The Vikings started the week by celebrating Victory Monday. A reverse Victory Monday. They got to put on pads and smash into each other in an honest-to-goodness real football practice.
That constitutes as a win, given the physical nature of their sport and the NFL’s attempt to conduct its season outside of a bubble during a relentless pandemic.
So far, so good?
“Super excited,” receiver Chad Beebe said of the prospect of a padded practice. “I know everybody is.”
Now comes another critical step: Making this phase work.
Only 15 NFL players were still on the COVID-19 list Monday morning, according to ESPN. The Vikings had zero, after originally placing eight on that list to start camp.
Those numbers suggest that strict protocols inside facilities, frequent testing and tracing and everyone behaving properly and being accountable once they leave at night are having the desired effect.
This is an encouraging development, especially now that teams are cleared for full practice with blocking, tackling, spitting, bleeding, sweat-flying and all the usual trappings of football.
The data that emerges over the next few weeks will provide strong indication on whether a sport that runs counter to social distancing can make this work.
Heaven knows, we could use a splash of optimism right about now.
“I’m not really nervous,” coach Mike Zimmer said about this next step. “I think it’s good we get the pads on and start getting a little bit more physical in there.”
Let’s take a moment to simply enjoy that mental image. In a pre-practice zoom news conference, Zimmer sounded like a football coach and not an epidemiologist.
He discussed the growth of his young cornerbacks, wide receivers’ “route trees” and how padded practices allow coaches to evaluate an offensive lineman’s ability to keep his pads low and generate push.
It all sounded strangely normal, which is the goal this season, if that’s possible.
“It feels like football now,” General Manager Rick Spielman said during a sideline interview at practice, which was televised by FOX9 and streamed online since fans are not allowed to watch in person this year.
I’ve encountered some odd days covering Vikings training camp over the years — Brett Favre’s arrival greeted by the fan dressed as a parrot among the oddest — and Monday’s practice belongs on the list: Watching on TV at home because of limitations on media credentials, with a drone providing footage of drills.
Ordinarily, a large portion of a training camp practice is about as exciting as binge watching C-SPAN. Tackling is taboo except in rare cases. Quarterbacks are not to be touched. Only a fraction of practice is devoted to 11-on-11 drills. It’s a lot of position groups splintering off to work on technique and inside-football instruction.
The first full-pads practice of camp always brings different intensity. Something about being in full football gear amplifies the competitive nature of players.
Watching it on TV Monday brought a glimmer of hope. For players and coaches, being on the practice field is the one place where they can experience some normalcy at work.
“Yeah pretty much … other than the masks,” Zimmer said. “For the most part, it does feel normal. It’s almost like a safe haven. You get out there and guys are having fun again and doing what they normally do.”
Imagine how Monday felt for first-round pick Justin Jefferson, who was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list after arriving at camp. He had to quarantine for 10 days before being reinstated. Unable to leave his hotel room, he passed time playing video games and chatting with friends. He said quarantine felt like “jail.”
“I even forgot the days,” he said. “Not keeping up with the days, it feels like you’re just in there forever. It was a little difficult, but I’m finally glad that I’m here and playing football again.”
The scheduled opener Sept. 13 vs. the Packers requires a telescope to see with the way things can change so abruptly these days. The NFL can’t relax its diligence in trying to manage this safely. But one practice in full pads under a warm August sun felt familiar and reassuring.