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Mike Preston: In the NFL, handling COVID has become just as important as blocking and tackling | COMMENTARY

Shortly after losing by 20 points to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh put the state of the NFL in perspective.

“You always strive to be full-strength with what you have, but that isn’t how the world works,” said Harbaugh, who’s about to complete his 14th season with the team. “That’s not the world we live in all the time.”

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In previous seasons, it was all about playoff position during the final two games. Teams tried to build on strengths, get on a winning streak and ride that momentum into the postseason.

That changed nearly two seasons ago with the coronavirus pandemic. There has been speculation that league owners would add an 18th opponent to the schedule possibly as early as 2023, but it’s already here and known as COVID-19. It has become as much a part of the NFL as blocking and tackling.

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Unfortunately, few teams can predict when the infection will hit. Before the Ravens played Cincinnati, they had 10 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list and had to suit up 11 players from the practice squad. A team that already had seven starters on injured reserve was drastically undermanned.

Harbaugh, though, can’t complain. Entering Tuesday, about 500 players had reportedly been put on the COVID list in December. If parity had already created some ugly games, those teams affected by COVID have taken ugly to another level. Take the New Orleans Saints’ 20-3 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Monday night, for example. The Saints were without 20 players because of COVID protocols and were forced to start their fourth-string rookie quarterback.

The league and the NFL Players Association revised COVID protocols Tuesday, reducing the isolation time for players who tested positive and are asymptomatic from 10 days to five. They also limited occupants in the weight room and team meetings and required masks be worn by all players and staff indoors at the team facility.

“We pretty much have already done it. We’re already in the massive … What is it called? The enhanced protocol,” Harbaugh said. “We’re doing everything virtually right now, so we’re not in any meetings together. The quarterbacks are not in meetings together. We pretty much separated the whole team to that degree. As far as the rest of it, we’ll go through the week and see how we progress.”

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Regardless if there are mandates or not, some suggestions to avoid COVID are common sense. Players should stay out of restaurants and bars and away from any major social gatherings. They should keep on their masks and stay six feet apart from others.

And of course, a player should get vaccinated, but some are selfish, like the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and the Indianapolis Colts’ Carson Wentz. Lamar Jackson’s vaccine status is unknown as well, but that’s just another mystery surrounding the Ravens’ star quarterback. The Packers and Ravens at least have serviceable backups, but the Colts have rookie Sam Ehlinger, who has basically performed in mop-up duty for Wentz.

Wentz’s status is uncertain for Sunday’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders, but that’s the point. Players need to reduce the risk of catching the virus and missing time.

The coronavirus has no favorites or boundaries. Coaches such as the Cleveland Browns’ Kevin Stefanski, the Saints’ Sean Payton, the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Nick Sirianni have already missed games and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Bruce Arians could be next. Green Bay, Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago and New Orleans have had to play without their starting quarterbacks.

Reducing the isolation period helps, but it doesn’t guarantee that a player will be ready for an upcoming game.

It’s hard to imagine how deflating it is for a coach to learn that a player has lied about being vaccinated or produced a fake vaccine card, as Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown did. During the season, most coaches live at their respective facilities and shut off their lives to the outside world. They spend a great deal of time watching film, devising strategy and putting together game plans.

But COVID can erase those plans, depending on the number of players involved. There have been times this season when it’s not about the next man up, but the last man standing.

“Our team, we all don’t prefer Zoom,” San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan recently told ABC News. “People know what’s at stake with the chances of us losing guys for these games, so it wasn’t a hard issue at all going Zoom.”

It’s the state of the NFL, and the world.

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