The New England Patriots gathered for practice Tuesday in Foxborough, Mass., without quarterback Cam Newton, who is barred from in-person team activities for much of this week because of what the team called a “misunderstanding” about testing and the NFL’s coronavirus protocols.
“Yeah, of course,” Belichick said at a news conference. “If we couldn’t gain anything by practicing, then why do we practice?”
As the NFL season nears, the competitive implications of a team having an unvaccinated quarterback have been underscored. Minnesota Vikings starter Kirk Cousins was quarantined early in training camp as a high-risk close contact. Lamar Jackson, the former league MVP for the Baltimore Ravens, was sidelined while in isolation after he tested positive for the virus for a second time. Newton missed at least one joint practice with the New York Giants before he’s eligible to return to the Patriots’ facility Thursday.
The NFL has fared far better than the country as a whole with its vaccination rate. The league said earlier this month that 91.7 percent of NFL players had received at least one vaccine dose. That figure undoubtedly has fluctuated — and perhaps gone down — as teams have begun releasing players to reach league-mandated roster limits. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a radio interview Tuesday he believes the NFL’s approach has been “very successful” during teams’ training camps this summer, even amid the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.
“To me, this is a team game,” Jones said on Dallas-area station 105.3 the Fan. “We rely on each other to play. We rely on each other to win. We have to have each other. … You have to count on the other guy being available. And you certainly don’t want to be doing anything that causes your teammates to not be available.”
But some players remain unvaccinated, and there are competitive implications for that. Under the protocols developed by the league and the NFL Players Association for training camp and the preseason, many restrictions were eased for vaccinated players and team staffers but remained in place for unvaccinated individuals. Only unvaccinated players remain subject to being quarantined based on contact tracing as Cousins was.
The NFL and NFLPA continue to deliberate over their protocols for the season. The union has proposed re-tightening some protocols based on concerns about the delta variant. And while both sides say their main objective is to keep players and team staffers healthy while staging a complete 2021 season, the league’s approach also has tied vaccinations to competitive issues. The NFL previously told teams they could face forfeits if any outbreaks are attributable to unvaccinated players or staffers and affected games can’t be rescheduled.
The competitive peril is the greatest for teams with unvaccinated quarterbacks, given the risk of such a team being left without its most important player.
“Everyone has a right to make their own decisions regarding their health and their body,” Jones said in his radio interview. “I believe in that completely until your decision as to yourself impacts negatively many others. Then the common good takes over. And I’m arm-waving here. But that has everything to do with the way I look at our team, the Cowboys, or the way I look at our society. We have got to check ‘I’ at the door and go forward with ‘we.’ Your Dallas Cowboys are doing that.”
Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer has expressed his frustration with his team’s unvaccinated players. The team had Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease expert from the University of Minnesota, address players during a team meeting Monday.
“He’s one of the top specialists in the world,” Zimmer said. “I thought he was very good with his points, answered a lot of questions. Whether or not that changes anything, I don’t know.”
Zimmer called it a health issue, not a football issue.
“If they miss a game because they get covid, so be it,” he said. “But I don’t want them to get sick. And I don’t want their families to get sick and their kids to get sick or my grandkids to get sick.”
Jackson said upon returning to the Ravens earlier this month, after testing positive for the virus for the second time in eight months, he remained undecided about being vaccinated. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday he feels it’s inappropriate to tell unvaccinated players that he believes they have made the wrong choice.
“Our players are getting the best advice from doctors that do know,” Harbaugh said at a news conference. “And they’re making decisions, rational decisions based on what’s best for them, in their opinion. What else can you do? … I just think that’s disrespectful to [question] someone that’s thoughtful about it, that’s thought about it. They understand the consequences.”
Newton declined to comment on his vaccination status earlier this month, calling it “too personal to discuss.” But the five-day reentry protocol to which he is now subjected applies only to unvaccinated players. The Patriots said in a written statement Monday that Newton received clearance from the team to leave the area for a medical appointment and tested negative in daily coronavirus tests, but there was “a misunderstanding about tests conducted away from NFL facilities.” The protocols restrict the ability of unvaccinated players to leave town, other than via travel with the team.
When he was asked Tuesday whether Newton’s absence from this week’s practices makes for a good opportunity for Jones, Belichick said: “It is.”
Belichick has called Newton the team’s starter at quarterback. But Jones was chosen in the first round of the NFL draft, and now he has a chance to show that he deserves to overtake Newton for the starting job entering the season.
“Look, our entire team has opportunities every day, all the way through the week against the Giants and in the [final preseason] game,” Belichick said. “I hope we can all take advantage of those opportunities.”