Fromm has found himself “craving human interaction,” he said. “I love hanging out with the guys and spending time with people. I’m a real big people person. That’s one thing I miss, being around people. I know a lot of people during these times have missed hanging out with people, hanging out with family. That’s something we’ve all kind of missed.”
This bizarre season led to the creation of an unusual and, with mercy, short-lived NFL role: the quarantine quarterback. The Bills decided at the outset of the season that Fromm would be kept away from other quarterbacks, so if the coronavirus infected one member of the position group, an outbreak would not leave them without a player at the sport’s most important position. Fromm and others like him became the gridiron version of a designated survivor.
The logic behind the role became apparent last weekend. The Denver Broncos lost all four of their quarterbacks after one, Jeff Driskel, tested positive and the others were found to have been in contact with him without wearing masks. The Broncos turned to Kendall Hinton, a rookie practice squad wide receiver who had started his college career at Wake Forest as a quarterback. Hinton completed one pass and threw two interceptions as the Broncos lost, 31-3, to the New Orleans Saints. The disarray stands as an emblem of how the coronavirus has upended the season.
In the 2020 version of the NFL, the avoidance of disaster is a roster-building tenet. The Broncos’ debacle prompted teams to consider adding another quarterback or isolating one of their own. The Washington Football Team signed Taylor Heinicke to serve in an emergency role. The Broncos decided to have Blake Bortles take coronavirus tests at their facility each day and then go home. Another team asked two free agents to try out for a possible quarantine quarterback job.
Some already effectively employ one. The Tennessee Titans have practice squad quarterback DeShone Kizer attend meetings via Zoom and then wait until practice finishes before he works out alone, Coach Mike Vrabel said. The Bills often list Fromm on the practice report as a nonparticipant under “no injury.”
“I’m still around in transition in things and during walk-through and in meetings,” Fromm said this week in a phone interview. “I’m just physically distanced. It does put a little hinder on the physical interaction and sometimes developing relationships with teammates. But we’re working through it. It’s been great so far. Instead of having a conversation two feet away, you’re having a conversation eight to 10 feet away just to be on the safe side.”
Every player’s health is of equal importance, but quarterbacks are unique in their necessity to a functioning team. It would be punitive to use a position player as an emergency kicker or to move a lineman to the other side of the ball. It is devastating to try to play without a quarterback.
“Everyone in the NFL is going in each day hoping their quarterbacks don’t test positive,” an NFC executive said.
An emergency quarterback on the practice squad could save a team’s season. The Broncos were outside the playoff picture. If a team with postseason aspirations faces a similar fiasco, an inevitable loss could be a crucial blow.
“Any team that has playoff hopes should absolutely consider protecting one of their precious games left by keeping a quarterback away from everyone else and keeping a quarterback immersed in the game plan and ready to go,” said longtime agent Mike McCartney, who previously worked in NFL front offices. “If I’m a playoff team, I would absolutely consider it.”
‘It’s just really tough to replicate’
McCartney helped popularize the concept of a quarantine quarterback this summer, selling teams on the idea of signing a veteran for the practice squad and letting him join the team remotely. The Philadelphia Eagles signed Josh McCown, a 41-year-old who had previously been their backup, and let him live in Texas.
The Eagles got an emergency quarterback. McCown got to study film and attend meetings through Zoom calls at home while he worked out with his sons, a pair of high school quarterbacks. McCown possessed years of experience, a strong arm and intimate knowledge of the Eagles’ playbook. He just lacked the one thing a quarterback in his position needed most: reliable WiFi.
“He had to scramble a little bit to make sure he had good reception,” McCartney said.
The concept of a remote quarterback became obsolete when the NFL changed guidelines for testing. A player from outside the building would have to quarantine for six days upon arrival. If the Eagles ever had an outbreak in their quarterback room, McCown’s wait would have been too long for him to play anyway. McCown, who prioritized living with his family, has since signed with the Houston Texans, who practice near his home.
The role presents unusual challenges. When the Bills start practice, Fromm works out in the emptied weight room. He dresses alone in the locker room and heads out for the end of practice, where he observes 11-on-11 drills from a distance — six feet at minimum, but Fromm aims for up to 20 yards to be extra safe. Fromm then throws passes to wide receivers who stay after practice, whom he appreciates greatly.
When those receivers head inside, Fromm stays on the field and slings passes to Ryan Moore. In a typical season, Moore is the Bills’ community relations coordinator. This year, he is the team’s covid coordinator, a role that has unexpectedly improved his hands.
“From where he started to where he is now, it’s actually unbelievable,” Fromm said. “It’s amazing what catching 50 balls every single day will do for you.”
The most difficult part of the adjustment for Fromm has been the lack of practice reps. Rookies are often awed by the speed of the NFL game compared with college. Fromm has not had a chance to experience the difference, even in practice.
“It’s just really tough to replicate being in the fire, being in practice or being in the game,” Fromm said. “It’s something I wish we magically could do. … It’s putting the strain on yourself to make sure your feet are moving fast, your eyes are moving fast and the ball is coming out on time when you are throwing in air. That’s the best thing you can do.”
‘If something does happen, then I’ll be ready’
Despite the stakes, some teams view the role of quarantine quarterback as unnecessary. League insiders have pointed out that the Broncos would have avoided their quarterback mess by following protocols. New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said he believes the harm of coaching players differently outweighs the potential benefit.
“I don’t know how you teach two different rooms of players that play the same position,” Belichick said during a conference call with reporters. “Look, we separate people as much as we can anyway. There’s a certain element of players that play the same position being together. … At some point, you’ve got to meet, prepare and play. I’m sure if we all just sat around in a bubble, then maybe nobody would get anything, but I can’t imagine we’d be a very good football team.”
To some, adding another quarterback would provide scant comfort. The Broncos’ loss turned farcical Sunday. But would Denver have had any real chance of beating New Orleans behind, say, third-stringer Brett Rypien?
“At the end of the day, the chances you’re going to win with your third- or fourth-string quarterback are low as well,” said the NFC executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment. “Whoever you’re going to keep out of the room is likely to be your most disposable player. So even the Bills, I’m not sure if they’d feel great if Jake Fromm has to go win the game for them.”
The executive did not mean to impugn Fromm’s ability as much as his experience. In the event a team had to break glass and deploy its emergency quarterback, knowing the speed of the game and having an established feel for running an offense would be vital. Washington’s signing of Heinicke made sense because he played for Coach Ron Rivera with the Carolina Panthers.
“There’s no replacement for experience,” free agent quarterback Drew Stanton said. “Until you get thrown into the fire, you don’t know how people are going to respond. You could look great in practice, but you don’t get hit in practice.”
Stanton, a 13-year veteran, hopes to put his wisdom to use. In July, he and his wife had a fourth child arrive. The uncertainty presented by the pandemic persuaded him to stay home. Two teams called with interest in having him live in Arizona while being on a practice squad, he said, but a deal never came to fruition.
Now, Stanton, another McCartney client, would welcome an emergency role, even if it meant living away from home. He has been keeping in shape. If offered a job, he’s ready to bring his stacks of notebooks filled with offensive systems and defensive tendencies.
“One game can make the difference between being in the playoffs and going home,” Stanton said. “It’s a day-by-day type of a league right now. Everybody is sitting there susceptible of what the league decides the rules are. To have a contingency plan at the most important position, that’s something I would love to be involved in.”
For a younger quarterback, it is not as easy as it sounds. A three-year starter at Georgia, Fromm had been at the center of his team’s universe. Now he is partly an observer, a quarterback lifting weights while his teammates practice and throwing alone after they have left the field. It is an experience that he will derive lessons from. What they are, he’s not sure yet.
“That’s a great question, something I’ll definitely ponder after the season is done,” Fromm said. “For me, putting the work in and knowing that, hey, if something does happen, then I’ll be ready. It’s not something that everyone sees, but you still have to put the work in after hours. … That’s the only way you’ll be ready and be able to be in a position to succeed.”
The Bills hope Fromm is never needed. Other teams hope they don’t end up wishing they had employed an emergency quarterback. The NFC executive expressed confidence his team would not use a quarantine quarterback. But, as 2020 has taught us all, things can change.
“If we make the playoffs,” he said, “maybe we’d view it differently.”