GREEN BAY – In what promises to be a football season unlike any other, being a team off the field could become as important as being one on it in 2020.
That's the message Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst and Head Coach Matt LaFleur have delivered to the players as training camp has opened with medical testing and initial walk-throughs with the rookies.
With some reportedly reckless behavior among Major League Baseball players leading to coronavirus outbreaks and several postponed games within the first two weeks of their season, examples already exist of how quickly all the plans and protocols to play sports during a pandemic can be rendered meaningless if caution isn't heeded.
"I've always believed football is the ultimate team game and this year more so than ever," Gutekunst said in a virtual meeting with the media on Sunday. "It's going to be dependent on how each one of us, not just the players, but everybody in our building makes good choices when they leave the building."
LaFleur reiterated those thoughts, emphasizing there's a lot on the players, as well as anyone associated with the team who comes in contact with the players, to be following safety protocols at all times.
"If we're going to have football played this year, it's going to take a lot of self-discipline and a lot of self-accountability," LaFleur said. "Certainly we're going to encourage our guys, if they choose to go out in public, to mask up.
"We're all in this sucker together, that's for sure."
In a full-contact sport like football, following proper social distancing and safety measures is impossible 100% of the time. But the Packers, along with the rest of the NFL, are doing what they can in addition to testing players every day to mitigate risks outside of practices and games.
That includes a reconfigured locker room and meeting spaces, changes to the team cafeteria procedures, a requirement for all football personnel to wear masks in the facility, and other stipulations. The roster will be reduced to 80 players by the time padded practices start later this month, but until then on-field work will involve splitting the squad into two groups, with rookies and recovering injured players working out separately from the veteran players.
Green Bay Packers players arrived at Lambeau Field on Saturday, Aug. 1.
Even with all those stipulations, Gutekunst acknowledged there still will be positive tests, because the virus can be contracted without it being somebody's fault. Risk is inherent. It's how well teams manage the avoidable risks that could have a huge impact on the upcoming season.
"The dependability, the availability of players, the teams that do that and overcome that and rise to the challenge are going to be the ones who are left standing, fighting at the end," Gutekunst said. "It's a big part of what we're trying to express to our entire organization.
"It's going to be really hard for these guys to look at their teammates if they're not making the right choices. I'm very hopeful that the leaders of our team, the peer pressure of those guys in that locker room (helps) the younger players understand what's at stake and what we're playing for."
As far as preparing the team to play games, LaFleur acknowledged with the virtual-only offseason and padded practices not starting until the middle of the month, "nobody feels comfortable right now" amongst league coaches about their team's preparedness.
But every team is in the same boat, looking to be efficient and adaptable in a one-of-a-kind training camp that will not include any preseason games. LaFleur expects to modify plans and practices regularly, evaluating on the fly, as everything gets up to full speed and the Sept. 13 opener at Minnesota fast approaches.
"It's unprecedented. We've never gone to this approach before," he said. "We're trying to make the best decisions possible for our team. We've just got to be fluid."
Within the walls of 1265, there's confidence in the team's plan as well as realism about the number of unknowns and the elements no one can control. After a long and unusual offseason, the rest of the abnormality is just getting started.
"We're preparing every day like we're going to play and we're excited to do so," Gutekunst said. "Everybody is excited to be around football again. That's what we're focused on right now."