Here comes the NFL season, an autumn of football without ceremony and clatter, a year without tailgates or cheerleaders. The NFL, an unstoppable and inescapable cultural force, manufactured the on-schedule start of its season through careful planning and rigid adherence to protocols designed to control the novel coronavirus. The year’s first NFL Sunday revealed the strange, surreal results of playing professional football during a pandemic.
“It’s just different, man,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said.
NFL games are typically spectacles, but Sunday they were violent chamber pieces. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh had T-shirts made that read BYOE: Bring Your Own Energy, a constant reminder to players that crowd noise will not provide it. The field was so quiet, Baltimore players said, that they could discern the Cleveland Browns’ plans by listening.
“You definitely could hear the defense and hear what they’re calling,” Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown said. “That was pretty good for us.”
New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, closing in on five decades in the NFL, was asked after his team’s victory over the Miami Dolphins whether he could compare playing in an empty stadium to any previous experience of his decorated football life.
“Practice,” Belichick said.
Even as Tom Brady debuted as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterback after two decades in New England and Lamar Jackson revived his MVP performance in the Ravens’ 38-6 demolition of the Browns, across the NFL the biggest story line had little to do with what happened on the field, even aside from coronavirus-related measures.
In the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, which followed the deaths this year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, the NFL expected — and offered advance support for — player protests during the national anthem. The NBA’s three-day hiatus in reaction to Blake’s shooting amplified attention on what NFL players would do.
Demonstrations varied from team to team and even within sidelines. Some teams remained in their locker rooms. Others locked arms while standing. Indianapolis Coach Frank Reich knelt, a notable act for a head coach.
“We thought it was a unique way to express what needs to be done, where someone like myself, a White leader, would kneel, not out of defiance but out of humility,” Reich said in a postgame Zoom news conference. “We can’t leave things the way they are. It takes all of us, everybody, but certainly White leaders really have an opportunity to step up and make a big change as far as systemic racism is concerned.”
On the Ravens’ sideline, a handful of players sat on the bench, many — including Jackson, the MVP — knelt, and some stood. Owner Steve Bisciotti said in a statement the players were protesting injustices, not the military or the flag, a clarification that players have been making for years.
“A lot of players on this team are really passionate about our community,” Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. “Steve Bisciotti put out a statement, and it’s very clear. We aren’t protesting the flag. We’re trying to effect change in our community.”
The cascading oddities of playing NFL games amid the pandemic defined Sunday. The scene played out in NFL locales across the country. FedEx Field looked post-apocalyptic Sunday morning before the Washington Football Team beat the Philadelphia Eagles. The parking lot, which had been thinning for years, was almost completely empty, the die-hards finally forced away. The stands were bare except for a few yellow-shirted ushers, and the only normal part was the field, where players, coaches and officials mingled and stretched and footballs flew against a backdrop of empty seats.
In Baltimore, a sports bar near the stadium that is typically raucous with fans spilling out of the doors sat sullen. Parking lots were half-full of cars with no people around them — no sea of purple and black jerseys, no smoking barbecues, no red Solo cups, no radios turned to pregame shows, no semi-circled camping chairs, no platters of chicken wings, no hum of anticipation.
Small, ubiquitous black dots outside the stadium read, “Please stay 6 FT apart.” A sign outside the entrance for media members instructed that only one person was allowed in the lobby at a time. Players entered through a separate door, not without first showing a green check mark on their phones, earned through answering a questionnaire saying they felt no symptoms, and getting their temperatures checked.
Tarps emblazoned with advertisements ringed the lowest portion of the stadium and covered the first seven rows of seats. A handful of television reporters set up in the lower bowl behind the tarps. More than 3,000 cardboard cutouts of people, purchased by fans with proceeds donated to local coronavirus relief efforts, dotted M&T Bank Stadium’s lower bowl. Section 146 was filled with 575 cutouts of Mo Gaba, the 14-year-old Baltimore superfan who died of cancer in late July.
In pregame warmups, star players typically emerge to roars from observant, eager fans. On Sunday, a procession of Ravens trotted onto the field and stretched to near total silence — with no public address announcer revving up fans, no video board montages, only faint music pumping. They could have been high-schoolers preparing for a Saturday morning preseason scrimmage.
The coin toss, typically a platform for honorary captains and a platoon of actual captains, morphed into a meeting of three men: the referee and one member of each team. After the Ravens won the toss, Baltimore punter Sam Koch and Cleveland long snapper Charley Hughlett bumped elbows and trotted to their respective sidelines.
A troupe of 12 drummers — wearing masks, spaced apart — lined up above the lower bowl behind the Browns’ bench. The Ravens’ mascot, Poe, watched the game from his nest above Section 144, wearing a giant white mask and occasionally waving the Maryland state flag.
Among home teams Sunday, only the Jacksonville Jaguars allowed fans, filling TIAA Bank Stadium to 25 percent of its capacity. No one was more grateful than Tyrone Harris. The onetime Olympic hopeful in the long jump sells game day beads outside the stadium — $3 for one and $5 for two — and he needs the money. Even a partial crowd for the Jaguars’ opener with the Indianapolis Colts was fine with Harris.
“We didn’t know if they’d allow fans at all,” Harris, 41, said as he walked through Lot J before the game. “Just the limited amount is a big help. It gives you some hope for something.”
Upon entering the parking area outside the stadium, drivers were greeted by a sign that said, “By entering the stadium and stadium grounds, you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19,” a reference to the disease caused by the coronavirus. Another sign said, “Two yards can change the game” — a wordplay on the six feet recommended for social distancing.
Even the vehicles were socially distanced: Orange cones were placed in every other parking spot to prevent excessive gathering. Stadium security workers rode around on bicycles to answer questions and politely remind fans to keep the rules in mind. The usual thump of tailgate music was less present, and public address announcements reminding fans of coronavirus policies were audible.
Still, there was football mirth to be found. Scott Etchison, 44, brought his 13-year-old son, JJ, from Indianapolis to watch the Colts in person. “Feels great, actually,” Etchison exhaled. A few recent college graduates from the nearby University of North Florida drank White Claws, held up a souvenir gnome and whooped, “Go Jags.” They said they had no concerns about safety; they planned to abide by the stadium mask protocol for the entire game.
“They’re doing a grand job of social distancing,” Savannah Cotton, 24, said as she looked around the lot.
“It’s going to be amazing, honestly,” said Ryan Hall, 18, “even though there’s less fans. It’s going to bring a lot of people together, knowing not everyone can be here today — the world is a tough place — but we have this to show we’re all together.”
Inside the stadium as the game kicked off, it looked more like the end of a long afternoon than the beginning — a smattering of die-hard fans stretched across the huge expanse of the stadium in small clusters. Fans were in the luxury cabanas above one end zone, and cheerleaders danced and waved. But the swimming pools that used to draw noise and revelry were empty, and zip ties cordoned off forbidden rows of seats.
When Jaguars defensive back C.J. Henderson made an interception in his first NFL game, he sprinted toward fans in the corner of the stadium, and they cheered for him without coming too close together.
“We had some critical situations where the fans really came through,” Jacksonville quarterback Gardner Minshew II said after the Jaguars’ upset victory. “I really appreciate the fans coming out, and I hope they continue to do so safely. They really help.”
Sam Fortier contributed to this report. Adelson reported from Jacksonville, Fla.