After more than five months away, a return to football is imminent.
Next week, nearly two-dozen Miami Dolphins rookies are set to report to team headquarters for the start of their NFL careers.
They will move into the team hotel, start attending meetings and resume conditioning work. And they'll theoretically do all that in the global epicenter of the raging Covid-19 pandemic.
But that plan should be written in pencil, not ink, according to conversations with four informed league sources.
The Dolphins have communicated with their players that "everything is up in the air," according to a source familiar with the situation, and that the team "could see things getting pushed back."
Another plugged-in source told the Miami Herald the full start of camp is still on for July 28, but "that could literally pivot on a dime. I think we get a hard answer this week."
Officially, the NFL still plans to begin its regular season on Sept. 10, with the Dolphins scheduled to visit the New England Patriots three days later.
And NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Herald Monday that "there's no change to our approach" to training camp.
"As we have stated since the pandemic began, our primary focus is on the health and safety of the public, the players and team personnel," McCarthy said. "We continue to work with the NFL Players Association and our joint medical advisors to mitigate the health risk to everyone associated with the NFL.
"We are developing a comprehensive testing program and have rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem. This is based on the collective guidance of public health officials, including the White House task force, the CDC, infectious disease experts, and other sports leagues. We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season."
The Dolphins have not practiced since late December, with players spread out all over the country.
Since then, more than 130,000 Americans have died from coronavirus and Florida has recently experienced an unprecedented surge in cases. State health officials announced Monday that there have been nearly 29,000 positive tests in the last two days, with Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties hit the hardest.
And unlike the NBA and MLS -- which are sequestered in Orlando -- the NFL is not planning to play in a bubble. The league announced earlier this summer that all training camp practices will be held at each team's respective practice facility; for the Dolphins, that's on the campus of Nova Southeastern University.
As of Monday afternoon, Nova's zip code -- 33314 -- had seen 470 positive cases since the start of the outbreak, according to the state's Covid-19 dashboard. Things are no better near the team hotel, with 465 positives in that zip code.
Could those figures force a change in plans? That's unclear.
But one prominent agent believes the entire NFL should hit pause on the season until conditions improve.
"The NFL should move back training camp dates to sometime in September," the agent said. "We still don't have a (testing) protocol in place. It's July 13."
Yet unless the NFL's timeline is changed -- and fast -- the Dolphins have few options but to gather in South Florida beginning next week. Theoretically, they could petition the league to leave the area and practice in a safer place, but that would present an enormous logistical challenge.
And once a testing protocol is in place, it's all but inconceivable that the Dolphins won't have positive cases.
The NFL's chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, told the Boston Globe recently that the league expects dozens, if not hundreds, of positive player tests when camp begins. So there are two coronavirus threats to the Dolphins' locker room -- the external and the internal.
If there is a silver lining to this crisis, it's that players are at a low risk of death from coronavirus due to their age -- assuming they are not immunocompromised.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins -- at least publicly -- remain open to the possibility of fans attending games. One longtime season ticket holder told the Herald that the organization has not informed them yet of its 2020 policy, but if there are fans in the stands, it'll be at just a fraction of capacity.
Both the Ravens and Jaguars announced that no more than 25% of their stadiums will be filled this fall.
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