Just a few days after undergoing surgery for a fractured/dislocated ankle which ended his season prematurely, Dak Prescott was among teammates at The Star in Frisco offering support as the team prepared to play the Cardinals. But for Monday Night’s home game at AT&T Stadium, the first regular-season Cowboys game which Prescott has not started since August 2016, the quarterback was not on-site.
And why hasn’t veteran linebacker and team leader Sean Lee, currently on injured reserve because of a sports hernia, been on the sideline helping teammates as he’s done when missing games in previous years?
And wouldn’t the young, untested offensive linemen benefit from hearing directly from veterans like Tyron Smith, La’el Collins and Joe Looney on gameday?
Welcome to life in the NFL during a pandemic.
Prescott, Lee, and any other players on injured reserve are not allowed in the bench area, nor on the field, due to NFL protocols put in place for COVID-19 during the 2020 season.
It’s a league rule. If you’re injured, you can watch the game inside the stadium, but it would be from a suite or the stands. The same rules apply to members of the Practice Squad.
So instead of Sean Lee helping coach-up a young linebacker like Frances Bernard in-between defensive series, Lee has been limited to watching games from a suite.
Prescott was not in attendance on Monday night, but even if he were, he would not have been allowed on the field nor the bench area. Players on the 53-man roster who are ‘gameday inactive’ are allowed on the sideline, so 3rd string QB Garrett Gilbert was in the bench area even though he was one of six Cowboys listed as inactive for the game against the Cardinals.
As the sideline reporter, one of my favorite aspects of the job is watching players and coaches interact with each other along the bench. Each season there’s a new dynamic as the roster changes, or new members of the coaching staff come on-board. But there are also long-time constants. The reason why I specifically mention Lee, because he’s a guy who, even if it’s late in the 4th quarter of a preseason game in which he’s not playing, he’s still in full uniform and wearing his helmet so that he can listen-in for the play calls being sent to the linebacker who is communicating those plays in the huddle. Lee is like an extra coach on the sideline.
When Travis Frederick missed the entire 2018 season following his diagnosis of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, he was a daily presence at The Star. On game days, he wore a coach’s headset and served as a de facto extra coach on the sideline. That would not be possible in 2020 when strict protocols have created a ripple effect on gameday dynamics and logistics.
Each team’s sideline is limited to a maximum of 65 club-designated personnel with gameday working functions, not including the players comprising the 53-man roster.
Here’s the league rule, verbatim, from Page 41 of the gripping page-turner put out by the NFL on September 5th, NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 PROTOCOLS FOR 2020 SEASON:
"Only the following individuals shall have Bench Area Access, and such individuals with Bench Area Access shall be limited to the following numbers of individuals:
1. Players – Maximum 53
2. Club-Designated Personnel with Game Day Working Functions – Maximum 65 (All coaches, including those in the Coaches' Booth, must count against this maximum; all of these individuals must be tested in accordance with the requirements for Tier 1 and Tier 2 Individuals)
3. Ownership – Maximum 3
4. Game Officials – Maximum 7
5. Chain Crew – Maximum 5
6. Ball Crew – Maximum 5
7. Coach-to-Coach Technician – Maximum 1
8. Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultants (UNCs)"
And while 65 seems like a lot of personnel members, it’s really not. The Cowboys coaching staff has 28 members and, as stated above, even the coaches that are upstairs in the Coaches' Booth count towards the total of 65. There are also the team doctors, athletic trainers, equipment managers, football operations/security staff, P.R. staff members, team video crew, etc. The numbers add up quickly.
Shockingly, TV & radio sideline reporters did not make the cut! Instead, we and the photographers are in the “O-Zone” (sounds better than the league’s “Operational Zone”) on the front row of the stands.
As for the players on the Cowboys' practice squad or injured reserve list, they have their own rules to follow. Turn now to page 51 of your NFL 2020 COVID hymnal:
“Injured players and Practice Squad players should remain in another designated Stadium location for each Club separated from other non-team personnel and/or untested individuals during pregame and throughout the game so as to avoid interactions with any non-team personnel and/or untested individuals. Such designated area must be large enough to permit physical distancing at all times, and must be disinfected prior to players or designated club individuals entering the designated location…Home and visiting teams must be provided equal designated areas. All individuals in these locations must wear PPE at all times.”
Don’t blame Dak Prescott or any other injured veteran for not being alongside their teammates on gameday, at least physically. COVID-19 protocols, while well-intended, have altered the way injured players can contribute to the team.