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Falcons focus on their responsibilities on and off the field during pandemic

Goober Pyle

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A small chuckle escaped from behind Grady Jarrett’s mask during his first media availability last week. He was asked what his plans were to build a bubble around himself during training camp as the Falcons — and the rest of the NFL — get back to work on the field. There seems to be merit in what leagues like the NBA are doing amid the pandemic, enacting a bubble of sorts around the league and strictly monitoring who is allowed in and out of that bubble. The NFL doesn’t have that luxury. So, the responsibility falls to each player to put a bubble around himself as training camp gets underway.

It was a noted responsibility that Dan Quinn spoke about when he opened training camp last week. He said he was on a video call earlier that day with the rookies, and he called on them to be “the best teammate they’ve ever been.”

“Because we’re not only trying to take care of one another, but we’re looking after your families, too,” Quinn said. “We’ve got to make the best decisions off the field.”

When Jarrett was about taking individual responsibility to not see anyone outside of practices, his answer was a little different than Quinn’s. Again, Jarrett chuckled.

“I might be by myself most of the time anyways, so it’s not going to be big for me. I’m kind of enjoying it,” he said as another chuckle escaped. “It gives me another excuse to say I can’t go out or do anything if I’m invited somewhere, so I’m enjoying it, and I think it might even help me be a better player.”

Finally, being an introvert is starting to pay off. And as the week moved on and a new one began, more Falcons players expressed similar sentiments, joking that they don’t see anyone anyway so nothing has really changed.

By the time Julio Jones took to the Microsoft Teams airwaves Thursday, he was singing the same tune.

“There was really nothing out of the ordinary for me because I work out by myself, and I kind of just do my job,” Jones said. “… For myself, I go home to the same people. I’m away from everybody.

“I’m here to just do my job.”

Asked about his thoughts regarding what is happening in college football, Jones said he gets it. He’s a professional. The players around him at training camp are, too. They’re taking on the responsibility that was assigned to them, but Jones said he sees how complying with the same rules is much more difficult for college student-athletes. They have classes to go to and dining halls to eat in. Many of them are in college towns surrounded by thousands of other students their age. When they go home, they likely are not going home to their families. Their “home” is a dorm room or an apartment complex.

“Especially kids, when you are 18, 19 years old, it’s hard to be away from this person, be away from that person,” Jones said. “Here, we have our families that we can go home to and make sure everybody is staying with the same people, whereas when you are in college you don’t know where somebody is going. It’s too much of a risk, and the team is way, way bigger as far as on a college level than an NFL level.”

On Wednesday, Quinn was asked about the ripple effects the cancellation of certain college conferences’ seasons would have on the NFL as it moves toward another draft year. First and foremost, Quinn said, his heart went out to those players and coaches who had been putting in the work since getting the go-ahead to practice again.

“I really thought about the players,” Quinn said. “They’re going to need their coaches’ help more than they ever have.”

But when asked about the effect on the NFL, Quinn said he just doesn’t know. There are too many hypotheticals. And, really, the here and now for the Falcons’ 2020 season has enough trouble on its own.

That brings us to the second week of training camp. Strength-and-conditioning periods have now morphed into full practice time. Helmets are on, and there are many evaluations the coaching staff has to make during the next few weeks without any preseason games to go off of before Week 1. Quinn said it will be up to the staff to create competitive, unscripted moments in practices to replace the live reps players would have had in preseason games. But how significant are those preseason games in getting ready to play in September? Veterans are split on the question.

Matt Ryan said, there are positives and negative drawbacks to this unique preseason, but because the Falcons have so much continuity from last year to this year, he said he doesn’t see it as a big issue. Plus, they’ve done this before.

“We all did this in college,” Ryan said. “(We) got ourselves ready for the season and went out and played Week 1 without any preseason games, so we’ll be all right. We will get ourselves ready, and I think Dan has a really good plan, too, to try and mimic some of what we would normally do during the preseason.”

He did add, however, that he likes having preseason games. They help knock the rust off, he said.

When asked about the effect this could have on the new players coming in, Foye Oluokun looked back at his own journey as the 200th pick in the 2018 draft. If these unprecedented circumstances had happened during his rookie year, he said, it would have been “difficult” to come in and stand out right away.

“I definitely felt for them, especially those undrafted free agents because I view myself as an undrafted free agent just coming out of a small school, and I don’t know how much film they really watched on me, so everything I did I had to prove to them,” Oluokun said. “But I had from April (to show what I could do). I was drafted on April 28th, something like that, and as soon as I got drafted it was maybe a week, and I was back in this facility doing rookie training camp. So, going through the circumstances they do now, they weren’t able to get as many eyes on them, so every little thing they do is important because one thing that I realized early was that everything you do is evaluated as a rookie or even as a vet. They’re always watching you.”

That evaluation process, if possible, only intensifies as the preseason morphs into player-vs.-player dynamics, instead of Falcons-vs.-opponent games.

Jones brings it full circle. When asked about creating a bubble around himself, he said it clearly: He has a job to do, and not seeing anyone outside of his own family is a part of that job. The same can be said for his feelings about preseason games. While he didn’t have any injuries to work through this offseason, he said he’s ready to play whenever.

“I’m conditioned for this, helmet on or helmet off,” Jones said. “I can go out there and play that first game without practice or anything. I can do it. It doesn’t matter. You have to be a professional at the end of the day.”

A professional with introverted tendencies, perhaps, but a professional nonetheless.



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