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How the Ravens Are Preparing to Play Amidst COVID-19

LB Patrick Queen in Mask
LB Patrick Queen in Mask

On Saturday night, Ravens All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey tweeted a poll to his more than 84,000 Twitter followers. It's the question we all want the answer to:

How much longer does the Coronavirus pandemic last?

As the country continues to try to figure out the best way to move forward in Covid times, the NFL season is fast approaching and everybody throughout the league is adapting.

Five Sundays from today, the Ravens and Cleveland Browns are slated to kick off at M&T Bank Stadium. While Humphrey's question still looms large, it's looking less like "if" the NFL will have a 2020 season and more a question of how long it will last.

Here's how Head Coach John Harbaugh and Ravens players view how the team and NFL are handling the pandemic, and how it is impacting Baltimore's preparation for the season.

No Place Safer Than an NFL Team

Typically, training camp arrival day is met with pomp and circumstance befitting a national holiday. This year, players arrived in masks that made them hard to recognize, and their first day on campus was only to take a test.

Before players could even step foot into the building, they needed two negative COVID tests. That kicked off 14 straight days of daily testing. At the conclusion of that process, the rate of positive tests will be examined and if it's below five percent, testing will move to every other day.

Inside the Ravens' Under Armour Performance Center, there are numerous steps for players, coaches and staff to promote social distancing and avoid shared surfaces. Everybody is masked. Everybody wears a monitor to track how close they are to other people. Players' lockers are separated from each other by a barrier. And that's just the beginning in terms of protocols.

"Honestly, I feel like they're doing … they're making it as safe as possible," wide receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown said last week. "That was something that everybody was skeptical about – how it would be. But once we got here, we were like, 'This could work.'"

"We're trying to have the safest environment that we can," veteran running back Mark Ingram II said. "So, just to ensure that everybody is healthy and doing what they're supposed to do, I think it's necessary. They're some good protocols to have in order to have a safe facility."

Of course, the "safest" thing to do would be to keep everyone in a bubble – just like it would be safest if you never left your house. But how many people have remained locked inside for the past five months? Like the rest of the country, the NFL and the Ravens are in the game of risk calculation and minimization.

So when Harbaugh was asked about quarantining key players, such as a quarterback, he said "those are all options on the table" but threw cold water on the idea.

"All those types of moves come with counter issues. There are consequences to everything that you do, and you have to balance all that out the best you can," Harbaugh said. "It's no different than what the country deals with [and] what the government deals with. You have to balance things out. You have to use common sense.

"For instance, if you were going to quarantine the whole NFL for six months … Yes, if you're a doctor and say, 'We want the best chance to keep everybody safe and healthy,' that would be great, but I kind of want to see my wife at some point in time in the next six months, and she doesn't have coronavirus, and she's being safe too. So, you have to live with a certain amount of risk in order to live your life. We don't want to forfeit all these guys' lives, and they're not willing to do it – as I'm sure the players association (NFLPA) would say – and I wouldn't want them to do it."

In mid-June, Harbaugh said in an interview that the NFL's reopening protocols were "humanly impossible" to follow. He still stands by that, but believes the agreement between the NFL and NFLPA has created as safe of an environment as possible.

"I can't imagine there is any safer place than an NFL football team, right now," Harbaugh said. "We're pretty darn safe. If you want to rank them, we are in the Top Five – I'll tell you that – across the country.

"You do everything you humanly can, but that doesn't mean you are going to win 100 percent of the time. So if something does happen, don't come rolling in here and saying, 'Oh,' and pointing the finger, saying, 'You didn't do something the right way.' And that was my point way back when the protocols first came out, and I think it's pretty clear. You can't test your way out of this, [and] you can't protocol your way out of this either. This is going to run its course. All you can do is the best you can do and mitigate it to great extent. I think we've done a really good job of that, so far. There are no guarantees going forward. We have to stay vigilant, like we have done.

"You can't let it run your life. We can't let it run the operation. We are a football team. We are trying to build the best football team we can, and we'll go about our business doing that, with and around the obligations that we have to one-another in terms of respecting the situation with COVID-19."

Tough Individual Conversations

New Ravens veteran defensive end Calais Campbell is one of the 11 members of the NFLPA's Executive Committee, so he was deeply involved with the negotiations on Covid protocols. He also had some deep conversations with his wife, Rocio, about whether he was going to play this year.

Campbell said last week that he considered opting out, a decision that 67 NFL players (about two per team) made.

"I definitely considered it – you have to," Campbell said. "You can't play football with this [pandemic] going on, and not think about the risk you're going to put on yourself and your family."

Campbell is a new father with a three-month-old son, Dakari. His first name means happiness/joy in one of the languages of Zimbabwe.

"As far as my conversation with my wife, she's kind of … We had a conversation," Campbell said. "I put a lot of thought into it on my own, too, just because of my own underlying issues."

The majority of player opt-outs this year came from linemen – players at higher risk for breathing difficulties based on their body composition. At 6-foot-8, 300 pounds, Campbell is almost always the biggest player on the field. The bigger issue is he has asthma.

"I don't know how bad that's going to affect me," he said, citing that it's more moderate than severe asthma and that he's never had a problem with it before. "So, to me, I feel like I should be fine."

Campbell isn't sure yet whether he will wear the specially designed COVID-19 helmet with a built-in face shield/mask. "I want to try to be as safe as possible, but I do want to be able to play the game at a high level," he said.

"We're getting in the trenches, and we definitely get a little close for comfort, so I want to give myself as much protection as possible. I'm going to try it out to see how it works and see if it works for me, but if it doesn't, I think I'll be OK still – it's football. … I think on Sundays, statistically, I should be OK to go out there and just play football the regular way."

It's not blind faith that Campbell is operating under. It's trust that the NFL's protocols will do a good enough job of minimizing the amount of infected people from reaching the field – both in practice and games – so that he doesn't have to think about it when he's playing the game. Campbell said doctors have told him that false negatives happen only about five percent of the time.

"When we're in the building, I use the protective equipment and stuff. So, I feel like the chances are a lot lower – they're still there – but it's a lot lower, and I feel like as long as I'm washing my hands regularly, not touching my face and wearing my mask, I should be OK," Campbell said.

"I realized talking to the doctors and just setting up the protocols and everything we have to do to keep each other safe, I feel like the risks were mitigated as much as we can. You can't get rid of the risks all the way, but we definitely lowered the percentage of catching it based off of the protocols we put in place. For me, I feel like that was enough."

One big question is how players will handle themselves off the field. While there are rules upon rules, and plenty of people watching to make sure they are followed, within team facilities, players have to be trusted when they leave work.

Under the NFL-NFLPA agreement, players can reportedly be fined or lose their salary entirely for engaging in "high-risk" off-the-field activities, such going to parties, clubs or indoor bars with more than 15 people. Campbell said there wasn't much back-and-forth in negotiations about that between the league and the players' association.

"All the players were pretty much unanimous in making sure there was some kind of consequence, holding guys accountable for when they purposely made mistakes," Campbell said. "Obviously, you want to live your life and do as much as you can to keep your routine the same, but you can't just go and put everybody at risk by doing something dumb."

The reigning MVP, Lamar Jackson, joked that he's going to be "Bubble Boy" this season and several other Ravens talked about the faith players will have in each other to be safe on their own.

"You have to be a pro," veteran wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. "You have to know what is on the line right now. The season is on the line. If guys test positive, that is going to be a problem."

Rookie first-round linebacker Patrick Queen had a simple answer.

"Go out for what?" he said. "It's football season."

Preparing the Team as Best as Possible

Harbaugh said navigating the protocol has been challenging, "but it's been kind of fun in a lot of ways."

The Ravens are fortunate to have a veteran head coach that has seen it all and adapted throughout his now 13-year tenure in Baltimore. Baltimore also retained all three coordinators from last year's 14-2 season, as well as their assistants.

That went a long way in building a solid structure for navigating the unique virtual offseason in terms of teaching, training and more. But there are still many challenges ahead, and ways in which the Ravens will continue to adapt.

"Just trying to put the best training camp together that we possibly can to be the best team that we can be when the season starts in September," Harbaugh said.

The cancellation of preseason games has changed how Harbaugh will run his practices once the full team takes the field. One of the notable differences is there will be more hitting.

For the veterans, preseason games aren't all that important. Under Harbaugh, they don't get much playing time anyway. It's the young players and rookies who are impacted most because those are valuable game reps. Harbaugh said coaches will put those players in game-like situations as much as they can. They will scrimmage and have "live" periods for the young players.

"Not too many, but enough hopefully to get a good feel for where we're at with those guys," Harbaugh said. "I don't think you'll ever really know anything until we line up and play the real games. There will be a lot more questions that will be answered in the real games than ever before."

Because of the lost practice time this offseason, this year's rookie class is at a disadvantage when compared to previous classes. For 16 straight years, the Ravens have had at least one undrafted rookie make the 53-man roster, but Harbaugh said "those guys have been put in a tough spot."

The Ravens are, generally, in good shape with that because they have so many key players returning from last year's squad. However, Queen could be a Week 1 starter and running back J.K. Dobbins and other rookies are still expected to have large roles.

Check out the action from Thursday's rookie practice at Ravens training camp.

"Just coming in [on] short notice, trying to get ready for the season. The vets already are ahead of everything, and you are playing catch-up. It's tough, but at the same time you have to come in to work," Queen said.

"[The preseason games are] the time for you to be able to process everything and learn everything. They take their preseason games here very seriously. That's a learning process for us. For me, not to be able to get that is unfortunate, but at the same time, you've got to adapt. When the time comes for game one, let's rock and roll."

Harbaugh said it's a "fair assumption" that the team could rely more heavily on veterans and incumbent starters early in the season, and that it will probably be a factor when making roster cuts.

"But I do feel like our rookies are going to be able to contribute. I'm very confident that the roles we're going to ask these guys to contribute to, [they will] be able to," Harbaugh said. "Now if they can't, if they're not ready, we'll have to adjust, but we have the guys in place to do it with. So, I like the way our roster is organized, and I do believe we're in good shape to handle this situation."

Test Negative, Stay Positive

Like sports fans everywhere, the Ravens organization, coaches and players have kept an eye on how other leagues around the globe have re-opened.

Major League Baseball kicked off its season less than two weeks ago and has had 24 games postponed because of COVID-19. Obviously, the NFL is looking to avoid the same result.

With a loaded roster certainly capable of winning the Super Bowl this year, the Ravens are especially hopeful that they get a chance to see it through.

"You just try to have a positive mindset," Ingram said. "Obviously, we're aware of it and we're cautious of it. We're trying to do the best we can with the circumstances. We're trying to stay positive and stay hopeful."

Snead said the mantra around the Under Armour Performance Center has been to come up negative (on tests) and stay positive (with your attitude).

"I think baseball is baseball. I don't know how they are doing it. I don't know how they are handling it," Snead said. "But I know the NFL and the NFLPA took the best steps to make sure that we can have football this year. And when it comes down to it, every guy has to hold themself accountable to make sure that they're ready for Sundays, they're healthy for Sundays. And hopefully, we can make sure this thing goes all the way.

"I know just having football around is just going to bring people up. And I know they have been looking forward to sports. I know basketball is going. I know baseball is going right now. But, when football comes around, can you imagine the Fall with no football at all? I mean, I can't. … I know once we start rolling on Sundays, I know the whole environment in our nation is going to change. I think people are just ready for football, whether it's at the stadium, or it's at the house. So, we'll make it right. We are going to make it fun, and I'm just looking forward to the whole football vibes again."

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