NFL’s COVID gauntlet, Tua Tagovailoa struggles and more

On Wednesday, the NFL released a memo detailing the experience for unvaccinated players compared to those who are. It’s going to shape the season.

It’s every NFL player’s choice to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19.

It’s also the NFL and NFLPA’s choice to make their lives as difficult as possible.

For players hesitant to get vaccinated, they got a healthy shove in the scientifically recommended direction on Wednesday, when the league and union joined forces on what amounts to an edict.

In short, vaccinated players won’t be subjected to masks, daily testing, quarantines or social distancing. Additionally, there are no limits for them in the weight room, cafeteria or road settings. Conversely, unvaccinated players will continue much as they did in 2020, while essentially being kept in their rooms during road trips.

The NFL and NFLPA are clear: get vaccinated, or play the 2021 season as an outcast.

“This gives me further ammunition to tell my guys to get vaccinated,” said one veteran agent who spoke to FanSided on the condition of anonymity. “Do you really want to be the guy who can’t be near anyone? Do you want to be in the corner by yourself while everyone else is eating together or in meetings? I think they’d say ‘no, I want to get vaccinated.'”

Talking to three different agents, the spring has been different for each.

While the aforementioned agent is working to get his players educated and informed, another feels it’s not his place, leaving it up to the teams. However, a third agent with a legion of clients tells FanSided it has become a “huge issue” among his players.

Through text, he also expressed concern for players trying to make clubs in tryouts. The source believes if the player isn’t vaccinated, he won’t get a look. It’s an underrated point, as many clubs won’t want to risk bringing anybody into their building who could unknowingly be carrying the virus.

Furthermore, players on a roster’s edge who decline vaccination might find themselves released if they’re fighting for a spot with a player who has gotten the job.

“I can’t say that it won’t happen,” one source said of the potential scenario. “If you’re a general manager doing the calculus and it’s a close enough call between two guys, both will equally help win and lose at the same position, then of course, why not take the vaccinated guy? It’s less risk.”

While the NFL memo has been seen as harsh in some corners — hello, Cole Beasley — that’s the point. The league can’t and won’t explicitly demand players be vaccinated (that could change if the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccine) but with these guidelines, is trying to force hands.

“I still think 20 percent will be unvaccinated (at the start of the season),” said one agent. “You’re talking about a population that’s young and mostly thinks it’s invincible. That’s why part of these measures are so severe. These guys are young, mostly in good health and think they’re invincible. Why bother to get the shot when I catch a cold and be done with it?”

However, the agent continued to say peer pressure and the avoidance of daily hassles, mainly constant testing, could be the largest motivating factors to sway opinion.

“If 80 percent are vaccinated, the 20 percent is 14 guys,” one source said, speaking of a full team roster including practice squad members. “Do you want to be in the 14 guys who have to do everything separate or the 56 who do everything together? I think that’s going to be very powerful. Plus, if you don’t get vaccinated you have to get tested everyday.”

With the stated goal being 85 percent vaccination on each team, the league is lagging. According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, only half of the 32 teams have even reached the 50 percent threshold as of Wednesday.

While the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins are already at the vaccination threshold, the Los Angeles Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals are struggling mightily, per The Washington Post.

Keeping up on team-wide vaccination rates is going to be a key competent to competitive balance this season. Clubs with more players at risk have a greater chance of enduring a wave of COVID cases and outbreaks. Unlike last year, when the NFL showed great flexibility with its schedule, the league is likely going to take a more hard-line stance with options to mitigate the spread readily available.

Ultimately, every player will make his choice.

The NFL loudly made its, sending the strongest of messages.

Power rankings

Top 10 quarterbacks entering the 2021 season

1. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
3. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
4. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
5. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
6. Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
7. Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
8. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
9. Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
10. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Quotable

“We’ve been working, not just me, all the QBs and receivers, we’ve been getting together and trying to make that a big emphasis for us this year. People always saying we throw short, intermediate routes and stuff like that, little 5-yard, 10-yard routes. We had some chances last year, we hit some of ’em but we’re just trying to be more consistent this year. That’s where the strides happen, it starts in practice and hopefully it transitions to the game. Just gotta keep working on it.”

– Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson on an emphasis to throw deep more often in 2021

Baltimore is clearly gearing up to look much different from an offensive standpoint. Coordinator Greg Roman has already talked about the scheme becoming less dependent on the shotgun formation, suggesting less read-options and more traditional play-action.

As for throwing deep, the Ravens have the weaponry. Baltimore signed speedy veteran receiver Sammy Watkins and drafted Rashod Bateman in the first round to pair with third-year man Hollywood Brown.

If Jackson and his cohorts can connect on chunk plays, it’ll open up the offense, especially seam routes for tight end Mark Andrews and runs in passing downs.

Podcast

Random stat

The NFC East hasn’t had a repeat winner since 2003-04 when the Philadelphia Eagles were in the midst of four consecutive crowns. The Washington Football Team hasn’t repeated since 1982-84, the longest streak of the four teams.

Incredibly, three squads have never repeated as division champs: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions.

Info learned this week

1. Tua’s very-bad, no-good, awful day means something and nothing

It was pouring on Tuesday, with both rain and interceptions darkening the Miami skies.

Second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had one of the more brutal minicamp practices in recent memory, tossing five picks and having another one reportedly dropped. The narratives went wild afterward, with some pointing out it all means nothing, and others believing it’s a continuation of a rough rookie campaign in which he was benched twice during second halves for Ryan Fitzpatrick.

In reality, the interceptions don’t mean Tagovailoa is trending towards bust territory. It’s a practice in June. Nobody will remember any of this if he plays well. For an example, Patrick Mahomes’ interceptions became a storyline in the summer of 2018. He went on to win the MVP that winter.

Conversely, while head coach Brian Flores talked about wanting Tagovailoa to stay aggressive, the Dolphins would assuredly like to see some better decision-making while also retaining the accuracy which made him so desirable as a prospect out of Alabama.

Watching Tagovailoa in training camp will be a daily storyline as Miami is expected to contend for a playoff berth.

2. Clowney hype humming in Cleveland, and the Browns could use it

Jadeveon Clowney is on his fourth team in as many seasons. Will he finally stick somewhere?

The early returns in Cleveland are solid, and the veteran spoke at length last week about his love for teammate and counterpart Myles Garrett. If Clowney, a fellow No. 1 overall pick, can finally stay healthy for a full season, the Browns have a good pass rusher who is dominant against the run. Of course, the qualifier here matters.

In eight NFL seasons, Clowney has played 16 games once and only eight with the Titans in 2020. He’s never had a double-digit sack season and while he’s a good player, he has also been living off a college highlight more than actual production for almost a decade now.

With the offense featuring some of the league’s best talent, Cleveland desperately needs the defense to be solid for a Super Bowl run. If Clowney can have a career year, perhaps the Browns get what they are seeking, and Clowney finally stops renting real estate.

3. Chiefs’ move of Chris Jones to edge creates new dynamic in KC

After years of being a dominant defensive tackle, Chris Jones is trying out the edge.

Jones, 26, reached two Pro Bowls and a Second-Team All-Pro squad in five years as an interior presence. Outside of Aaron Donald, nobody has matched Jones’ production at the position in that span, when the Mississippi State product racked up 40.5 sacks and 100 quarterback hits.

However, the Chiefs are taking their best pass-rusher and moving him to the edge. For Kansas City, the move is twofold. First, the signing of defensive tackle Jarran Reed gives the Chiefs a good pass rush up the middle. Second, the edge opposite Frank Clark was glaringly weak for the two-time AFC champs. Now, Jones holds said spot, while Reed will be joined by second-year man Tershawn Wharton on passing downs, and run-stuffing savant Derrick Nnadi on the others.

While it’s certainly a risk to move Jones from his natural spot, the Chiefs are betting on the notion of getting their four best linemen on the field simultaneously. With Jones inside, that was an impossibility. And, if the experiment fails, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can always move Jones back after a few games.

4. Steelers would be wise to bet on Trai Turner despite injury woes

If Pittsburgh is going to reach the playoffs again, the offensive line must surprise.

After losing left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, guard Matt Feiler and center Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers did virtually nothing to backfill the spots. However, on Friday, the team hosted free-agent guard Trai Turner. Turner, 28, was traded from the Carolina Panthers to the Chargers last year but played only nine games before being released.

While Turner’s injury history is significant — he’s only played more than 13 games in a season twice over seven campaigns — he’s also tremendously talented. The five-time Pro Bowler would represent an immediate upgrade on a line which both needs to keep the statuesque Ben Roethlisberger upright while opening holes for first-round pick, running back Najee Harris.

At this stage in the offseason, Turner will only get a cheap, prove-it deal through 2021. For the Steelers, it’s an obvious move.

5. Madden 22 gives us an iconic cover with Mahomes, Brady

This space typically doesn’t delve into the video game world, but it’s June 21 and there’s room.

Last week, EA Sports unveiled the cover for Madden 22 and for the first time in a dozen years, it’s not just one player. Instead, it’s the starting quarterbacks from Super Bowl LV in Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.

Usually, the Madden franchise slaps the hottest star on the cover. It certainly could have gone with Aaron Rodgers as he looks to repeat as MVP. It could have chose a young, ascending quarterback like Allen or Herbert.

Instead, we got the greatest quarterback of all time and the one easily the biggest threat to assume the mantle in 20 years. Love the choice. It could age as one of the more classic covers as the years go on.

Two cents

NFL teams love to be secretive. It’s who they are, and sometimes they must be.

Other times, they just look dumb.

The Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears found themselves in the latter category last week, each in relation to their quarterback “battles.”

On Tuesday, it was Bears head coach Matt Nagy saying Andy Dalton is the starter over Justin Fields, leaving the door open a crack when talking on The Cris Collinsworth Podcast. While Nagy was doing the long-standing routine of giving the veteran an edge, the question is why?

Dalton has been in the NFL for a decade and never won a playoff game. He was mediocre last year for the Cowboys, and is nothing but a boring placeholder for fans in Chicago. Allow Fields to compete immediately on an even playing field. If Dalton outplays him, start the TCU product come Week 1 against the Los Angeles Rams. If Fields is better, give him the nod.

However, Wednesday brought an even more obnoxious comment, this one from Jaguars offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer, who has been in pro football since 1997, stated it’s too early to know whether Trevor Lawrence will be the starting quarterback.

Look, if Lawrence isn’t the starter in Jacksonville, for a team that went 1-15 last season and used the No. 1 overall pick on him, fire everyone involved. Fire them right now.

As evidenced above, there’s no one-size-fits-all with quarterback battles. In Jacksonville, the answer is comically clear. In Chicago, it’s a legitimate fight for the job.

Treat both situations as such, and drop the nonsense.

Inside the league

Last week, I wrote extensively about the Las Vegas Raiders. During their minicamp, they drove home my point.

Although it’s early, second-year corner Damon Arnette is already fighting for playing time after being a top-20 pick only a year ago. Arnette, who many believed was a reach when selected, is reportedly sitting behind Trayvon Mullen and Casey Hayward, the latter being an aging veteran on a one-year deal. General manager Mike Mayock made mention of needing to see Arnette “apply himself” in the weight room, a surprisingly honest assessment to the media.

For years, the story around the NFL has been one of the Raiders being eccentric during the draft. In April, many were stunned Alex Leatherwood was picked so high. The same was true of Arnette in 2020. Two years ago, it was edge rusher Clelin Ferrell, who went No. 4 overall ahead of men like pass-rushing extraordinaire Josh Allen, inside linebacker Devin White and defensive tackle Ed Oliver.

If you end up proving the league wrong with eccentricity, more power to you. If not, the better adjective is foolishness. If Arnette can’t start on this defense, it’s a brutal look.

History lesson

The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals are a fascinating, important team to NFL history.

That season, the Bengals were in their third season of existence. The Browns were the runaway favorite in the four-team AFC Central as the Steelers were coming off a one-win season and the Houston Oilers were rebuilding.

Cincinnati, led by weak-armed quarterback Virgil Carter, started 1-6 under legendary head coach Paul Brown. Then, miraculously, the Bengals caught fire, winning seven straight to close the regular season.

Brown’s old team in Cleveland led the division for the first 12 weeks before yielding to Cincinnati, which eventually lost 17-0 in the AFC Divisional Round to the Baltimore Colts.

So what’s memorable about the Bengals beyond a fun two-month stretch? The offensive coordinator was Bill Walsh, who later became the famed San Francisco 49ers coach credited with the West Coast Offense.

Ironically, the scheme was born in Ohio. With wunderkind signal-caller Greg Cook sidelined for the year with a torn rotator cuff, Walsh devised an offense that could hide a bad line and limited quarterback. Short passes, timing routes and accuracy were stressed.

The West Coast offense took off with Joe Montana in San Francisco, but it began in Cincinnati.

Parting shot

A new 17-game schedule is upon us come fall.

With records being placed in jeopardy as the regular season expands, a few mile markers once thought impossible are now in reach.

For instance, how long will it take for someone to throw for 6,000 yards in a season?

When the league’s schedule was less than 14 games (pre-1960), nobody eclipsed 4,000 yards in what was a run-dominant time. In 1967, New York Jets star Joe Namath threw for 4,007 yards in 14 games, breaking the barrier. However, nobody else ever reached 4,000 passing yards in a 14-game season.

Since the NFL went to a 16-game campaign, there have been 197 instances of a quarterback going for 4,000 yards. Incredibly, only 12 times have we seen 5,000 yards, but 10 of those years were in the last decade.

To throw for 6,000 yards across 17 games, a quarterback would have to average 352.9 yards per game. That figure translates to 5,647 yards in the old format. Nobody ever came close, with Peyton Manning topping the list at 5,477 yards with the Denver Broncos in 2013.

Even with the league’s pass-happy era in full swing, it’ll probably be some time before 6,000 yards happens.