The Ravens will kick off their season Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium with the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player at quarterback, 12 Pro Bowl selections on their roster, a lauded coaching staff on the sideline and Super Bowl dreams across Baltimore.
It is one of the most anticipated years in franchise history. It will also be one of the most unpredictable.
For all the marquee opponents on the Ravens' 2020 schedule — the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, the giant-slaying Tennessee Titans, the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers — there is no force as disruptive as the one they cannot see. The NFL season will unfold amid a pandemic that has upended society and claimed over 190,000 lives.
The specter of the coronavirus already looms large over America’s most popular sports league, with daily testing required of players and most stadiums emptied of fans. Now the Ravens' quest for a third NFL championship will start Sunday against the Cleveland Browns with an unfamiliar variable. Success could depend as much on Maryland’s control of the virus as it does on Lamar Jackson’s control of the offense.
Coach John Harbaugh said last month that he “can’t imagine” any workplace much safer than an NFL facility, where players wear proximity-tracking devices, Plexiglas partitions separate lockers, and face masks are required. Players even wear T-shirts that read “Stay Positive Test Negative.” But as the state relaxes its coronavirus restrictions amid declining caseloads, infection remains a persistent fear.
“During training camp, it was a lot easier for guys to stay focused, because you have longer days,” Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell, a 13-year veteran, said Wednesday. “But now that we’re into the thick of things and getting back into your regular routine, and you have a lot more time to yourself to figure out what you want to do to be a professional, you do worry that some guys might not handle it as well. But I think we have a great protocol and a system in place to try to keep us as safe as possible, and all we can do is go out there and give it our best shot.”
Across the NFL and Maryland, there are signs of progress. According to league data released Tuesday, just one of the 2,641 players tested for COVID-19 between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5 had a confirmed positive test. Since Aug. 12, a total of 24 players and staff members have produced a confirmed positive test.
On Saturday, Maryland reported a seven-day average testing positivity rate of 3.7%, below the World Health Organization-recommended bench mark of 5%. (The state’s positivity rate as calculated by Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center remains above 6%.) In Baltimore County and Baltimore City, where many Ravens players, coaches and officials live, the positivity rate was reported Saturday as 3.9% and 2.5%, respectively.
“I’m an optimist, and I think the country’s doing a good job as well, if you look at the numbers, at least that I’m reading,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “I’m very optimistic. I think people try to do the right thing. It’s nothing that we can’t overcome, for sure, and get kids back to school and people back to work and paychecks flowing again. That should be a major goal for all of us.”
With the NFL unwilling to play in an isolated “bubble” environment, as the NBA and NHL have, almost nothing about this season will be normal.
Inside NFL facilities, teams are prohibited from having in-person player meetings with more than 15 people present. At practice, players drink from single-serving bottles of water and Gatorade while coaches in neck gaiters bark instructions. Showers afterward are encouraged — provided they’re 6 feet apart.
On the road, players have separate hotel rooms, but only members of the team’s traveling party are allowed to visit. There’s no leaving the hotel to travel or eat out. Team travel coordinators have been instructed to request room blocks on lower floors so that elevators can be avoided.
On game day, cheerleaders and mascots are out and electronic whistles are in. Only one player per team can participate in the pregame coin toss, and he must wear a face mask. If players on opposing teams want to swap jerseys, a postgame tradition, they’ll first have to have it cleaned before it can be mailed away.
“It’s not normal at all, but it’s just the normal that we have to adjust to,” Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters said last month. “So it is what it is.”
Just one Ravens player, practice squad safety Nigel Warrior, has been placed on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list so far, meaning he either tested positive or was exposed to an infected person. (The Ravens declined to comment on his status when he was designated in late July.) Warrior was sidelined for 10 days, the minimum amount of time a player must miss if he becomes symptomatic, before returning to training camp.
The greatest threat to the Ravens' health this season could come from the locales over which the team has no control. Last week, six players on the French soccer team Paris Saint-Germain, one of the world’s most popular clubs, tested positive for COVID-19 after an offseason trip to Ibiza, the Spanish island and tourist destination.
In July, Lou Williams, a guard for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, was forced to quarantine for 10 days and miss two games after stopping to pick up food at an Atlanta strip club while on an excused absence for a funeral outside the NBA’s Florida bubble.
“I think the thing that we’re realizing more and more with COVID-19 is that events that are well controlled and have been thought through are usually not the ones that we have the biggest problems with,” said Dr. Tara Kirk Sell, an assistant professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“The biggest problems are with ones that no one has really put any sort of protective mechanisms or measures in place, and it just sort of happens, and there’s a lot of people, and then all of a sudden, you get a lot of cases.”
The nexus of public policy, organizational planning and epidemiology, Sell said, is “the most fascinating part of my work right now.” Over the summer, organizers of The Basketball Tournament, the first televised basketball event in the U.S. since the onset of the pandemic, enlisted her help in organizing a quarantined competition involving over 400 people. Five teams were sent home after players tested positive for COVID-19, but the number of positive tests fell to zero after five days of testing.
With the scope of the NFL season, which stretches through early February and relies on a workforce of over 2,000 players, Sell expects to see more positive tests among teams. “Just holding out hope for a vaccine to make everything go back to normal isn’t realistic,” she said.
Because the country’s response to the pandemic has varied from city to city, Sell said some teams will be at greater risk than others. Franchises that have used their platform to call on fans to wear face masks, as the Ravens have, could gain a competitive advantage.
“It’s simple math,” Sell said. With schools and businesses reopening across the country, she explained, many players and coaches will inevitably come into contact with people outside their team facility. “And so the greater the amount of transmission that’s happening in the community itself, the more chances you have of the disease occurring on the team.”
Ravens players have acknowledged that their health is ultimately their responsibility this year. Jackson, the face of the franchise, said last week that “we just have to do our job by following protocols.” Tight end Mark Andrews said last month that “at the end of the day, I think it comes down to the players, the coaches and everyone that’s around the facility.”
For some, though, a little extra motivation never hurts. In July, first-round draft pick Patrick Queen responded glumly to a tweet about the NFL and NFL Players Association’s decision to penalize those who engage in potentially risky behavior, including attending nightclubs and bars. “Can’t be serious,” Queen wrote.
Kicker Justin Tucker, with an eye to the Super Bowl, offered a compromise: “If you can stay out of the club til [sic] mid-February,” he tweeted at Queen, “I’ll go with you then and the bottles will be on me.”