Major League Baseball was turned on its head by COVID-19 this weekend as the Miami Marlins reportedly had 18 players and coaches test positive for the virus. The concern in all sports has been about the health of players. But what would happen in football if coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots tested positive?
Belichick would be a worst-case scenario in that, besides serving as the head coach of the six-time Super Bowl champions, he’s also the de facto general manager and calls the defenses on Sundays.
NFL general managers may be expecting the unexpected
The most stunning development of the 2020 NFL draft came with the 26th pick of the first round when the Green Bay Packers selected Utah State’s Jordan Love even though incumbent quarterback Aaron Rodgers seemingly has several good seasons left.
The Packers must believe they’ve found their quarterback for a couple of years down the road. But what if their motivation on draft day was planning for the possibility of COVID-19 taking Rodgers out of the lineup? Perhaps the Packers see Love as the guy who can acclimate to the job faster than any available No. 2’s in a league that barely has 32 No. 1 quarterbacks.
If that’s the case and Love does have to be called upon, then the Packers may have assuaged the biggest worry that a general manger or head coach could have.
As it is, some NFL teams are reaching crisis stage even without players being diagnosed. Ninth-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower and running back Brandon Bolden have added themselves to the list of New England Patriots players who are opting out of the season. That’s on top of recent announcements by offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, fullback Danny Vitale, and offensive lineman Najee Toran.
That’s bad news for Patriots fans entering training camp. But consider the implications higher up the food chain. What if Bill Belichick gets sidelined by COVID-19 during the season? The NFL has rules in place, and the scenario is worse for some teams more than others.
Bill Belichick and other coaches are covered by strict NFL rules
While the health of players during the pandemic remains the focus of most, the Boston Globe examined the implications of a coach being diagnosed with COVID-19. Under NFL protocols, everyone directly associated with the football operations gets treated the same as players: A positive test means he’s out at least five days if asymptomatic, and at least 10 days if symptoms appear. The illness itself can be serious enough to hospitalize a patient for weeks.
No one testing positive can return to the team’s facilities until they are cleared. In the case of a head coach or coordinator – remember, Bill Belichick is both with the New England Patriots — that means no calling plays from a booth in press box, a luxury suite, or the top row of seats in an empty upper deck of the stadium.
“No question, you have to have a backup ready for everybody this year,” an unidentified AFC executive told the paper. “You kind of have that anyway, but this year is especially important. No one knows how this is going to go.”
Sure, technology is great. But it is unrealistic to think that a head coach or coordinator would be able to communicate in-game decisions in real time via Zoom or similar technology. Staffs will scramble to take over responsibilities.
Bill Belichick is one of the coaches wearing multiple hats
Game preparation begins over the summer when support staff breaks down video of upcoming opponents’ past season. That’s less useful in prepping for teams that have changed head coaches and coordinators, but the process is ongoing once the season starts. From there, the coordinators and head coaches are looking for weaknesses to exploit while piecing together game plans.
Take Bill Belichick out of the equation due to illness, and the Patriots have to replace their head coach and defensive coordinator. As noted by the Boston Globe, head coaches Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles and Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams call plays. The description also fits Sean Payton in New Orleans, Andy Reid in Kansas City, and perhaps Ron Rivera in Washington, to name a few.
It potentially gets worse, too. Not that Bill Belichick puts any effort into it whatsoever, but the head coach has weekly media obligations that would further burden an emergency fill-in.
Finally, there’s the general manager’s role. As the Patriots’ de facto GM, Belichick will be burning up the phone lines this week looking for options to replace players who’ve opted out of the season. If he were incapacitated by COVID-19, Belichick wouldn’t be available to audition replacements on Monday and Tuesday if New England lost a left tackle or free safety on Sunday.
It’s one more worry for a franchise already gambling that the dropoff from Tom Brady to Cam Newton at quarterback isn’t severe.