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Packers will rely on players, staff to ‘make the right choices’ amid COVID-19 pandemic

Packers will rely on players, staff to ‘make the right choices’ amid COVID-19 pandemic

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GREEN BAY — Brian Gutekunst knows that if the Green Bay Packers — and the NFL’s other 31 teams — are going to successfully manage to have a full 2020 football season, it’ll require commitment, sacrifice and a level of accountability that have never previously been asked.

From players to coaches to staff members, it will truly be a team effort. Or, to borrow coach Matt LaFleur’s phrase from his Sunday morning Zoom video conference call with reporters: “We’re all in this sucker together.”

And that’ll require everyone to take a there-is-no-I-in-team approach not only when at work at Lambeau Field but when they go their separate ways at the end of each day.

“Around here, we’ve always put the reliability, the dependability factor as a major part of our evaluation process. And this year, more so than any,” Gutekunst explained as he kicked off his third season as the Packers general manager during a Zoom video conference call of his own before his coach spoke Sunday. “For us to accomplish the things we want to accomplish this season, guys are going to have to make the right choices when they leave the building. There’s no doubt about it.

“I’ve always believed football is the ultimate team game — and this year more so than ever. It’s going to be dependent on how each one of us — not just the players, but everybody in our building — make good choices when they leave the building.”

While Major League Baseball wrestles with COVID-19 outbreaks with the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals that supposedly can be traced at least in part to unnamed players’ off-the-field activities at bars, golf courses and a casino, LaFleur knows his message to his team must include a stern warning about the perils of going out in public where they could possibly contract the virus.

LaFleur went so far on Sunday as to say the team will “try to make this the safest place in Green Bay,” but acknowledged it will take everyone to make that a reality.

“I think that’s the whole key. 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. “It’s not just our players. It starts with our staff — really anybody that comes in contact with our players, they have got to be very mindful of what they’re doing outside of this building.

“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.”

That doesn’t mean that, even with all their preventative measures and all of the NFL’s safety protocols, the Packers will be able to keep the COVID-19 virus out of their building. Without an NBA, NHL or MLS-style bubble, that’s unrealistic, Gutekunst acknowledged.

“We’re going to have positive tests. This virus that we’re dealing with, we’re going to have that. And it’s not going to be always, just because someone gets it, be their fault,” Gutekunst said. “The teams that do overcome that and rise to the challenge are going to be the ones who are left standing, fighting at the end.

“It’s going to be really hard for these guys to look at their teammates if they’re not making the right choices. And I’m very hopeful that there’s kind of (self-policing), that the leaders of our team, the peer pressure of those guys in that locker room is something (that helps) especially the younger players understand what’s at stake and what we’re playing for.”

Since players, starting with the rookies, began arriving in Green Bay for coronavirus testing last week, the team has had four players land on the COVID-19 reserve list: kicker Mason Crosby, tight end Jace Sternberger, defensive lineman Treyvon Hester and outside linebacker Greg Roberts. Wide receiver Devin Funchess, signed as a free agent in April to augment the team’s receiving corps, opted out of the 2020 season last week. Gutekunst said Sunday he’d gotten no indications other players were mulling opting out at this point.

“Obviously, we support Devin,” Gutekunst said when asked about Funchess’ decision to opt out, which Funchess said was based on family members who had already battled health problems, including COVID-19. “All of our players are going through some really tough situations, tough choices they have to make with their families. I really appreciate kind of how he handled that situation with us.”

Once players successfully had three negative tests in a four-day span, they were allowed into Lambeau Field for physicals, fitness testing, strength-and-conditioning workouts and a light walk-through. As of Sunday, there had been just one rookies-only walk-through, with the first full squad weight-room session and walk-through set for Monday.

Of course, even then, the full team won’t be together. Having decided against reducing the roster to 80 players before starting camp, the Packers are operating in a split-squad mode, with younger players in one group and veteran players in the other in accordance with NFL rules. But that’s only the beginning to the logistical challenges.

With the NFL’s social distancing protocols, the team has had to reconfigure just about every common area, from the locker room to the players lounge to meeting rooms and the like. For instance, LaFleur said the media auditorium, where he and others would normally conduct news conferences, has been converted to the offensive line meeting room to allow the linemen to meet in a larger space where they can be kept apart from one another more effectively. Players, coaches and staff are also wearing face coverings throughout the building.

“There’s been a lot of adjusting. Unfortunately, we can’t use all the meeting space,” LaFleur explained. “Now, we are lucky that there is a lot of space in this building and we were able to move some things around and accommodate accordingly so that we can have team meetings and whatnot.”

At the same time, LaFleur said practices will have to include typical drill work and 11-on-11 sessions, during which players will be invariably within six feet of each other — at the line of scrimmage or elsewhere on the field.

“Certainly, you want to mitigate the risks for these guys when they’re around each other,” LaFleur said. “But certainly it is (a challenged). 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.

“Just the whole layout of training camp, it’s unprecedented. We’ve never gone to this approach before. But again, we’re trying to make the best decisions possible for our team. We’ve just got to be fluid. That’s the one message we’ve consistently sent to our coaches, our support staff, our players — that we’re evaluating everything as we go. If something doesn’t feel right or it doesn’t fit for us, we will make the necessary changes to make it more productive. But right now, we’re trying to get that process down.”

Extra points

LaFleur said he has given some thought to keeping his quarterbacks not only isolated from the rest of the team but from one another to keep the players at the game’s most important position safe. He also is considering keeping one quarterback isolated to ensure he’d have one healthy in case of emergency. “We’ve floated around that idea a little bit,” LaFleur said. “Have not made a decision on that at this point, but that’s certainly something that’s not out of the realm.” … Gutekunst said he is not actively seeking wide receiver help in the wake of Funchess opting out. “I wouldn’t say we’re any more active than we ever have been in looking for help at any position,” Gutekunst said. Coincidentally, the veteran receiver Funchess replaced on the Packers roster, Geronimo Allison, opted out for the Detroit Lions on Sunday. … Asked if unsigned veteran cornerback Tramon Williams was still in the team’s plans, Gutekunst replied, “I have great respect for Tramon, what he’s done here. We’re certainly very aware of where he is. No updates at this time, but I have a lot of respect for Tramon and what he brings to the table.” … Gutekunst raved about John Lovett, the ex-Princeton quarterback turned H-back/fullback/tight end whom the team claimed off waivers from Kansas City. “We really liked him coming out of the ‘19 draft,” Gutekunst said. “We tried to sign him after the draft, but Kansas City signed him. He injured his shoulder on a special teams play early in the preseason and kind of spent the year out, but he was a do-it-all player at Princeton, played quarterback there. He’s got really good size. I think his transition into the H-back, fullback role is something that back in ‘19 we were excited about. Once we get him through all the protocols here and get him in the building, it’ll be good to see him out on the field, see what he can do.”

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