The Philadelphia Eagles head across the country to take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night (8:20 ET, NBC). It is the Eagles’ first trip by plane this season, and it comes at a time when the NFL is dealing with its first coronavirus outbreak that has affected the playing of a game.
The Week 4 matchup between the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers has been postponed after seven Titans players and six team personnel members tested positive this week.
Eagles tight end Zach Ertz called the situation in Tennessee “kind of a wake-up call for the rest of the NFL.” Coach Doug Pederson said he has to “overcommunicate the protocols that have been in place” while making sure he and the team stay diligent.
“We are taking this long trip. We’re basically bottling up our bubble and putting it on an airplane and taking it across the country,” Pederson said.
How can a team stay in its bubble while moving the operation 2,800 miles from the East Coast to the West?
The Eagles gave ESPN an insider’s look into all that goes into such a journey during the pandemic with help from Dan Ryan, the director of team travel and football logistics, who works closely with all areas of football operations to help ensure the trip runs smoothly.
A different flying experience
The Eagles have packed more than 300 individual bottles of hand sanitizer, 300 pairs of gloves, 600 masks and 3,000 sanitizing wipes — and that is just for in-travel use.
They have plane-specific masks that they will switch out of once the Eagles arrive at the hotel. Every time the team completes a move, they’ll change out their masks to keep everything as sanitized as possible.
The Eagles are still using one airplane, but the travel party has been reduced, allowing for proper spacing for the cross-country jaunt. They are traveling with 139 passengers each week as opposed to 170-plus in a non-pandemic season. In a typical season, that contingent consisted of 53 players, 97 coaches and staff, and sometimes guests (corporate clients, season-ticket members, etc.). This season, the Eagles have more players (53 on the active roster and 16 on the practice squad) and have limited coaches and staff to 70. With less staff on the road, each department has to pull together to help one another out.
Besides normal social distancing measures, the Eagles have also strategically assigned plane seats to spread out position groups and departments as a precaution, should there be an infection.
Making the hotel their own
The Eagles will lock down entire floors of a hotel for each road trip. Security will be placed on those floors to ensure nobody outside of their traveling party mistakenly accesses those areas.
The number of floors depends on the hotel. This weekend, the Eagles are utilizing seven floors of sleeping rooms as well as the hotel’s full meeting space.
According to NFL/NFLPA team travel protocol, hotel staff must refrain from cleaning the interior of rooms assigned to members of the traveling party for the duration of the stay, unless the stay is longer than one night, in which case cleaning may occur when members of the traveling party are not present.
The goal is to keep all interactions solely between the members of the travel party.
Eating food and keeping safe
When you have close to 70 football players on the road for a couple of days, food is a big consideration.
First, the Eagles’ team chefs will feed the players and staff before they take off, to maximize mask-wearing while on board the airplane to California.
They’ll also have two members of their nutrition staff as part of the traveling committee to assist and ensure quality control. The Eagles will work closely with the hotel staff to make sure the practices used when prepping or serving food to the team are in accordance with the NFL’s protocols.
All meals are served in the team’s private meal room in the meeting space at the hotel. The staff preparing and packaging the meals will work exclusively with the team during the stay. Those meal options are a combination of prepackaged items and items being served in a to-go format by attendants who have been screened and are wearing personal protective equipment (masks, face shields, gloves, hairnets, sneeze guards, etc.). The Eagles will also set up stanchions to keep players and staff distanced from any food or hotel staff while in the meal room.
The goal is to make the dining experience as safe as it would feel at the Eagles’ practice facility by implementing many of the same methods and procedures while in San Francisco.
Testing for coronavirus
The number of tests administered during the week does not change in advance of an away game. All players, coaches and staff are tested Monday through Saturday within the league’s protocols. If there are 139 passengers, and they’re each tested daily for six days, that would mean 834 COVID-19 tests are being administered between the previous game and Saturday’s flight.
Per the NFL/NFLPA travel protocol, each member of the traveling party is subject to daily temperature screens and symptom checks while traveling and mandatory hand cleaning when entering the team hotel, club facilities, planes, buses and other shared facilities.
And they’re off
The Eagles’ flight to San Francisco is set to depart at 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday. While that is on par with when they might take off in a normal season, the schedule has been adjusted so more meetings are held at the team facility prior to departure in order to have fewer gatherings at the hotel.
They will use six buses to get the team to the airport and to the game and back. That’s about the typical number, but with fewer staffers traveling, everyone can spread out more. They will hop on the buses and head right to the airport after the game, arriving back in Philadelphia before dawn Monday morning.
If all goes according to plan, the only time the bubble will be broken is during the game itself against the 49ers, who have theoretically been in a bubble of their own.
“I know that they’re going to try to keep us safe as best they can,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “And we’re going to make sure that we have a safe trip there and back.”