In any normal NFL offseason there is a timeline that generally follows the same structure year after year.
Teams would generally hold their voluntary minicamp in April, their rookie minicamp and OTAs in May, their mandatory minicamp in June and then get into a full-fledged training camp by July, two weeks before the first of four preseason games kick off in August. In 2020 however, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed players from even entering their practice facilities until late July which now puts the league in a position where teams must prepare for a season despite no spring workouts, no preseason games and in-house concessions made to prevent any and all potential spread of the virus.
Head coach Bruce Arians joined a virtual press conference with the media on Wednesday where he discussed the hurdles that the Bucs now face as they prepare for the 2020 season amid a pandemic.
“It’s totally different,” Arians said. “This isn’t spring football, we’re getting ready to play a game. We won’t have any preseason so we’re going to have to tackle each other, which I don’t like doing but it’s necessary. Our clock’s ticking for the Saints, so we’re not in spring practice right now.”
Players were tasked with staying in shape on their own throughout the offseason so that Tampa Bay could hit the ground running as the team transitioned back to the AdventHealth Training Center. Arians praised how his veterans responded, but understandably pointed to potential shortcomings for younger players and rookies.
“I’m real pleased with the veterans,” Arians said. “I think the rookies look like they would have showed up for rookie mini-camp right after the draft, some of them just don’t know how to train. Not all of them, some of them were in great shape. The veterans knew what to expect and I was really really pleased with the conditioning of the group.”
In addition to the conditioning time lost before a long season, Arians has stated multiple times how impactful the lost practice reps are to rookies – who otherwise would have gotten around 400 snaps on the practice field at this stage of a normal offseason – and players that are new to the Bucs’ system like Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and LeSean McCoy. But Arians points to the impact of his largely retained coaching staff and veteran presence in the Bucs’ locker room.
“That’s a huge part of it,” Arians said. “Coaching coaches is harder than coaching players and most of our guys are back. They know the systems, offense, defense and special teams so they’re hitting the ground running. Tom, Gronk, [McCoy,] they’re all really smart veteran guys, they’ll catch it. Tom’s already got it and Gronk’s getting it and [McCoy] will get it real fast. It’s just a matter of me being smart enough to not overdue it as far as hitting, but we still have to tackle and as much as I want [split practice onto] two fields to find those young guys, with the expanded practice squad we’ll be able to get a good look at them anyway. So right now it’s a matter of managing this thing daily to get where we want to go.”
But even once the team gets caught up mentally and physically, the NFL has also began to prepare for challenges brought on by COVID that they’ve never seen before, from knocking out walls in the Bucs’ practice facility to increase the size of meeting rooms to outdoor showers to large-scale meetings held in the Tampa Bay’s indoor facility so people can effectively social distance.
“We’re doing our team meetings, all my meetings are in the indoor facility where we’re all spread out,” Arians said. ” And we have a big TV screen and I’m using a microphone, which I’m not fond of, but it’s working fine. I’ve gotten used to it.”
“Our ownership did an unbelievable job of re-shaping this building so we could have meeting room. We couldn’t use our big auditorium because it only holds 50 so we can only use our offense in there and we’ve basically taken over the other side of the building. So just new classrooms, getting used to eating outside, all these little things that can be a distraction if you allow them to be. But so far guys are not allowing that to be a distraction, nor the coaching staff and I’m real pleased that way.”
Arians even stated that the team has gone as far as placing contingency plans in place should a coach or play-caller contract the virus and be forced to miss a game mid-season.
“We did that when we came back in July or late June,” Arians said. “We put those protocols in place, who would take my place, who would take Todd’s place, who would take Byron’s place, who would take Keith’s place? We have enough young coaches now in the system that if the receiver coach gets sick, the assistant receiver coach takes over. We’re very fortunate to have that big of a staff and have guys that I trust to do it.”