GREEN BAY — When the Green Bay Packers’ players return to Lambeau Field for the start of training camp at the end of next month — or so the NFL hopes — they will be returning to a vastly different environment than the one they were in back on Jan. 20, when they cleared out their lockers and packed up their belongings in the wake of their season-ending NFC Championship Game loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
In a memo sent to the league’s 32 teams, NFL commission Roger Goodell established detailed protocols for each club to follow as players return to facilities. Coaches and staff were allowed to return last week, with Packers head coach Matt LaFleur conducting a Zoom video conference call with reporters from his office on Friday — his first day back in the building since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of NFL facilities in March.
LaFleur said in that Zoom call that the team would continue to conduct its virtual offseason program through June 26 and that he had no intention of bringing players — even the rookies who’ve had their initial development stunted by not being able to do on-field work during a rookie minicamp, organized team activity practices or full-squad minicamp — to Green Bay before training camp.
But according to NFL Network, the NFL and NFL Players Association have been discussing the possibility of rookies and other players new to their teams being permitted to come to the facilities before June 26. Not only do the Packers have a nine-player draft class and 15 undrafted free agents, but they also added three veteran players who are expected to fill important roles this season: Inside linebacker Christian Kirksey, right tackle Rick Wagner and wide receiver Devin Funchess.
LaFleur said he plans to bring the rookies to camp a week earlier than the rest of the veterans, who normally report in late July. The team has not yet announced dates for practices.
“Provided training camp starts on time, you’re allowed to bring the rookies in a week early,” LaFleur said. “That’s something we’ll certainly do to try to get them acclimated to introduce them to some of the stuff that we want them to do on the field.”
Their veteran teammates, meanwhile, will have to get used to a different set-up in the weight room, training room and even the locker room at Lambeau Field.
According to the protocols from the league, not only will teams have to put guidelines in place for cleaning and disinfecting their facilities, but they’ll also have to submit an infectious disease plan to the league.
But more significantly, players and staff members will have to keep a safe 6-foot separation in adherence to social distancing guidelines. That means strength and conditioning sessions will be limited to 15 or fewer players at proper distance, and athletic training appointments will have to be scheduled to keep the number of players in the medical area limited to a handful at a time.
The team dining area will also have limited access, with teams encouraged to eliminate group dining or staggering mealtimes.
The weight room, training room and cafeteria won’t be the only places that will need to be rearranged, however.
The social distancing requirements mean the Packers and most other teams will have to reconfigure their locker rooms to permit 6 feet of space between each player’s dressing area. That means potentially using every other locker or installing lockers elsewhere in the room to keep such distances intact.
Shaped like a football and measuring 64 feet wide by 120 feet long, the Packers expanded oblong locker room opened in 2003, when the team completed its Lambeau Field renovation. The locker room was renovated along with the weight room and other areas in 2013, when the CRIC (conditioning, rehab and instruction center) facility was built.
All players and staff will be required to wear masks at all times in the facility — unless a mask would interfere with their abilities to do athletic activities. It’s incumbent on each team to ensure it has an adequate stock of masks available.
Helmets, shoulder pads and other equipment must be disinfected after each practice or game, and upon entering the facility, all players and staff will be required to clean and disinfect their cellphones, keys, and any other frequently-touched objects being carried. All players and employees who have access to what the NFL is calling its “Restricted Areas” — where players will be working — must undergo daily screening and testing prior to entering the facility.
The NFL also recommends that team meetings be conducted virtually “when possible” and suggests that if in-person meetings are necessary, they be held outdoors.
A Packers spokesperson said Monday afternoon that the team is working through the NFL’s protocols and determining what structural changes will need to be made around the facility.
Of course, even with such restrictions, LaFleur is surely looking forward to getting his players back in person and back to work — whenever that will be.
“As far as the virtual offseason, we’re going continue with the meetings like we have been doing all along. I think our guys have taken a lot from it,” LaFleur said on Friday. “I think that our coaches have done a great job of being creative, because it can get a bit monotonous being on Zoom meetings for a long period of time.
“Our guys have done a good job and our player participation has been 100%, so I’m really excited to see when we finally get these guys back in the building how much they retain from this. It’s afforded our guys a good opportunity to take the learning at their own pace because the majority of our meetings are film. They’re on their iPads, they can go back, they can rewind, they can take notes at their own pace.”
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