As John Harbaugh met with the media one day during the Ravens’ pandemic-altered training camp in August, wearing a purple and gray camo gaiter that covered his nose and mouth and a bracelet on his left wrist that monitored his every move, he declared, “I can’t imagine there’s any safer place than an NFL football team right now.”

Three months later, Harbaugh’s team was at the center of one of the most pervasive outbreaks in all of American team sports.

At least one Ravens player tested positive for COVID-19 for 10 consecutive days from Nov. 22 to Dec. 1, and at one point, the Ravens had 23 players — including reigning league Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson — on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list, for players who have tested positive or have been identified as a close contact with someone who tested positive.

The Ravens had to promote 10 players from the practice squad just to field a skeletal team against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field Dec. 2 in a game that was postponed three times because of the outbreak. The Ravens — a trendy Super Bowl pick in July — lost that game, 19-14, and were eliminated from the AFC North title chase with five weeks to go.

In the wake of that loss, simmering frustration was apparent as players questioned how the league and team had handled the outbreak, and the team tried to piece together what had become an organizational embarrassment on the national stage.

The Ravens’ outbreak might end up the subject of academic papers in the future. In the near term, though, plenty of questions lingered: How did this happen? Did the NFL exacerbate the problem by allowing the Ravens to hold walkthrough practices twice after the initial positive tests? And, given the COVID-19 surge across the country in November, was such an outbreak, somewhere in the NFL, inevitable?

“The sport itself is not conducive to keeping COVID out, and you can’t test yourself out of this,” said Dr. Yuka Manabe, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins. “Testing is not prevention.”

Violation of protocol

The first question seems the easiest to answer. In a statement released Dec. 5, team president Dick Cass acknowledged that “not everyone at the Ravens” had followed the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols, a series of requirements including such things as daily testing, mask usage in facilities, social distancing in meeting rooms and wearing tracking devices to assist with contact tracing.

Three days after the Ravens’ outbreak began — with positive tests for running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins on Sunday, Nov. 22 — the team announced it had disciplined an unnamed staff member “for conduct surrounding the recent COVID-19 cases.”

Reports surfaced that strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders had ignored symptoms, failed to wear his tracking device and violated other protocols in the days leading up to the Ravens’ outbreak.

During the next six days, a steady stream of Ravens players were added to the reserve/COVID-19 list, temporarily decimating their roster. Players testing positive for COVID-19 must isolate for a minimum of 10 days; close contacts can return after testing negative for five consecutive days.

Defensive lineman Jihad Ward joined the list, and then so did the top two centers, Matt Skura and Patrick Mekari, and defensive end Calais Campbell.

On Thanksgiving, Jackson headlined a group of four more Ravens to test positive. Six more joined them on the reserve/COVID-19 list the next day.

That weekend, three more impact players — tight end Mark Andrews, wide receiver Willie Snead and linebacker Matthew Judon — tested positive, Andrews being the most notable because he is also a Type 1 diabetic.

When the Ravens finally played the Steelers — on a Wednesday afternoon in an empty stadium, hours after all players had tested negative — backup quarterback Robert Griffin III took snaps from undrafted rookie center Trystan Colon-Castillo, who had never played a down in an NFL game. The Ravens’ three tight ends were all practice squad call-ups, and three other practice squad players contributed to the front seven on defense.

The Ravens’ patchwork group put up a game effort in the 19-14 loss, but frustration was evident afterward.

“We didn’t bat 1.000. Nobody did”

Safety Chuck Clark echoed a question asked by many outside the building: Why did the Ravens gather for walkthrough practices two straight days after Dobbins and Ingram had tested positive? Surely, the Ravens wanted to get in some work with a short week and what they thought was a Thanksgiving date with the Steelers looming. Why didn’t the NFL put a stop to it?

“On Monday and Tuesday, we’re wondering, ‘Why were we allowed back in the building if we say everything is based off contact tracing and things like that, and that’s what’s told to us?” Clark said after that Steelers game. “We’ve got to look at some of those things.”

Harbaugh praised the team’s and league’s approach but acknowledged, “We didn’t bat 1.000. Nobody did. … You can’t bat 1.000 against this thing. But I think our response, in terms of our effort, was a perfect effort. I’m proud of the guys for that.”

Griffin voiced frustration as well and disclosed that several family members of players had also tested positive for COVID-19.

“This isn’t just about football. This is about guys’ families,” Griffin said. “This is about their wives and children and anybody else that is in close contact with them at home. So when we get a call saying that one of our players is positive, a million things run through your mind.”

Griffin was particularly dejected because he pulled a hamstring in the Steelers game and implied the lack of conditioning — the Ravens had gone nearly two weeks without a real practice at that point — factored in his injury.

But the NFL seemed steadfastly determined to shoehorn this game into the schedule as planned and avoid adding a “Week 18” to the schedule.

When 14 Tennessee Titans landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list after an outbreak early in the season, the league juggled schedules and bye weeks to accommodate. But with bye weeks out of the picture, the NFL pushed the Ravens-Steelers game from Thanksgiving to Sunday, Nov. 29, then Tuesday, Dec. 1, and then finally a day later.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told NBC’s Mike Tirico at halftime of that Ravens-Steelers game that the league medical staff felt it had a good grasp on how the Ravens’ outbreak had originated, how it had spread and that “we were in the last stage of that and comfortable that the game could be played safely.”

Still, given all the pronouncements about health and safety, it seemed contradictory to have the Ravens board buses and planes for a road game on the 10th consecutive day that one of their players had tested positive. (Those players on the reserve/COVID-19 list did not travel.) It’s hard to believe such a scenario would have been approved earlier in the season.

“Tough time to be having a season”

Whether Saunders or players were too cavalier — and social media posts documented Ravens players out at restaurants despite strong recommendations against such behavior — Dr. Manabe from Johns Hopkins said COVID was bound to find its way into the Ravens’ locker room sooner or later.

Manabe noted that the NBA, which isolated its players and staff in a bubble format to finish out its 2019-20 season, was able “to keep the spread down.”

But for the NFL, with more than 100 players and staff members per team across 32 franchises trying to play 256 games during a 17-week season, a bubble format was never going to work logistically.

With players coming and going from team facilities and interacting with family and others at a time of a secondary COVID-19 spike throughout the country, Manabe said keeping COVID at bay in the NFL would be “very difficult.”

“It’s probably impossible to have anything other than what you’ve been seeing,” she said.

“If we were having a season in July and August, we’d probably all be doing better,” Manabe added. But in November and December, with more people indoors and COVID surging? “It’s a tough time to be having a season.”

Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 266: December 2020 / January 2021

Originally published Dec. 16, 2020

Bo Smolka

See all posts by Bo Smolka. Follow Bo Smolka on Twitter at @bsmolka