Over the weekend, as the combine attracted most of the attention because Jordan Davis was busy being a superhero, the NFL ended its COVID-19 protocols.
On one hand, that’s straightforward. Reported COVID cases have plummeted since their peak in January, and teams will no longer have to utilize masks, tracking, testing and facility limits on how many people can be in rooms or buildings.
“Based on current encouraging trends regarding the prevalence and severity of COVID-19, the evolving guidance from the CDC, changes to state law and the counsel of our respective experts, the NFL and NFLPA have agreed to suspend all aspects of the joint COVID-19 Protocols,” the league memo read in part. “We will continue to prioritize the health and safety of players, coaches and staff, as we have throughout the pandemic.”
That will make life easier for staff, coaches, and players, obviously, assuming the NFL isn’t forced to re-activate protocols by spikes in COVID cases this fall. The hope is that this truly is a permanent decline in COVID cases that means fewer people getting the virus and dealing with friends and family being sick, and that’s a much bigger deal than a reduction in hassle for NFL teams. I’m hopeful—if, as a card-carrying Falcons fan, never particularly optimistic—that will be the case.
Beyond the straightforward parts of the announcement, though, there are questions about other rule changes the NFL put in place because of COVID. Many of those changes seemed genuinely beneficial for teams, like the expanded practice squads, unlimited injured reserve returns, short-term injured reserve, and veterans of any experience being able to sign to practice squads. Now that the league has had a taste of the additional flexibility those rules offer, it seems unlikely the NFL will be able to pull them all back wholesale without the NFLPA’s objection, to say nothing of coaching staffs who suddenly had more gameday options for the roster. The Falcons, if you’ll recall, made heavy use of practice squad elevations in 2021, and would likely do so again in 2022 if given the option.
I’m certain word will be coming one way or the other, but my hope is that this won’t mean the end of expanded practice squads in particular, given the opportunities that offers for players who otherwise might be languishing in free agency. Chances are we’ll find out well before training camp.