GREEN BAY – As Matt LaFleur brought his team together following the first walkthrough of training camp on Saturday, the Packers' second-year head coach looked at a much different post-workout huddle than he's accustomed to seeing.
"You don't want to bring everybody up," said LaFleur in a video conference call with Green Bay media on Sunday. "We're used to always coming up in a tight circle and breaking down. It was definitely much looser."
Such is life coaching football in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Daily testing is underway and Lambeau Field has been outfitted with Plexiglas and sanitation stations to keep players, coaches and personnel as safe as possible in the facility.
It's been a challenging offseason to develop, and evaluate, the Packers' 90-man roster but also one LaFleur, General Manager Brian Gutekunst and their respective staffs welcome.
The changes began this spring with the shift from a physical to virtual offseason program. With the pandemic still looming over the country, the NFL and NFLPA recently agreed to cancel the traditional four-game preseason, and keep the collective focus on safely acclimating players back into training camps with the hope of an on-time start to the regular season.
The elimination of the preseason presents an obstacle for both the coaches working with incoming rookies and young players, and the personnel department responsible for evaluating not only its roster but also the other 31 NFL teams over the next month.
The Packers have been mapping out potential alternatives to preseason action, including the possibility of running live-scrimmage situations and practicing inside Lambeau Field more often than just Family Night.
"I think there will be different opportunities through practice and things that our coaching staff may do to allow us to put those guys in situations where they've got to make decisions and they've got to play at a different kind of tempo," Gutekunst said.
"We'll just have to create the (preseason) markers on our own and the players will understand that particular practices, they may be a little more physical, there may be a little more team or 1-on-1 type situations. But we'll have to create those."
The coaches are still working through how practices will work and keeping all options on the table to evolving circumstances, including the idea of quarantining an extra quarterback in case of emergency that's been gaining momentum around the league.
Given the steep learning curve rookies are facing without a physical offseason program, LaFleur said the coaches have been showing them film from last year's training camp practices and preaching the urgency that will be required to make corrections at a faster pace than traditional years.
The coaches are planning to conduct in-person meetings at Lambeau Field, with some modifications. For example, the currently idle media auditorium will now serve as the offensive line's position room during camp.
"Certainly you try to mitigate the risks for these guys when they're around each other," LaFleur said. "You don't want to speak out of both sides of your mouth because football is a close-contact sport. It is what it is, but we're going to do everything in our power to make sure that our guys are as safe as they possibly can be."
Gutekunst and his scouting department are dealing with no shortage of challenges on their end of the equation, from the blind spots created from no NFL preseason to all the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming college football season. He says the personnel department has contingencies in place for all of it.
Right now, the focus is trying to make Lambeau Field the safest place in Green Bay, as LaFleur put it. In that regard, Gutekunst and LaFleur praised Doug Collins, the Packers' director of security and infection control officer, head athletic trainer Bryan Engel and his staff, and the rest of the support staff for all the precautions the organization put in place prior to players reporting to Green Bay this past week.
It undoubtedly will be a different type of season but it doesn't alter the Packers' football forecast.
"Certainly walking out to practice without the guys riding the bikes and the fans being in the stands, it's going to be disappointing," Gutekunst said. "But once we get to football, watching practice and evaluating practice and getting ready for games I think everyone will start to feel a little bit more normal."