Like many throughout the United States, Kyle Shanahan wasn’t sure the NFL season would go on as planned while COVID-19 cases continued to rise across the country.
But now that Shanahan has been back in his office inside 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara this week and seen the changes being made, he’s optimistic training camp, and eventually the season, can go on as planned.
“What they have put into this, to allow us to practice,” Shanahan said this week on Chris Simms’ “Unbuttoned” podcast, “it’s unbelievable.”
The 49ers have made a slew of changes at their facility and inside Levi’s Stadium to accommodate the return of players to comply with social distancing protocols, which includes knocking down walls to make meeting rooms bigger, taking out chairs and tables in the cafeteria and utilizing visiting and auxiliary locker rooms inside their home stadium to minimizing chances at spreading the novel coronavirus.
Quarterbacks, rookies and injured players started returning to the facility Thursday for this first round of COVID-19 testing while the rest of the club will report next Tuesday. Full-team work inside team headquarters is slated to begin the following weekend, Aug. 1 or 2, when daily testing for players begins.
“Since we’ve been back in here and I’ve seen our protocols and how they have this building, it makes me truly believe we can pull this off,” Shanahan said.
“Now the hard thing for me right now is we have all this stuff down, but we’re just sitting here waiting until we know how many players we can have in the building, how many padded practices, how many days when they come in — are they just lifting and running before we can go out against each other? So they’re deciding all that right now and I’m sure we’re going to get that.”
How will football return?
There was good news on that front Friday as owners and the NFL Players Association continued to negotiate the parameters around the return to football, including finalizing the cancellation of the preseason to allow for more practice time and a new economic model to account for the expected $4 billion loss in revenue from few to no fans in the seats on game days.
The players association released a statement Friday saying, “The NFLPA Executive Committee voted unanimously to recommend the proposed changes to the CBA.” It indicates players and the league were close to finalizing terms to allow training camp to begin on time with most of the league welcoming players to their facilities next week.
Shanahan said he’s been waiting on the details of the agreement so he can hash out the team’s practice schedule for August ahead of the Sept. 13 season opener against the Arizona Cardinals. There’s expected to be a ramp-up period similar to the strength and conditioning program teams have in April, which includes meetings and walkthroughs. Regular practices likely won’t start until at least midway through August.
“It will be different,” he said. “It’s going to be totally different. But, man, I’ve been at home long enough and I’ve not watched sports long enough to know that I’m excited to try to pull it off and I’m so much more optimistic after getting in here and seeing how these buildings are. Now what I’m looking forward to is getting the rules for all 32 coaches and as long as we are all on the same deal, it’s going to be fun, how to pull this off.”
Shanahan last summer said he prefers zero preseason games to the usual four, but the right number of games is probably two. And this week he said there are positives and drawbacks to scrapping the preseason altogether.
Initial rosters are expected to drop from 90 to 80 players by Aug. 16. Shanahan said it typically requires all 90 players to play a full, four-game exhibition slate because of wear and tear while trying to keep his contributing players healthy.
“But what’s cool — this is the first time we’ve gone without preseason, and that does help a lot,” he said. “Because usually you got to put in those travel days and I don’t care as much about the game, but you miss practice the day before, practice the day of and practice the day after. So knowing that we don’t have those, even if we have less days, we might be able to make it because we’ll have to travel to less games. So we might be able to get the same amount of work in. But that’s all what we’re waiting to see.”
NFL’s economic model becomes visible
The downside of no preseason games, Shanahan said, is players that won’t make the team won’t have film to add to their resumes when looking for jobs elsewhere. He also said some players who practice well don’t always perform well in games and might be better suited for the practice squad for more development. Shanahan factors in preseason performances when competitions for jobs are close.
There was more clarity Friday about the potential economic model being negotiated between the league and players union after it was reported Thursday the owners were considering delaying the start of training camp if no agreement was in place. According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, the new deal includes a 16-player practice squad, two different types of player opt-outs (a general opt-out and one for physically at-risk players) and solidifies the 2020 and 2021 salary caps while smoothing out potential losses .
The $198.2 million salary cap in 2020 will remain unchanged, according to Pelissero, while the oft-discussed spending limit for teams in 2021 will be at least $175 million, down significantly from the $210 to $215 million projections based on pre-pandemic circumstances. The loss in revenue from this season is expected to smoothed out through 2024.
The 49ers, who had roughly $44.8 million in cap space projected for the 2021 season, could see that number fall to $5 to $10 million, which would make it difficult to keep all their pricey veteran players and retain high-profile free agents next spring such as tight end George Kittle, left tackle Trent Williams, cornerback Richard Sherman, receiver Kendrick Bourne, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and many others.