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Mike Preston: Ravens need to be on the same page with vaccines, for their own good | COMMENTARY

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has played it down the middle to avoid creating a rift between himself, the organization and the players, but he should strongly recommend that everyone involved with the team gets the coronavirus vaccine before the start of the 2021 season.

That would protect the entire organization a year after it endured one of the worst COVID outbreaks in sports and improve the team’s chances of winning a Super Bowl. It would also eliminate any possible distractions, which is always high on any organization’s priority list entering a new season.

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Nearly a week ago, Harbaugh said the entire Ravens coaching staff had been vaccinated, and he estimated that the number of players who have received the vaccine was a “pretty high number, pretty well above 50%.”

What exactly is the number? Neither Harbaugh nor team officials gave the total. As of last week, sixteen of the NFL’s 32 teams reportedly have 51 or more players vaccinated.

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“But that’s really not important in terms of individual guys. I think everybody makes that choice for themselves,” Harbaugh said during minicamp practice last week. “There are things that go with being vaccinated. There are things that go with not being vaccinated. So, everybody understands that, and guys will make those choices for themselves.”

That makes sense. Because of medical histories, allergies and other factors, some people are hesitant to take the vaccine. But there are others who don’t think COVID will affect them or their families, and they are just stubborn or misguided. The Ravens, though, need to be more heavy-handed like Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who strongly recommended that players get vaccinated. In other words, just get it done.

“Our players have the right to make a decision that they feel is best for them," said DeCosta.

Few players want to tangle with Tomlin, the coach with one of the nastiest game faces in the NFL. Harbaugh has chosen a different approach, but he knows getting vaccinated isn’t really just about the individual, but the team as well. It’s about the risk-benefit analysis now that society has opened up again, with many public health restrictions removed because of the increasing number of people who have been vaccinated.

As of Friday, the equivalent of 60.68% of Maryland’s population has been at least partially vaccinated. In the U.S., 46.1% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

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The NFL, like other organizations, can only control so much, which is why almost every hospital in Baltimore has made it mandatory for its employees to get vaccinated, and why more colleges and universities are requiring the same of its students before they return to campuses in the fall.

The NFL learned last year that regardless of tight restrictions, it can’t control the decisions of individuals. So the best way to handle more public interaction and travel in 2021 is to protect organizations through vaccinations.

Coaches like normality. They want routines where everything is scheduled, even down to the last second of practice. That all changed when the pandemic hit in 2020, and for some teams, those restrictions will continue if a large number of players aren’t vaccinated.

Under the NFL’s updated protocols, if a player is vaccinated, he will be tested once every two weeks once the season starts. Unvaccinated players will have their temperature checked and get tested daily, must wear masks in meetings, in the locker room and on flights and must stay six feet apart from other players inside the team’s facility. There are competitive implications as well. Vaccinated players exposed to a COVID-positive individual won’t be labeled a high-risk close contact and subject to the mandatory five-day isolation that kept players, coaches and others out of games last season.

Coaches really don’t need those types of headaches.

Worse yet, if a player contracts COVID, it could be devastating to that person and the team. More than 600,000 in the U.S. have died from this virus. On the field, some teams have handled it well, but the Ravens couldn’t if quarterback Lamar Jackson became ill and was forced to miss a playoff game. Their season would be over, as well as everything they have worked for the past three years. Just last season, Jackson missed a thrice-postponed game against the Steelers after testing positive for COVID-19 as the Ravens dealt with a “highly contagious” strain and noncompliance with NFL protocols that led to an outbreak that infected players, coaches and staff members, along with family members.

“I feel we do a great job here of taking the vaccine and staying away from COVID-19, following the right preparation for that and staying away from the outside — the people that are attracting it — and we’ve just got to keep it going,” Jackson said recently, though he declined to say whether he has been vaccinated. “I haven’t been hearing about any breakouts, like last year — the previous year before this one — with all the stuff that was going on, people catching it left and right. I haven’t been hearing about it, so I feel like this year, it’s been doing great. Everyone has been doing a great job at it — just keep going.”

That’s because people have been getting vaccinated, unlike a year ago. Both the virus and the vaccine are new, but as more people get vaccinated, the side effects aren’t so significant. There is still plenty of risk for those who contract the virus.

A lot of NFL coaches like to talk about analytics, but if they looked at the numbers, they might preach a little harder about getting the vaccine. The numbers are working in the organization’s favor, but that could change with one severe case of COVID.

In Harbaugh’s situation, he should be concerned about finding a way to slow down the Kansas City Chiefs’ passing game with receiver Tyreek Hill and quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He needs to make up ground on the Buffalo Bills, who knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs last season. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has reloaded in New England, and the Tennessee Titans are probably stronger than they have been the past two seasons after acquiring star receiver Julio Jones.

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Over at the team’s training facility in Owings Mills, the Ravens have to improve Jackson’s accuracy in the downfield passing game and find some pass rushers. That’s normal stuff, part of the regular routine, part of the usual grind.

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Maybe more players will get vaccinated soon and Harbaugh will become less concerned with all the protocols. He doesn’t need any more distractions.

In some cases, players should think less about themselves and more about the team. That’s supposed to be a major concept of team sports.

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