Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

Because of players testing positive for COVID-19, Major League Baseball has had to shut down games every week since it started the season. That’s caused a lot of people to wonder how the NFL is going to get through a season, which is several months longer than what baseball is playing, without having to shut down games.

It’s a valid question.

But from what we’ve seen already from the NFL, it does give some hope the league will handle the situation better than its counterparts in baseball.

Since opening training camps three weeks ago, there haven’t been any instances of a player testing positive after clearing the initial testing.

Sure, there have been players who have showed up positive. But those players were immediately sent away and isolated until they were cleared. Only then were they permitted to have contact with their teammates.

Players are tested daily and will continue to be tested daily through Sept. 5, which is when teams will trim their rosters.

From that point, they will be tested multiple times per week to make sure they haven’t contracted the virus.

One reason for so many positive tests in baseball is the travel involved.

Teams go on road trips for several days at a time, leaving players to spend plenty of time in a hotel, airports and other places where they might not be quite as isolated as they need to be. That’s not the same as what happens in the NFL.

An NFL road trip consists of flying on a charter – from a site that typically does not involve going through the general population in an airport. That charter leaves less than 24 hours before game time.

The team is then driven via secured buses directly to the team hotel. Final team meetings are held. Food is served. A curfew is in place – something that will be even more strict this year. And the day of the game, there is food available so players don’t have to leave the building. They are then bused directly to the stadium.

Once the game is over, they board the buses again and head directly to the airport to board the charter and return home.

Again, unlike baseball, which has players in another city for three or four days, there’s little time for NFL players to get outside their little “bubble,” even if they are so inclined.

And given the gravity of the situation, no player is going to want to be the guy who puts his teammates at risk for a couple of hours out on the town.

That’s not to say it won’t happen. A cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks tried to sneak someone into the team hotel last week. He was immediately released when he was caught.

The NHL and NBA bubbles have worked because those leagues are in the playoffs. They have involved a set number of teams that is being pared down as teams are eliminated.

Baseball and football have entire seasons to play.

The NFL has raised the idea of playing its postseason in a bubble. That’s certainly more possible with just seven teams from each conference making the playoffs.

But it couldn’t have happened with 32 teams playing each week.

The league also has increased roster sizes this season. Teams can have 55 players on game days. And practice squads are increased to 16 players, meaning teams have 69 players from which to work with each week.

If some players test positive for a given team, expect the games to go on. Players are still being isolated, even in training camp situations. Group meetings are being done virtually to limit contact.

We’ll see if it works. But the plan for the NFL is to have all teams play 16 games and for the playoffs to take place as scheduled.

n By all accounts, Ben Roethlisberger looks like his old self thus far at Steelers camp.

In fact, the year off from football seems to have re-energized the 38-year-old quarterback.

“The way he attacks the day is just different than I’d seen him since I got here in 2017,” tight end Vance McDonald said last week. “So, I’m loving the leadership from him, I’m loving again just that hunger and fire. Again, I think you will notice that trickle down to the entire offense as we get started rocking and rolling here. Guys are just flocking to him. The hunger is real from Ben.”

n The Pirates could use a little bit of that hunger. Just saying.

They would be on pace to win about 40 games – over a 162-game schedule – this season playing at their current level.

Thank goodness we’ll be subjected to much less than that.

n Say what you will about the PIAA, but the decision to go against the state’s recommendation to not play sports in the fall took some guts nobody knew that organization had.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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