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Packers close to getting their COVID-19 reserve list players back in action

Tom Silverstein
Packers News

GREEN BAY – As the Green Bay Packers prepare for their first long stretch of practice this season, including their first appearance in pads at mid-week, their number of players on the COVID-19 reserve list is set to drop.

The Packers led the league as of Saturday evening’s release of the NFL transaction wire with four players still on the list, but all around the NFL, players have gradually been returning and the Packers are getting close to getting most or all of theirs back.

The Packers’ first round of testing, which began two weeks ago, resulted in five players landing on the reserve list, the result of either testing positive for the virus or being exposed to someone who tested positive.

Their total numbers are far fewer than some of the worst-affected teams – Miami has had 16 players make the list, Jacksonville 13 and Minnesota 9, for example – and they have not added anyone since Aug. 3.

On Saturday, kicker Mason Crosby was the first of the five to be cleared. In addition, tight end Jace Sternberger, long snapper Hunter Bradley and defensive lineman Treyvon Hester were at practice, which means they are likely in the mandatory three-day conditioning period required before a return.

Only outside linebacker Greg Roberts was not seen during the team’s first practice.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur said late last week he was hopeful everyone would be back in time for the first practice Saturday, but he said everyone was learning the return-to-practice rules.

“All of us are kind of working through that protocol, so I really don’t have any updates in that regard,” LaFleur said Saturday. “I just really don’t know enough about it.”

Preliminary testing throughout the league – players had to test negative three times in a four-day period before being cleared to enter their facilities – and the daily tests that have followed have resulted in 109 players landing on the COVID-19 list leaguewide.

Based on the daily transaction wire the NFL releases, there were only 16 players left on the COVID list as of Sunday, and of those, only five have been added in the past week.

Before anyone thinks the NFL is out of the woods regarding a spread of infections, it’s important to remember that even though players aren’t in an NBA-type bubble, they are spending most of the day at the facility or at home taking part in virtual meetings.

So, there isn’t a lot of time for them to encounter the outside world.

Sunday, for instance, was an off day for the players, but they were still required to come to the facility and receive their daily COVID test and receive medical treatment if scheduled.

Starting this week, and most likely continuing through the end of training camp, the players’ time is going to be occupied with football late into the evening. They are being asked to come in earlier than normal because it takes time to make sure everyone visits the white medical trailer lab before the day begins.

“The biggest difference is the COVID testing every day, which is obviously really important,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, when asked about the long days.

Once camp is over, there are likely to be more positive tests than there are now. Players will have more time on their hands when the regular season starts, and they won’t all wear their masks when they should and live life in isolation like NBA players are.

To keep the numbers down and the league running, players are going to have to police themselves.

“We’re all counting on everybody doing the right thing for the group,” Rodgers said. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one during this time. And I hope guys are making the right decisions.

“At the same time, I don’t think we need to babysit anybody. It’s grown people who have the freedom to make decisions. Their decisions have consequences and that’s what accountability is all about.”

Officially gone

For decades, the Packers have used local high school and college referees, both active and retired, to help them officiate their practices.

The penalties the officials called were catalogued and noted during film sessions, so the players could see what was called against them. Often, the players would discuss the call with the officials, many of whom they got to know over the course of the season and the years.

But on the first day of practice there were no officials to be seen on Ray Nitschke Field. None of the usual faces who work the practices were in attendance. Players jumped offsides or held, but there were no flags thrown.

It appears LaFleur has ended the long tradition of using the local officials. He did not say why.

“There’s no plan for that right now, we’re not planning on it,” he said. “We’re going to have our coaches kind of take the reins on that, especially once we get into the more live action where we’re thudding up and we get the pads on.”

Given the years of officiating experience the previous groups had, it will be a challenge for the coaches to offer the same expertise.

The league generally sends its officials to various training camps to work a few practices before a preseason game. It’s unclear if they would be making those trips this year with no preseason games being played.

Inside job

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine started newcomer Christian Kirksey and third-year pro Oren Burks at inside linebacker in his base defense on the first day of practice.

Kirksey, signed off the street after the Cleveland Browns released him, is pegged for a starting role, but Burks is going to have to earn his spot. He’s competing against Ty Summers, rookie Kamal Martin and Curtis Bolton, among others.

Since Kirksey played for Pettine in Cleveland, the switch to the Packers system isn’t a big deal but developing chemistry with another inside linebacker is something he’ll be working on all camp long.

“Those guys are working hard,” Kirksey said. “Right now, we’re all cross-training just to know all the linebacker positions because you never know what happens during the season, you never know what may take place, so guys have to be ready.

“One thing I know about this linebacker room is, everybody’s versatile, everybody’s athletic, and guys are working their butt off.”