Every team has the same challenges late in this 2021 regular season, starting with how to maintain a roster. Injuries are always a concern, so coaches do what they can to keep players as fresh as possible – Head Coach Nick Sirianni has held walkthroughs in place of Wednesday practices for the last month – and at the same time, they are continuing to work the bottom of the roster and the practice squad to prepare those players for more game reps than they would normally expect.
A twist to this December, as it was last year but now with added risks and ramifications, is the outbreak of COVID-19 throughout the world. Cases are rising in the United States – The Wall Street Journal reported that daily cases have risen 22 percent in the last two weeks with the Delta and Omicron variants fueling the surge. Holiday gatherings and more person-to-person interaction have triggered the increases and NFL teams are feeling the brunt.
"We're very aware of everything that is going on. We're taking precaution with what we're doing. We're taking precaution to make sure we have a competitive advantage over other teams," said Sirianni, who only shared that the team shuffled meeting spaces around at the NovaCare Complex to allow for better spacing.
• 65 players throughout the league were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday and Tuesday.
• The Cleveland Browns on Tuesday and Wednesday placed a total of 14 players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, not including Head Coach Kevin Stefanski.
• The league announced that all team staff personnel designated in Tier 1 and Tier 2 must have their booster shots by December 27. Those in Tier 1 and Tier 2 are in close proximity to players on a daily basis.
• The Eagles on Monday placed running back Jason Huntley, on the practice squad all season to date, and wide receiver Quez Watkins on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
"I was just fortunate that we didn't have a lot of guys that tested positive after being on a bye week and being out and about," Sirianni said. "Credit to the guys that they were safe when they were out, they were cautious about what they were doing."
• Washington, which comes to town on Sunday, had another hit to an already depleted defensive line on Monday when it placed tackle Jonathan Allen – the team's leader with 7.5 quarterback sacks on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, casting doubt as to whether Allen will be able to play in this extremely important NFC East battle. There are 7 of Washington's defensive linemen on the Reserve/COVID-19 list now.
This isn't a surprise to those who have been in the trenches since March of 2020. It has been an ongoing battle for the league to put safeguards in place and to stay ahead of the outbreaks and to educate and encourage every player and coach – everyone in every organization has been educated on how to mitigate risk since COVID became part of our lives. For a team in the midst of the season, front offices have to react quickly and nimbly, personnel departments have to fill holes on the fly, and coaching staffs have to make adjustments on a day-to-day basis.
"It's a group effort by the trainers and the strength staff and the doctors, and the knowledge of the doctors," Sirianni said. "I'm getting to see it a lot more (being as involved as he is as the head coach). What's cool is to be able to see the collaboration, the thought that goes into everything, and the detail that goes into everything."
If, for example, Watkins can't play on Sunday, the Eagles need to replace his big-play ability and his explosiveness. Watkins has averaged 15.8 yards per reception this season, catching 31 passes for 491 yards. Watkins has had a breakout second NFL season. He threatens defenses with his speed and his ability to stretch defenses and make big plays in the passing game. There is depth here with DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor, along with J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Greg Ward on the active roster. John Hightower, Deon Cain, and KeeSean Johnson are on the practice squad and can step in and contribute. Sirianni simply said it will be a "next-man-up" scenario and the team will elevate someone from the practice squad pending on how the week unfolds.
This is why, way back when the roster was being constructed, the Eagles had vision and an understanding that every player on the active roster, the practice squad, and the emergency list would need to stay ready if called upon. And that's where we are now. At least the Eagles are expected to be healthier after their bye week and that should help.
But make no mistake about this: COVID is real and it is having an impact on the NFL in the final month of the season. The teams that handle it best will be the ones most likely to survive the test of resiliency and endurance and roster depth. It is a day-to-day battle, something very real to consider with a huge game to play on Sunday.