In a sports news cycle that’s been subdued because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ravens coach John Harbaugh made headlines two weeks ago for his criticism of the NFL’s reopening plan, which mandates social distancing amid the health crisis, labeling it as “humanly impossible.”
“We’re going to do everything we can do: We’re going to space, we’re going to have masks,” Harbaugh said June 11 on WJZ-FM’s “Inside Access with Jason La Canfora & Ken Weinman.”
“But this is a communication sport. So [if] we want to get out there and actually have any idea about what we’re doing on the field, we’ve got to be able to communicate with each other in person. We have to practice and I’m pretty sure the huddle’s not going to be 6 feet” apart.
The comments weren’t controversial, Harbaugh told reporters Monday, but rather a matter of fact for a sport that naturally requires constant physical contact.
Even with questions raised about the start of training camp, Harbaugh believes he’ll be gathering with his team in late July to prepare for the season.
“I’m confident that it will happen,” Harbaugh said in a virtual meeting with reporters, his first since April’s draft. “I’m very hopeful. I’m praying for it. I want it to happen and I think it will happen, I believe it will happen. I think we’ll have the protocols in place.”
Harbaugh added that testing appears to be the league’s biggest hurdle, a reality highlighted by recent reports of players and staff from multiple teams testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The medical director for the NFL Players Association released a statement last weekend, urging players against holding private workouts while the league and its players union figure out protocols for training camp and the season.
And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, cast doubt on the season operating smoothly, saying it would be difficult for the NFL to run without a hitch if it doesn’t insulate its players, coaches and staff in a “bubble,” à la the NBA, which plans to restart its season in late July in Orlando, Florida.
“I think everybody’s going to do their best. It’s a new world,” Harbaugh said when asked about Fauci’s comments. “You can look at it any way you want to look at it, but I’m not going to run for cover and I don’t think the NFL is either. But they’re going to try to be safe and secure. And safety is going to come first, and the health of all us involved in the game, and the fans, are going to be a major priority.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the next six months. No human being knows that, so we’ll just have to be very adaptable and flexible and smart about what we do. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Harbaugh’s correct: Uncertainty looms over the next month, much less the next six (the regular season is scheduled to begin Sept. 10). With teams scheduled to bring 90 players and several dozen more coaches and staff members to facilities in late July, many questions remain unanswered.
How will social distancing be enforced with close to 100 players per roster in close quarters? What safeguards will be in place for players who test positive and must be quarantined?
Whether training camp begins as expected is up for debate, but the nature of the grueling summer workouts will undoubtedly look different. Healthy players remain away from team facilities — Ravens coaches returned two weeks ago — and the likelihood is that they won’t arrive until the start of training camp.
That has left players to coordinate workouts on local practice fields with teammates and forced coaches to judge progression through virtual meetings instead of minicamps and organized team activities.
Harbaugh said the team has missed about 13 offseason practices under the league’s virtual offseason workout program, which is scheduled to conclude Friday. The team was unable to hold tryouts for undrafted free agents, many of whom go on to make the team, and will have to rely on its large signee pool to find its latest undrafted gem.
“Obviously we’re behind where we would have been,” Harbaugh said. “Because we would have been practicing. We would have seen the rookies, we’d have a lot of tape to evaluate. We don’t have that right now. We’re not walking the same way as we would in other seasons but I don’t know it’s really that — it’s kind of a moot point.”
As he anticipates reuniting with his 90 players and entire coaching staff, Harbaugh acknowledged that there might be changes to a truncated offseason program. He said the league may adjust its rules on the ramp-up period for contact to allow players’ bodies to get properly acclimated.
Even with questions largely unanswered for the start of the season, Harbaugh said he expects the team, coming off a franchise-record 14 regular-season wins, to play “at the highest level.”
But like the millions of Americans who have their way of lives upended because of the pandemic, Harbaugh is just itching to get back to normalcy.
“You get to the point now where we’re really looking forward to practicing and getting on the grass and being together,” Harbaugh said. “I know the players feel the same way. They just want to get back to football, getting back to doing what they do and what they love to do.”
- Harbaugh was mum on two incidents between team leaders on both sides of the ball. He said he did not talk to safety Earl Thomas III about a May incident with his wife, in which Thomas was allegedly held at gunpoint.
“That’s between Earl and his family, so I have not talked to him about that.”
Harbaugh also declined to elaborate on discussions with quarterback Lamar Jackson after the reigning Most Valuable Player was seen on camera avoiding injury following a close encounter with a jet ski during a beach football game.
“That’s between me and him, so it’s not something I need to comment on publicly.”
- On the team’s video last week supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, Harbaugh said: “We’ve had these conversations in football locker rooms and meeting rooms for years and years. Ever since I’ve been in the league, these conversations take place because we have a very diverse environment.
“I take it as a real positive, and I’m an optimist. I believe in America. I believe a lot of things about America and its founding and its purpose. I’m very optimistic about where we’re going. I look at things that way. I think this can be — if taken in the right context and I think it is by most possible — a great thing for all of us. I hope most people look at it that way.”
- Harbaugh said he did not agree with Jackson’s belief that the Ravens were “peeking ahead” in their season-ending loss to the Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round.
“Lamar said it, so I respect his opinion on it,” Harbaugh said. “If he views it that way, that’s how he views it. ... I don’t think we took them lightly, personally. We just didn’t play well.”