Not only did key starters like Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey, and TJ Watt not play in the regular season finale against Cleveland, they didn’t even make the trip to Ohio. Pittsburgh left them at home, something Mike Tomlin said was a strategic decision. He spoke about it with Bob Pompeani on his weekly The Mike Tomlin Show.
“The most significant element of it in this environment was those guys who had an opportunity to rest we left at home,” Tomlin said on his show. “And so we kept out of harm’s way in terms or travel and all of those things. It’s amazing some of the things you think about in this environment. Not only having the opportunity to rest those guys and airmail them to the postseason. But also leave them at home and keep them out of harm’s way in terms of the risk associated with travel and hotels and buses and so forth was an element of the thought process as well.”
Both teams have dealt with COVID-issues since that game. Cleveland much more significantly, losing several players and coaches, including head coach Kevin Stefanski. The Browns will be without numerous starters tonight, headlined by the absence of LG Joel Bitonio and CB Denzel Ward. Pittsburgh won’t have CB Joe Haden after he tested for COVID the day before the regular season finale.
As Tomlin noted, these are the calculations teams must make while playing football in a pandemic. Any other year and it’s almost guaranteed those healthy, rested players still would’ve made the trip. To be part of the team and be a set of eyes on the sideline for the young guys replacing them. But keeping them home was absolutely the right decision. And letting them stay at their house was just as important as giving those guys much-needed rest after a long, bizarre season.
For the remainder of the postseason, any player, coach, and staff member should go to one of two locations. Work or home. It’s a difficult ask but required for this time of year especially. The NFL has no desire to postpone any games barring some sort of extreme outbreak that leaves them no other choice. All it takes is one player or personnel member to do something “risky” (a relative term in today’s age, even going out in a group of people creates risk) to spread it to others in that locker room.
Those in the league have to deal with this for just a maximum of three more weeks. From there, the season is over and COVID challenges – to a degree – subside for a few months. The NFL will still have plenty of logistical decisions to make in the coming months, handling Pro Days, the Combine, and the draft. But players generally won’t be involved until May at the earliest, when minicamps are slated to start. Those, of course, could be cancelled, just as they were in 2020. Ideally, by the next time players will have to show up to team facilities, training camps in late July, the COVID picture will look a little better.