The N.F.L.’s virtual off-season will last at least two more weeks, but teams’ coaching staffs might be cleared to return to team facilities as soon as Monday.
Commissioner Roger Goodell explained the updated reopening plans during a conference call on Thursday and expanded upon the explanation in a memo to teams that was obtained by The New York Times.
In the memo, Goodell wrote: “We expect that next week clubs will be permitted to include members of their coaching staffs among the employees permitted to resume work in the club facility. We are actively working with governors and other state and local authorities in those states that have not yet announced definitive plans and will confirm the precise date on which coaches can return to the facility as soon as possible.”
Goodell, who ordered a shutdown of team headquarters in late March, also wrote that teams could reopen ticket offices, retail shops and other “customer-facing facilities” as long as they complied with state and local guidelines. Those employees will count against the maximum number permitted — no more than 50 percent of staff at the facility, not to surpass 75 people.
The league is continuing to work with the players’ association on “developing protocols” that will allow at least some players to return “on a limited basis” before the off-season program concludes, the memo said.
“I mean, we have to be right,” Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, said on the call. “So we are really taking a responsible approach on a daily basis.”
More and more teams have been opening their facilities, in compliance with state and local regulations, as well as any other rules established by the league. In Thursday’s memo, Goodell noted that “almost all states with N.F.L. clubs have either relaxed limitations on business activities and related ‘stay-at-home’ orders or have announced plans to do so in the near future.” To preserve “competitive equity,” the league asked that teams start permitting their coaches to return only when it was safe for all 32 teams to do so.
The league is still in discussions with the players’ union about the precautions needed for the athletes to return.
League owners also met Thursday on a conference call and approved a series of minor rule changes but not an intriguing proposal that would have added an alternative to onside kicks — an untimed fourth-and-15 play from the team’s 25-yard line.
If the team converted, it would have gotten the ball. If it failed, the opposition would have assumed possession where the play was blown dead.
The rule, proposed by the Philadelphia Eagles after a similar change was proffered last year by the Denver Broncos, would have further dramatized tense games afterrules enacted two years ago lowered the success rate of onside kicks. After a rule passed prohibiting the kicking team from getting a five-yard head start to minimize violent collisions, just 10.5 percent (12 of 114) of onside kicks have been recovered by the kicking team since 2018, according to Pro Football Reference, compared with 14.5 percent (27 of 186) over the previous three seasons.
Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, characterized discussions regarding the rule change — which can, and probably will, be revisited — as robust, lasting 20 to 30 minutes, and said that teams were more receptive to the idea this year.
Teams would have been permitted to attempt this tactic just twice per game — an admission, perhaps, of a potentially uneven playing field — and at any time, regardless of the score, though not in overtime.
One obvious downside to an unsuccessful attempt would have been giving the opponent good field position and an opportunity to secure victory. Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty suggested Wednesday in a conference call with reporters that it would have effectively punished teams that were leading. At least some owners seemed to share that perspective Thursday.
“There is definitely that theory that you don’t want to make the comeback too easy,” McKay said. “You’ve worked all game to be ahead. You’ve earned that right to be ahead, and you would not want a rule change to come in and say, ‘All of a sudden we’re going to completely change the odds of you being able to preserve that lead.’”
In their vote on other proposed measures, the league’s owners quickly closed a loophole that allowed teams to manipulate the clock by committing dead-ball fouls while the clock was running — a strategy employed last October by New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick in a victory over the Jets, and also against him, by Tennessee Titans Coach Mike Vrabel during Tennessee’s playoff win at New England.
The owners also expanded automatic replay reviews to include scoring plays and turnovers nullified by a penalty, as well as all conversion attempts; agreed to experiment with expanded replay protocols in the preseason that would foster more communication between on-field officials and the replay assistant; afforded defenseless-player protection to a kickoff or punt returner with possession of the ball who hasn’t had time to avoid or ward off contact; and increased the number of players who can return from injured reserve to three from two.