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NFL Kicks Off Again During The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. Whether you are ready for it or not, the NFL is back. In February, we last saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win the Super Bowl in front of a COVID-reduced crowd. Tonight the Bucs are back, and this time they will play in a full stadium, despite the pandemic, hosting the Dallas Cowboys. Like last season, how the league manages COVID will be a big part of this season. And to talk about that and to look ahead into the 2021 NFL season, we have Lindsay Jones, who covers the NFL for The Athletic.

Welcome back.

LINDSAY JONES: Hi, thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. OK, so about that full house in Tampa tonight - you know, the NFL says that fans have to follow each stadium's protocols when it comes to masks and vaccine status. But each stadium has to work, obviously, with state and local officials who, as we all know, disagree when it comes to dealing with COVID. I mean, how is the NFL going to manage what could be - what? - 32 different protocols for 32 different teams?

JONES: Well, when we're talking about the fan experience and what, you know, the general public will experience when they go to games, that's when you're going to be having to abide by whatever is going on locally. So when you're talking about the kickoff game in Tampa tonight, there really aren't, you know, significant restrictions going on in Florida and in Tampa. But if you go to other parts of the country, in Seattle they're requiring either proof of vaccination or a proof of a negative test within 72 hours. In Las Vegas, they're requiring vaccination. So there are - you know, it's going to be very different across the country in terms of what fans could expect. If you are planning to go to one of these games, make sure you read up.

CHANG: OK, that's on the fans side of things. But what about rules for the players? I hear that something like 93% of NFL players are now vaccinated, but there are some notable holdouts, like former MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson. I mean, how is the league dealing with vaccine-hesitant players at this point?

JONES: You know, what we're seeing is that life is very different for the 93% of players who have gotten their shots versus the other players, and that's in terms of daily testing requirements, quarantine requirements, if you are considered a high-risk close contact, where you would be forced to miss five days and potentially a game if you have been exposed to COVID. If you are unvaccinated - vaccinated players do not have to go through that sort of quarantine process. And then there's a lot of lifestyle things that are going on. Unvaccinated players can't visit with their family and friends when they're on road trips. They must be tested every day, even on their off-days. So they can't travel, you know, go out of town on their bye weeks. They can't eat meals with their co-workers. They can't host or attend charity events, community service events. So they really kind of set up this, you know, a haves and a haves-not (ph), very - two very different systems. And they are hoping that that's the way that they're going to be able to keep this season going and keep it on track.

CHANG: All right, the league might have the best group of rookie quarterbacks in decades, right? Three already have starting jobs. Two more may have them before the month is over. What do you think? Is the hype around all these new quarterbacks justified?

JONES: What's interesting is that the couple of guys who aren't actually starting - I'm talking about Justin Fields in Chicago and Trey Lance in San Francisco - are maybe two of the guys that we want to see most, that we're most curious about and their fan bases are most desperate to see. But they will not be starting in Week 1. So instead, what we're going to see - we're going to see Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick. He was the consensus best player in the draft. So really excited to kind of just see what's going to be possible for him. And then there's a really intriguing situation going on with the New England Patriots, where Bill Belichick, their head coach, picked Mac Jones, the former quarterback from the University of Alabama, to be their starting quarterback over Cam Newton. So it's going to be a very interesting situation, how quickly they can develop Mac Jones, build an offense around him and if he can be the type of winning quarterback in the NFL that he was at Alabama.

CHANG: Lindsay Jones is a senior writer for The Athletic.

Thank you so much for joining us again.

JONES: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.