KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From the moment they finally gathered for in-person training camp, the Kansas City Chiefs had a pretty good idea what kind of COVID-19 protocols they would have to wade through in their bid to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
One of their own helped devise those guidelines.
It was Chiefs vice president of sports medicine and performance Rick Burkholder who worked hand in hand with the NFL, physicians and other trainers in developing the testing, social distancing and tracing parameters that would ultimately allow the league to play its full 256-game regular-season schedule. And it was Burkholder who helped the Chiefs navigate the schedule with few positive tests and just one postponement — and that delay due to the other team, the New England Patriots — on their way to the playoffs and a second straight AFC title.
"I think in the spring and early summer, many of us had a lot of uncertainty about how this was going to unfold," team chairman Clark Hunt said. "I don't think we knew for sure you could play football safely, that the virus would not be passed on the football field. Those were things we just didn't know, and it was a process to figure out how to do this."
Now the Chiefs (16-2) are going back to Florida for a second straight Super Bowl trip, having rallied to beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-20 in suburban Miami last February. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-5) will be the first team to play a Super Bowl on their own turf when the 55th edition of the game is held Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium.
COSTLY MISTAKES BY OTHERS
Getting to the title matchup this time was about not only success on the field but diligence off it amid the pandemic, and the Bucs and the Chiefs figured it out as well as anybody. They adhered to strict mask mandates inside the facility. They avoided large gatherings once they left. They spread out to eat meals, held meetings in small groups and paid whatever it took for cutting-edge tracking systems.
They held the health of the guy next to them in the same regard as their own.
"We had to take care of each other. We couldn't go out there and do things we normally do," Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman said. "We did a real good job of protecting each other, and it did bring us together. We all had to be locked in."
According to the NFL, there were 922,220 tests administered from Aug. 1 to the end of the regular season, resulting in 256 positive tests among players and 432 among other staff members. Many of those positive tests, though, could be traced to a few teams and a handful of outbreaks, which all but crippled some of them for large parts of the season.
The Tennessee Titans had an outbreak involving 24 players and personnel that caused two postponements and forced them to have their open date weeks earlier than scheduled. The Baltimore Ravens had trouble heading into a Thanksgiving showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers that they ultimately played without quarterback Lamar Jackson the following week. The Denver Broncos had to play the New Orleans Saints without a true quarterback — practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton, a former college QB, took the snaps — and general manager John Elway and CEO Joe Ellis also were affected by an outbreak that sent an assistant coach to the hospital.
Protocol violations were costly in more literal ways. The Las Vegas Raiders were fined $1.2 million and docked a sixth-round draft pick for violations, while the Saints lost a seventh-rounder and $500,000. The Titans were fined $650,000 for three separate violations, the Patriots $350,000 and the Ravens $250,000.
All of which make the problems of the recently crowned conference champs seem downright trivial.
LUCK AND LEADERSHIP FOR CONFERENCE CHAMPS
Kansas City had eight players on its active roster land on the COVID-19 list, including Hardman and starting linebacker Anthony Hitchens, both of whom missed games. They also had a couple of staff members test positive, including strength coach Rick Rubin and Burkholder, the very same man who worked with the NFL to develop testing protocols.
Tampa Bay had 11 players on its active roster land on the list, including running back Ronald Jones and linebacker Devin White, who missed the regular-season finale and wild-card playoff win at Washington.
Compared to other teams around the league, however, the Bucs and Chiefs had modest effects. Four of the Chiefs and four of the Bucs who landed on the COVID-19 list didn't miss a game, and both teams are — knock on wood — expected to be at full strength when they meet.
"I think our guys have done a great, great job of being accountable to each other with COVID all year and will continue to do that," Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said. "We've talked about family and friends testing before they ever enter your home, making sure everybody's tested and being very, very smart about it."
Arians and his Chiefs counterpart, Andy Reid, point to a few reasons their teams have remained safe this season, one of the biggest being luck, because even the biggest hypochondriac could catch the virus without even knowing it.
The other main reason is leadership. It's easy to follow the example of veteran quarterback Tom Brady, with six Super Bowl rings (all with the Patriots) behind him and the Pro Football Hall of Fame almost certainly in front of him, when he demands the Bucs mask up. The same with Patrick Mahomes, the young star QB and reigning Super Bowl MVP, when he tells the Chiefs to skip the family gatherings around the holidays.
"Like, getting a haircut before the game — I had to get my barber tested, or go to the barber shop when no one is there," Mahomes said. "You can't risk getting COVID or anything like that. And then, after games when I would usually hang out with the guys, hang out with different people or even hang out with my family, I had to kind of prevent that as much as possible or keep it very minimal. I mean, it does take a toll on you."
Then again, the toll is a little easier to bear when you are part of a team capable of winning a championship.
"It was a mental battle trying to go through a whole football season, trying to stay focused on the game, trying to stay focused on your team, when the whole world seemed like it was in chaos," Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "We just kind of tried to put our blinders on in a sense that we've got a job to do."