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So far, Bucs playing stout defense versus coronavirus spread

While some NFL rosters have been ravaged amid the pandemic, the Bucs have gone mostly unscathed.
Head coach Bruce Arians wears a face shield as he watches warmups before the Bucs' loss to the Los Angeles Rams last month at Raymond James Stadium.
Head coach Bruce Arians wears a face shield as he watches warmups before the Bucs' loss to the Los Angeles Rams last month at Raymond James Stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 9, 2020|Updated Dec. 9, 2020

TAMPA — Before letting his team adjourn for the recent bye week, Bruce Arians delivered a stern audible, similar to one that has ricocheted off locker rooms from Phoenix to Philly.

Don’t let the coronavirus derail our season.

“We can’t finish our season with eight, nine or 10 guys staying home,” Arians told reporters moments after his team’s 27-24 loss to the Chiefs on Nov. 29. “Every game is a big game.”

Not that the message was novel. Arians has sermonized about the need for caution since training camp commenced, an admonition that flies in the face of his on-field philosophy: In terms of the novel coronavirus, if you risk it, forget the biscuit.

To this point, it has resonated. If mitigation were a playoff seed, the Bucs (7-5) just might have a first-round bye.

“I’m knocking on — it’s not really wood, I think it’s plastic — but we’ve still got a couple of days to go to make sure over the weekend,” Arians said Tuesday.

“But so far, so good. I think our guys have done a great job all season of following the protocols.”

Related: Former Bucs, Alabama coach Ray Perkins has died

In a state that has reported the nation’s third-highest number of cases (nearing 1.1 million) during the pandemic, the Bucs have had only nine players placed on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list since training camp commenced. Of those nine, however, only two were active-roster players placed on the list during the season.

Only one of them, receiver/kick returner Jaydon Mickens, actually missed a game. Those on the list may not necessarily have been diagnosed with COVID-19, but may have been in close contact with a peer who was.

By comparison, the Panthers — also coming off a bye week — put eight players on the list on Monday alone.

And while positive coronavirus tests and ensuing contact tracing have required some contests to be shifted to Tuesday or Wednesday, and even forced the Broncos to use a practice-squad receiver at quarterback for a game (a 31-3 loss to the Saints), the Bucs haven’t even had a postponement — so far.

“Coach Arians made it a point to be smart, make the right decisions,” defensive end Ndamukong Suh said.

“We’re all adults. Make sure you’re on time for your testing, and don’t let ... the disease be an additional problem for us in this season. We deal with enough adversity, don’t allow this one that we actually can control for the most part (become a problem) by doing the right things.”

At a time when millions have been financially crippled by the pandemic’s swath, few are likely to sympathize with the comparatively modest concessions made by the NFL’s handsomely paid work force. That said, the ability to continue providing the nation’s most popular sport to a viewership in dire need of a diversion and emotional outlet has required considerable discipline.

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Related: Bruce Arians looking for more balance, bigger role for Bucs' Ronald Jones

Players, coaches and staffers of every NFL team are tested daily. An agreement reached between the league and NFL Players Association in early October required all team personnel to remain in their home cities during the bye week.

Daily testing even continued during the bye week.

“In previous years, I would say for a lot of players and definitely myself, you fly out, you go see your family, you go on a little vacation, you do what you’ve got to do,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said.

“But we knew what the case was going into the bye week. We know what this season brings due to COVID, so it was no big deal. We had to stay here, we had to get tested every (day). It was just nice to get away from football.”

Getting away from reality remains a different story. On Wednesday, Florida added 9,592 more coronavirus cases. In an NFL season that has brought new, sobering meaning to survival of the fittest, vigilance will be as vital as a stout third-down defense in the regular season’s final stretch.

“It’s definitely been different, not only as a player but as a person,” tailback Ronald Jones said.

“I still can’t go outside, do the normal things you do. So a lot of choices, a lot of Uber Eats, things like that. It’s definitely been a different year.”


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