferenced with his offensive staff; ditto, Matt Eberflus and his defensive assistants. Same thing with the special teams staff of Bubba Ventrone and Frank Ross.
For now, it’s the new normal.
“I’m in these Zoom meetings every day,’’ Reich said. “Chris and I have talked a ton about this. Nobody likes it. You want to be with the players. That’s what makes coaching fun. That’s really what it’s all about.’’
Reich is a stickler for sticking to his process, the daily grind, of getting 1 percent better every day. That’s requiring a serious adjustment in this environment.
“How are we going to creatively gain a competitive edge?’’ he said. “This is just another way for us to learn how to get better and for us to learn how to excel. We’re working through that.
“What does that look like? How good can we get at Zoom and at presenting like this? I’ve already been thinking and constructing team meetings via Zoom like this if and when it comes to that point that we are allowed to do this. We are preparing for all the behind-the-scenes stuff for that to happen.’’
This impersonal approach must be maximized until players are allowed to report and the hands-on, face-to-face preparation begins.
It’s possible the entirety of the NFL’s offsesason work will be wiped out.
It’s possible training camps that routinely open in late July will be delayed.
It’s possible the NFL’s desire to run a “normal traditional season’’ will be replaced by something much less. Or delayed. Or canceled.
Remember the opponents?
For those with short memories, here are the Colts’ 2020 opponents:
Home: Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Minnesota, New York Jets.
Away: Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas Raiders.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.