The Browns are back.
Well, sort of.
Rookies, quarterbacks and injured players reported to team headquarters Friday, the first sign of training camp after a unique and troubling offseason.
Left tackle Jedrick Wills, the No. 10 pick in April, and the rest of the draft class made their first appearances in Berea, and quarterback Baker Mayfield was back to begin a pivotal third season after the offseason was held entirely virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The strangeness of the last four-plus months hasn’t disappeared despite the appearance of players and an agreement Friday between the NFL and NFL Players Association that training camps will start on time. Players were greeted with tests for COVID-19 and then dismissed.
Players must test three times in four days, with the results coming back negative, before they’re allowed inside the building. The veterans will go through the same protocol when they report Tuesday.
The conditioning test and meetings that usually welcome back players are on hold, as the players quickly returned to their homes or hotels.
They won’t all be together until July 31 at the earliest, and then will go through a lengthy period of strength and conditioning work before finally practicing — the first time under first-time coach Kevin Stefanski, who’s yet to meet many of his players.
The agreement reached Friday on changes to the collective bargaining agreement was approved by owners and the union, which is led by president and Browns center JC Tretter.
Statement from NFLPA. pic.twitter.com/sJgiHsSPUT
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) July 24, 2020
Back to football pic.twitter.com/o8AiZtSt7k
— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) July 24, 2020
The acclimation period before contact practices will reportedly be 20 days, starting with eight days of strength and conditioning. Pads are allowed to come on Day 21.
The sides also came to terms on key financial issues, including adjusting the salary cap for four years starting in 2021 to make up for the expected massive loss of revenue from severely reduced or no crowds in stadiums. Players will also have the option to opt out of the season because of the virus and receive compensation, with the amount of money depending on whether they are part of a high-risk category.
The league had previously agreed to cancel the preseason and test for the virus every day at the beginning of camp, but not all the players were comfortable with the extensive safety guidelines.
“NOT A GOOD WNOUGH (sic) PLAN….” receiver Odell Beckham Jr. wrote Thursday on Instagram Live over a picture of a CNN segment about the NFL. “Can we just hold off for a lil bit .. y’all still gon get ya money!
“WE ALLLL MISSS IT!”
Tretter has been swamped with conference calls and negotiations since being voted union president March 10. His focus is on protecting his fellow players.
“The NFL is allowed to open up the facilities,” Tretter said Thursday on “The Dan Patrick Show.” “That’s in their right. It’s our job in our union to try to protect our players and try to create and demand the safest workplace possible.
“So the NFL and the clubs are going to start bringing all players back in the next week. We have things in place to monitor them and make sure they’re taking everything we’re putting into place seriously, and if they don’t, then we’ll have actions that we’ll take to make sure we keep our guys safe.”
With the parameters in place for camp, Stefanski will face numerous challenges to get his team ready in time for the opener Sept. 13 at the defending AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens.
He raved about the work the coaches and players accomplished installing new offensive and defensive systems during the virtual offseason, but the condensed practice schedule and lack of preseason games will increase the stress of trying to take the lessons from the computer to the field.
The NFL wanted two preseason games, down from the normal four, to evaluate rosters and give organizations a chance to run through the gameday operations before the regular season. The players countered that it was counterproductive to take on the risks of travel and facing an opponent in meaningless games, as well as arguing for more time to prepare physically following the lack of any offseason practice.
The league’s concession makes sense but has consequences.
First-time general manager Andrew Berry will have to trim the roster — from 80 instead of the usual 90 — strictly based on practice performance. Stefanski won’t get to see coordinator Alex Van Pelt call plays in a game before deciding whether he or Van Pelt will handle the important job during the season. And the players won’t go against an opponent before taking on the Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning MVP.
“I trust the coaches to be able to figure out how to put us in those positions in practice and put us in situations that we can mimic live game reps, mimic those situations and get ready for the game,” Tretter said. “I think that’s possible without preseason games.
“If we were to play one preseason game backed up to the regular season, how many of the starters who you’re talking about getting ready would have played in that game risking injury anyway? Overall, it just didn’t make sense to slide one in at the end because I don’t think it would’ve done what it was supposed to do.”
Players at team headquarters, even if just for a virus test, was a welcome sight. It’s a first step toward playing a season during a pandemic.