April is a big month in the NFL offseason.
The draft and the schedule release dominate the headlines, but it’s also that time when players return to team facilities for the start of the offseason training program. For Ravens players coming off a franchise-best 14-2 season that ended in playoff heartbreak in mid-January, it was supposed to mark a reunion and the proverbial turning of the page with all sights toward the 2020 season.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic has already suspended the NBA and NHL seasons and postponed the start of baseball season with no end in sight, pondering the opening of an NFL season months from now brings more questions than answers. How could it not when stay-at-home orders, the closing of nonessential businesses, social distancing, and great concern for loved ones consume our everyday lives? The idea of more than 70,000 people packing a stadium for a game feels impossible — even dangerous — right now as we’re ordered to isolate from even family members and our closest friends.
“Nobody knows what’s going to go on, what’s going to come from this,” safety Chuck Clark said on a conference call with Baltimore media. “I would love to be able to play in a stadium again where fans are in there. That’s what we all live for — whether it’s basketball, baseball, football or hockey — playing in front of a crowd. And then even for the fans, for their enjoyment and having fun.”
But it’s one day at a time. Players have already adjusted their training routines over these last few weeks, but the scheduled April 20 opening of the Ravens’ offseason workout program clearly won’t be taking place at their Owings Mills facility. Team president Dick Cass has already expressed great doubt about organized team activities and spring minicamps being held, meaning the earliest return to the team facility for players may not be until training camp in July.
Tight end Mark Andrews said he hasn’t yet received details from Ravens coaches or staff members about how a spring program limited to at-home participation and remote communication will work.
“I don’t think anybody really knows what’s going to happen,” said Andrews, who described his current training setup at his Arizona home as a “prison workout” with free weights in his backyard. “There’s a ton of uncertainty right now with timelines and when people are going to report and when things are going to start up, so we’re not sure at the moment.
“But at the end of the day, we’re all going to be on the same playing field.”
Unlike teams with new head coaches and significant changes to their staffs, however, the Ravens benefit from stability as John Harbaugh enters his 13th season as head coach. Greg Roman and Wink Martindale will remain as coordinators despite interviewing for head coach positions in January, a development with even greater significance now for a team with championship aspirations.
With team meetings expected to be cyber sessions this spring, that familiarity will be important.
“Obviously, there are a ton of guys on the team that already know the system, the schemes and whatnot,” Andrews said. “It definitely helps, but we’re all professionals and even the guys that have new coaches and things like that, those guys are going to get that playbook down as fast as they can. That’s our job.”
Of course, thoughts of football are accompanied by the more serious problems and concerns we’re all facing to varying degrees. Being a Type-1 diabetic, Andrews initially wondered if he was at greater risk to the virus.
“The word right now is that there’s not too much more of a danger for me than anybody else,” said Andrews, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season. “Just like everybody else, I’m staying smart, I’m staying inside, I’m social distancing myself from other people. That’s all you can do.”
Like the rest of the sports world, Ravens players are trying to adapt and follow altered workout routines while waiting for that “all clear” message we all want sooner than later.
But unlike other sports and events, the NFL has time on its side with the scheduled start of the regular season still more than five months away, reason for cautious optimism. Still, it’s impossible to know what to expect as the pandemic has already disrupted the league’s pre-draft process, challenged the free-agent signing period, pushed the schedule release back to May, and very likely wiped out all on-site workouts this spring.
No one wants to dwell on the possibility of a lost season, but there’s much we’d rather not think about these days.
“It crosses your mind, but at the end of the day, at some point this will all clear up and it will get better,” Clark said. “When it’s over, you’re a professional athlete, and that’s what you’re asked to do. You have to be in tip-top shape to be ready to play.”
At some point.