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August 13, 2020

John McMullen: For NFL training camps, ‘bubble-like’ is a deception

Opinion Eagles

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Eagles-training-camp-NovaCare-Complex-Carson-Wentz_081320_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Eagles QB Carson Wentz

You've likely heard a lot about bubbles recently when it comes to professional sports moving forward with many Twitter-trained M.D.'s settling the science and concluding it's the only way forward during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Major League Soccer was lauded for just finishing its "MLS is Back Tournament" with few hiccups in its Orlando bubble and both the NHL and NBA are doing fine while there have been far more issues with non-bubble Major League Baseball, although everything is still marching forward there as well.

The latter sentiment holds true for the NFL, a league where a bubble format seems untenable due to the logistics, starting with the sheer volume of players and teams, along with the space needed to house them all.

Early on the safety protocols agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA seem to be working relatively well. The number of players testing positive for COVID-19 has been steadily declining and the reserve list shrinking. The league and the union also just agreed to extend daily testing essentially to the doorstep of the projective Thursday night season-opener on Sept. 10 between the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans.

Here in Philadelphia all three players on the reserve/COVID-19 list have already been activated — linebacker Nate Gerry, All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson and lineman Jordan Mailata.

Of course, the most high-profile member of the organization who tested positive is head coach Doug Pederson and he returned to the NovaCare Complex on Wednesday after doing virtual work during the majority of the acclimation period. In the end, the coach didn't miss one actual football practice.

Before testing positive, and all indications are that Pederson caught the virus away from the facility, the coach actually called NovaCare "our bubble."

"This is our bubble right here at NovaCare," Pederson said. "I can't control everything. We can't control everything. There probably are going to be some things that come up down the road, but right now, I feel extremely safe and this is a great environment for our players to succeed in."

In many ways, teams are left to their own devices when it comes to training camp and how it's handled. In suburban Dallas, some members of the Cowboys are sequestering themselves in advance of the ramped-up portion of camp which really begins Aug. 17 when the pads can go on.

It's a little easier there because Dallas has one of the two best facilities in the NFL right now in The Star which includes a hotel on the grounds, the Omni Frisco. It's also a nice thought by the players themselves who want to create a "bubble-like atmosphere," to protect themselves from contaminating each other and other members of the organization.

Those staying in the bubble in Frisco will be Tier 1 and some Tier 2 personnel — players coaches, trainers, and some other essential employees — but the kicker is it's not mandatory so what exactly is the point?

"Bubble-like" isn't a bubble, however, nor does calling something a bubble make it a bubble. Heck, you can even make a very strong argument that bubbles against viruses don't really exist absent top-of-the-line hazmat suits in a pristine, antiseptic environment. More so, if everyone isn't involved then no one is really involved.

That said sequestering does harken back to the old days of training camp when teams would get together at colleges across the country to not only prepare but also bond. The Cowboys themselves were one of the few teams still traveling for camp before the pandemic and would spend three weeks together in Oxnard, Calif.

Public relations is always a bigger part of these things than it should be and perhaps you can add a placebo effect in that maybe players feel safer with all the bells and whistles.

Gestures aren't science, though, no matter how many people want to spin good intent with actual efficacy against a virus that doesn't care about anyone's altruism.

The younger Cowboys were already staying at the hotel anyway because that's the usual setup just like the Eagles use a hotel at the Navy Yard as the team hotel for training camp. A bubble-like atmosphere might help the Cowboys chemistry like an old-school camp. Other than that, peer review of the science you may think is settled isn't accepting a thesis built on the foundation of nonsense.

Even the NBA is prepared to lighten restrictions during the playoffs when it comes to its bubble so is it really a bubble?

That's not an existential question either. The point here is what so many have described as a bubble isn't safe from a virus. Safer perhaps is a fair assessment and as you lower the bar to bubble-like adjust accordingly.

The Eagles are counting on education and maybe the best deterrent of all, keeping busy in a safer environment.

"Obviously it's typical training camp. We have curfew at 11:00 at the hotel," Pederson said. "The days are filled. We're on a 12-hour workday with the players, and there's not a lot of time at the end of the day.

"Once they leave the building, they are on their own and it's up to me and my staff and our trainers and doctors to educate them on the protocols outside of the building."

After 12 hours of grinding even young people aren't going to default to going out all that much even if they can actually find a spot to go to in a still somewhat locked-down Delaware Valley.

The coach is also using his own positive test as a teaching moment.

"This is just a great time for me to be — I think to be kind of an ambassador, to be a leader, to really educate our team on how to protect ourselves outside the building," he said.

As for make-believe bubbles, Pederson preferred not to play make-believe any longer.

"These are all things that were negotiated between the players and management, and we've actually given the players, the veteran players who have homes here, we have given them the option to either stay at the hotel or stay at home," he said. "That's part of the agreement.

"Listen, everybody's situation is different. Everybody wants to protect their families obviously, and I understand that, so we do give them that option to decide."

So what's the difference between Dallas' highly-publicized "bubble-like atmosphere" and the Eagles' plan?

Smoke and mirrors.

Maybe that vaccine gets fast-tracked.

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John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for PhillyVoice and You can reach him at

Follow John on Twitter: @JFMcMullen