It did not take long for the Giants to realize that this supposedly back-to-normal season probably will not be that.
First-round pick Kadarius Toney tested positive and was placed on COVID-19/reserve upon reporting to training camp with other rookies last week. It was a quick reminder that football is still being played amid a pandemic that could threaten not just the health and well-being of the participants but the potential success of the team.
Among the many incentives the NFL has implemented to vaccinate as many players as possible, the league recently announced that if a game is postponed and cannot be rescheduled because of a COVID outbreak by any team, that game will be forfeited and count as a loss. In such a case, the players for both teams will not receive their paycheck for that week.
The threat of an automatic loss is likely enough to give any coach the heebie-jeebies, and that includes Joe Judge.
"We’re going to do everything we possibly can to make sure it doesn’t happen," Judge said in an interview with Newsday. "There are protocols put in place by the league. Point blank, we have to make sure we enforce all of the protocols. The league and the union got together and they afforded players the choice of being vaccinated or unvaccinated. If you make the choice to not be vaccinated, you have to follow every protocol. That’s just the fact of the matter."
Rules for unvaccinated players put limits on personal interactions away from the team, including those with immediate family, and provide strict protocols when with the squad. Unvaccinated players will eat and use other team facilities separately from their vaccinated teammates and will be required to maintain social distances during meetings.
"It’s our job to make sure we are following [the protocols] and keeping the team as safe as can be and making sure we avoid any circumstances where we put ourselves in jeopardy with bad decisions," Judge said.
What Judge refuses to do is allow the pandemic to divide his team, either figuratively — through debates over vaccines such as the ones that have spilled out from the Bills’ locker room — or literally. Because of the varying rules, it’s easy to imagine times when Judge will be coaching two distinct groups of players, a vaccinated squad and an unvaccinated squad. He’ll fight against that as best he can.
"We’re not segregating this team at all," he said. "We’re building a team, we want to make sure we have a team feel. Look, we just have to understand we have to follow the protocols that are in place to keep us safe."
A simple way around that would be to have everyone vaccinated. While that is a goal of the Giants, Judge has resisted the urge to publicly and directly push his players toward injection sites. He’s allowing them to make their own calls.
To a point.
"I’m happy when the players make the right decision," Judge said. "I’m happy with the players who are doing anything they can to put the team first."
If that happens, perhaps Toney won’t only be the first Giants player this season to miss time on the field because of COVID. He also might be the last.