When he first popped up on the video conference this week, Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone looked like he either had a mask under his chin or a weird shadow on his face. Turns out he’s grown a beard since the last time we saw him. I don’t know if Marrone has ever had a beard before but it’s another one of those strange, different things that are happening in this pandemic era.
Marrone admitted as much as the players have started to report for this year’s version of training camp: Everything’s different.
“As a coach, you want to get back on the field and that’s where we are now,” Marrone said, standing in a room alone, with two video monitors in front of him. “I think when people think of training camp or preseason, I think we can all paint a picture of what we expect. I think this is a very unique year, so I don’t really put it under that category of training camp and preseason because we are in a ramp-up period now and it’s a little bit different.”
By now in a “normal” year, we’d be approaching the first practice where players will put on pads and actually do some hitting. This year, the beginning of August has players undergoing a minimum of three Covid-19 tests before they’ll even be allowed in the building. If all goes well with the protocols in place, they don’t expect to be on the practice field in a traditional sense until August 17th.
“It’s been crazy,” Jaguars first round pick C.J. Henderson said on Friday of the virtual meetings and physical “walk-through’s” the rookies have been a part of. “We are learning how to adapt and live in these strange ways. I don’t know, it’s just different for everyone, so we are just trying to find a way since it’s new for all of the guys here.”
Usually, ninety players, twenty or so coaches, medical and training personnel, team media and video staff are all jammed into the team facility and a camp hotel for about six weeks during training camp and the preseason. There’s rarely any free time, all staying together, packed into meeting rooms, eating meals together, showering and dressing in the locker room and going to the practice field, together, twice a day.
Now, none of that is happening. The Houston Texans have posted a video overview of what their “training camp” set up looks like. No touch doors, physical distancing and signs everywhere reminding everybody of the current dangers. The Jaguars have four locker rooms they’re using at the stadium just as a start to achieve social distancing. There are arrows on every hallway showing which way to walk.
“I feel really comfortable about the protocols,” Marrone explained while wearing a “tracker” around his neck.
“When we’re in the building, one of the things is that you can see that it just flashed blue which means that I am in good physical distance from everyone that’s involved,” he said. “When it flashes red, then I know I’m too close to someone and so I can take two or three steps back until it flashes blue.”
That would be weird in any work situation.
While the NFL isn’t technically working in a bubble environment, they’re trying to keep everybody as isolated as possible. The NHL’s bubble has been successful in Canada with zero positive tests so far. The NBA has had some issues, specifically with players not following the protocols. Major League Baseball is in danger of cancelling their season, mainly because some players are ignoring the rules in place.
Every coach in every sport talks about team building, character and relying on each other. This year takes the idea of “teammates” to another level.
“I think that there’s a lot of self-discipline involved, there’s a lot of relying on your teammates, and that’s self-discipline,” Marrone said. “Unfortunately for me, fortunately maybe for my wife, I’ve really been staying away from my wife and children. That’s just a responsibility that we all have to each other to not bring this virus into the building and not to really spread it.”
From a competition standpoint, the pandemic has put the Jaguars in a conundrum. Players hurt the most by the lack of practice time and mentoring by fellow teammates will be the young players, especially rookies. The Jaguars are relying on rookies to fill key roles and for now, they’re the youngest team in the league.
“Everything is obviously strange right now with the limited access we have,,” said the Jaguars second, first-round pick, K’Lavon Chaisson. “t’s been hard to find some places to get some real work in as well try to stay socially distant from many people and try to stay safe.”
Hardly the situation you want when you’re bringing a new player to the team with high expectations for production right away.
“I learn great from the book, but even better when you walk me through things,” Chaisson explained. “I know we don’t get as much time on the field as we want to and there’s only so much we can do while we practicing with social distance.”
In recent years there’s been a lot more emphasis on the mental health and mental state of players in professional sports. They’re all great athletes. If you were in a pickup game with a guy recently cut by any team he’d be so good you’d think it was unfair. There are certain guys who can adapt to the mental pressures of the game, an others who can’t perform in that environment. Leagues and teams are trying to unlock the difference between the two and this year that effort is paramount.
“I think that the league is taking great strides in making sure that there is support available to them outside of just the coaching staff and player development,” Marrone said. “I mean, really truly some professional help because one of the things you look at as a coach is, ‘Okay what can come up? What can be one of those things that cause a lack of focus or anxiety that’s really going to hurt the player and the team?”
Making the team is the only thing on the minds of most players in training camps starting this week. Every step, every comment, every reaction is recorded and noted and can have an impact on whether they’re playing football this fall or looking for a job. It adds up.
Marrone knows that feeling.
“I think that stuff always does take away because there’s going to be some guys in the locker room that ignore things and some guys that can’t. Everyone handles that stuff differently.”
Although they won’t say it, it already felt like a rebuilding year for the Jaguars. They’ve shipped out productive veterans like Calais Campbell and have put their stock in a second-year quarterback and a draft full of team captains. They’re looking for leaders for the future.
I wouldn’t call it a throw away year, but measuring success in this environment will have very different criteria than just wins and losses.
They’ve had one player, newly signed defensive tackle Al Woods, opt out of the season. They were counting on him to be a force in the middle against the run. Will there be more once “camp” starts? There’s already talk of “quarantining” a quarterback throughout this year so there’s always one available to play.
Fielding a young team that is already rated as the least talented in the league is difficult enough. Take a few key components away and it’s a daunting task.