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As the blast furnace of COVID-19 continues to burn throughout the NFL — climbing to more than 550 player infections in December and roughly 25 percent of all active players — the Philadelphia Eagles unilaterally cooked up their own extra layer of defense heading into a pivotal Week 17 game.
They’re breaking up all of their quarterbacks and offensive play-callers and keeping them in separate rooms inside the team practice facility. The goal is to avoid risking the potential nightmares other franchises are facing this week, including the Indianapolis Colts placing unvaccinated starting quarterback Carson Wentz onto the COVID/reserve list and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians testing positive for COVID. The Colts are fighting to stay in the playoff picture and the Bucs are vying for home-field advantage in the postseason. Meanwhile, the Eagles are in an even more desperate fight, sitting as the seventh playoff seed in the NFC and needing a win Sunday and some help to clinch a playoff berth.
With such risks in mind, Philadelphia created some unique precautions. Keeping all three quarterbacks — Jalen Hurts, Gardner Minshew and Reid Sinnett — apart from each other will minimize the chance that a positive COVID result could spread and ultimately take out the top two rungs of the quarterbacks room, as we’ve seen happen with other NFL teams in recent weeks. The same will apply for head coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, who are the Eagles’ two offensive play-callers on game day. Philadelphia’s quarterbacks meetings will also remain virtual the rest of this season.
It’s a smart and creative move, showcasing that NFL teams are willing to take their COVID measures beyond the league’s basic protocols, knowing that it could preserve a playoff shot (and maybe future postseason wins) in these final weeks.
“We definitely did different things that weren’t mandated a couple weeks ago and we’re going to continue with that,” Sirianni told reporters Tuesday. “We are talking through even more as a staff today. I talked to a couple other head coaches [in the NFL] and tried to figure out what they’re doing. Because we all know, to win this game this week, we’re going to need all hands on deck. And so, what is the best course of action? Obviously I’m talking to our doctors and our trainers to figure out the best course of attack. … We’re going to definitely make even more adjustments than what we need to just to keep everybody safe. And the quarterbacks, yes, the quarterbacks will be in separate rooms.”
While that won’t prevent the quarterbacks from practicing together, it removes the aspect of having them in a confined space together indoors, which presents a greater risk of COVID infection than outdoors.
That’s something that other NFL teams appear to be considering as well. Three executives who spoke to Yahoo Sports said they held meetings Tuesday with coaches to discuss the possibility of moving to all-virtual meetings and also taking added measure for key personnel such as quarterbacks, offensive and defensive play-callers — as well as other areas of the roster than can’t afford even the smallest bit of added attrition in the coming weeks.
“Where we want to preserve some depth or have maybe lost some depth, there’s going to be consideration to kind of fortifying things around certain areas of the team,” an AFC general manager said. “The position meetings are basically virtual now anyway, but there’s a few extra steps that can be done for some individual players without basically removing from interaction in the building.
“It’s a fine line because we don’t want to isolate guys [from their teammates] inside the complex, but I guess I’d just say there will be a lot of closed doors that are usually open, if that makes sense. There’s just going to be some raised awareness — even more raised awareness than there is — for some guys.”
While that might come off a little awkward, it’s hardly any different than putting quarterbacks in red jerseys in practice and telling defenders that they aren’t to be touched. NFL players know the score when it comes to who gets special treatment, and if that means creating some kind of invisible bubble around the most impactful players or positions on the team, it leans into the wins and postseason berth that the entire roster is fighting for.
Frankly, any team that isn’t following the Eagles' plan at this point would be foolish. The Colts should have been separating Wentz and Jonathan Taylor and other key personnel the moment COVID infection spiked inside their building, particularly knowing Wentz is unvaccinated and subject to a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to symptomatic infection than other players. You can bet it certainly would have made the New England Patriots feel better at the moment, with backup quarterback Brian Hoyer reportedly heading for the COVID reserve list — ramping up the anxiety that starter Mac Jones may have been exposed to COVID. Even against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, losing both Jones and Hoyer could have heavy implications Sunday.
At some point, teams will have to weigh the risk of not taking the extra steps to protect key players, especially when there’s the argument that a team is giving away an edge to an opponent who is taking extra measures. If anything, it’s just another layer of protection created organically by clubs in what is an ever-evolving landscape with the league's COVID protocols. As it stands, testing changes have already been made to get vaccinated asymptomatic players back onto the field as quickly as possible. Now with the NFL adopting the CDC advisement on asymptomatic quarantining — shortening the period from 10 days to five — it’s going to be easier than ever to get vaccinated and unvaccinated players back into the fold on gameday.
Even with the NFL bending more than ever away from stringent protocols, there are still going to be teams that implement some intelligence and move themselves further ahead of the pack. The Eagles are doing that. The only question now is who will be next.