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As NFL training camps start amid a pandemic, Ravens coach John Harbaugh embraces the unknown

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about adjusting to new NFL rules that are changing daily.

As Ravens veterans continue to report for training camp, hoping to produce three negative COVID-19 tests over four days for admission into the Owings Mills facility, coach John Harbaugh is attempting to make the impossible possible.

After lengthy discussions between the NFL and NFL Players Association on how to navigate the 2020 season amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the two sides agreed to a list of terms to ensure player safety.

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The season won’t be played in a bubble, like professional basketball and soccer leagues, but players, coaches and staff will undergo frequent testing. The team’s facility has been reconfigured to allow for social distancing as much as possible and mask-wearing will be required.

Training camp — and the upcoming season — won’t resemble any in recent memory, but Harbaugh is still confident in his team as a murky couple of months approaches.

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“It’s been challenging, but it’s been kind of fun in a lot of ways,” Harbaugh said Thursday in a Zoom conference call. “All the rules came out in the last — well, they’re still coming out. So we’re still getting the memos and the emails about the way practice needs to be organized and structured and the timing of when guys report and when they’re eligible to practice. Or strength and conditioning, or walk-throughs, and then how many minutes each group can do that.

“Every single day is a standalone day in terms of what every different player is permitted to do. … We’re just working through all that right now, trying to put the best training camp together that we possibly can to be the best team we can be when the season starts in September.”

The agreement between the league and its players’ association confirmed rookies would be able to report July 21 and begin a series of required testing before entering facilities. Under the schedule outlined by the two sides, rookies, quarterbacks and injured players are currently permitted to take part in an acclimation period consisting of weight lifting, on-field conditioning and walkthroughs. The earliest veterans will be able to enter the facility for physicals is this weekend.

The current health crisis will pose its own set of hurdles from now until February when the league hopes the season will culminate in Super Bowl LV. With offseason workout programs turned virtual, and OTAs and minicamps scrapped, continuity would seem to be a bonus for a team such as the Ravens. The team returns a core of starters, including several Pro Bowl players, and its entire coaching staff. Two players have opted out, but the losses aren’t as significant as other teams’ around the league.

Many have compared the recent offseason to 2011, when the NFL lockout shuttered workout programs, curbed all communication between players and coaches and lingered until late July.

As Harbaugh noted, his brother, Jim, entered the 2011 season with the San Francisco 49ers as a first-year NFL head coach and a new staff. Despite a lack of offseason workouts and a limited training camp schedule, the 49ers finished 13-3 and came one game shy of the Super Bowl.

“Maybe the biggest lesson [from 2011] is that it can be done,” Harbaugh said, emphasizing the need to establish cohesiveness in the team’s shortened schedule.

For as many unknown variables as there are about the upcoming season, some things are certain. The team’s success will largely hinge on the continued development of its young, transcendent quarterback, Lamar Jackson. Rookies and other young players, such as inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, will be expected to contribute.

There will be competition, particularly for positions along the interior offensive line. Harbaugh said the team will give several players repetitions across the line and look for any indication — technique, a quick understanding of the playbook — that someone is separating himself from the pack before a maximum of 14 padded practices begin in mid-August.

Without joint practices and preseason games, that short period will be Harbaugh and his staff’s best opportunity to gauge the team before its scheduled season opener Sept. 13 against the Cleveland Browns.

“The decisions will be made once we put the pads on,” Harbaugh said. “We start competing along those lines, and you can see how well it transfers to just execution and play-by-play situations.

“Having the [preseason] games would be a plus, it would help us make that evaluation, but we can make the evaluation based on what we have and that’s just what we’ll have to do. I’m looking forward to seeing those guys in action.”

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