EAGAN, Minn. – Forget about thinking outside the box; this season, the NFL must think outside the bubble.
While the NHL and NBA picked up their postseason play in closed-off communities working as "bubbles" to control the threat of COVID-19, the scenario isn't a realistic one for the NFL.
This means that each team must take responsibility for the health and safety of its members, from front office staff and trainers to players and coaches.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer spoke to the media via video conference on Monday, and both emphasized the importance of keeping everyone healthy.
"Well, I feel like I'm the COVID-police. That's my main role and responsibility for right now in the building," quipped Spielman before adding more seriously, "[NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills] and the NFL and the NFLPA have put in protocols that they believe will give us the best chance to be safe and the best chance to finish the season."
Spielman noted the organization's strict adherence to said protocols, including following social-distancing guidelines and one-way foot traffic inside parts of Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, a regimented testing schedule and the use of face coverings and contact-tracing devices.
There's no question that guidelines are enforced within the facility. At the end of the day, however, contact tracers are turned in; players, coaches and staff are left to self-regulation.
"When you go home, you have to have just as much responsibility outside the building as you do inside the building," Spielman stressed. "The NFL and the NFLPA have done a great job trying to put this protocol in place, and we have to be disciplined enough to follow [it]."
Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, entering his 10th season in Minnesota, spoke with reporters Wednesday and echoed Spielman's sentiments about discipline, extending that same responsibility to the entire league.
"As safe as I feel here in the building with all the protocols that are put in place, all the safety measures that have been put in place, it's put on every guy that's on the roster, every coach that's in this building," Rudolph said. "When you leave here and go home, you have to be very conscious of where you're going and what you're doing – because you could bring something into the building that could destroy a position group or a group of coaches.
"And it's something that all 32 teams will have to be conscious of," he added. "I have the faith in our league and the protocols that have been put in place by the NFL and the NFLPA that, when followed … everyone, theoretically, should be safe."
As Vikings VP of Sports Medicine/Head Athletic Trainer Eric Sugarman, who
tested positive for the virus at the end of July, has noted, it's impossible to entirely eliminate risk. But it can be mitigated.
"What happens if any one of us goes home, and one of our kids brings it into the house? You just have to prepare as best you can, do everything you possibly can to make it as safe as you can, but you can't control everything that comes outside," Spielman said. "That's why it's on everybody in this organization, whether you're a player or coach, anyone on the staff, to not only be responsible inside this building but be responsible outside this building."
Spielman and Zimmer are entering the 2020 campaign with just as much competitive fire as any other season. The goals have not changed. Neither, however, has their focus on the safety and wellbeing of their players.
To lose an established defensive tackle signed during free agency is less-than-ideal. But when Michael Pierce approached the general manager and head coach about his decision to opt out of the season due to health concerns, he was met only with understanding.
Spielman understands the decision was a difficult one for Pierce to make.
"When I talked to him, [I understand] that he was put in the high-risk category, but I also understand that our organization puts the health and safety of our players first, and we have always done that, and we'll always continue to do that," Spielman said. "So with him opting out, I've told him, 'We respect your decision for that, and we want to make sure that your health and safety always comes first.' "
Added Zimmer: "Michael … explained to us his situation, as far as having asthma, and a couple of years ago he had pneumonia, so it just wasn't safe for him to play, and really, honestly, if a player doesn't think he's safe and should do this, I'm with him 100 percent."
Asked about his confidence level that a regular season will move forward as planned, Zimmer said he believes everyone is "cautiously optimistic" thanks to the implemented precautions.
He also reiterated the players' roles in keeping each other healthy.
"I think you're going to have to have smart, disciplined players this year, and for the most part, we've always had those kinds of guys," Zimmer said. "And that's a tribute to Rick, as far as the kind of guys we bring in here and guys understanding that it's not just about them. It's about everybody else. We're all in this together.
"It's almost every time, when I either end a meeting or start a meeting, I try to remind them about what is going on in the world and what we have to do in order to be successful with this season, with not just playing, but being good and winning," Zimmer added. "We have a responsibility to Kyle Rudolph's family, we have a responsibility to Kirk Cousins' family, to Dalvin Cook's family. Everybody. We all need to stay safe with one another, but with our families as well."
Vikings tackle Brian O'Neill mentioned a shared understanding that it's "on all of us to make this thing work" by abiding by the rules.
"It's not just when we're in the building with wearing a mask and following the signs and protocols, but [it's also] when we go home," O'Neill said. "It's easy now to be locked into almost a 'bubble' because we have camp and we're here a lot more. But it's going to be even more challenging as the season goes on and there's a little more free time and we're not necessarily in the building as much. We talk about it, but really all you can control is yourself, and my responsibility [is] to my teammates and the families of my teammates."
The enhanced safety regulations have added steps in everyone's day, to be sure.
But ask linebacker Eric Kendricks – or likely anyone in Minnesota's locker room – and he'll tell you it's worth it.
"It's an adjustment … phone, keys, wallet, mask – and now it's phone, keys, wallet, [contact tracer]," Kendricks laughed. "[But] there's a reason behind the madness, so we're going to all do it.
"It's going to take all of us," he added. "We're going to do our part, and we're going to get this thing rolling."