NFL: Vaccine advantage, 17-game schedule launch unique 2021 season

Patrick Mahomes, of the Kansas City Chiefs, told reporters he is vaccinated, which some players and coaches think is a competitive advantage for teams this season. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
1 of 6 | Patrick Mahomes, of the Kansas City Chiefs, told reporters he is vaccinated, which some players and coaches think is a competitive advantage for teams this season. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 16 (UPI) -- The NFL's 32 teams kick off another unique campaign next month, which features the longest regular season in history and what some coaches and players say might make the difference in some games: COVID-19 vaccination rates.

"We have talked about how [being vaccinated] is a competitive advantage," Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters earlier this off-season.


The 2021 NFL season starts Sept. 9. Each team will play an additional regular-season game and one fewer preseason game this year.

Unlike last season, each team will allow full capacity at its stadium. Some teams will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result before entry.

Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Patrick Mahomes' Kansas City Chiefs are favored to return to the Super Bowl in 2021-22. The Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills are among other favorites.


Teams will attempt to get through the longest season in NFL history with limited injuries for star players. The NFL's adjusted COVID-19 protocols also could impact which players miss games.

Unvaccinated NFL players who are deemed close contacts of a player who tests positive for COVID-19 this coming season are subject to five-day periods in isolation, while vaccinated players are not.

The NFL told UPI last week that 91.7% of NFL players on 90-man rosters are fully vaccinated or received at least one shot. That means an estimated 239 out of the league's 2,880 active players are not vaccinated. Fifteen teams are more than 95% vaccinated.

Sources told the Washington Post and The Athletic that the Minnesota Vikings had the lowest vaccination rate in the league as of last week. Vikings owner Mark Wilf told reporters that the team is "very concerned" about the hesitancy to get the vaccine and potential competitive disadvantages.

Last season was marked by several schedule disruptions due to COVID-19 outbreaks, but the NFL told teams it will not extend the 2021 campaign if teams are forced to miss games. Those with the potential outbreak will forfeit and be credited with a loss.


The issue of vaccination sometimes causes friction within teams.

Coach Mike Zimmer recently voiced his frustration with the situation at Vikings training camp when starting quarterback Kirk Cousins was sidelined and designated as a high-risk close contact to backup Kellen Mond, who tested positive. Cousins is not vaccinated.

"[What if] something like this happens the day before a game with a chance to get into the playoffs?" Zimmer asked reporters July 31.

Not all positions are created equal in the NFL when it comes to their impact on winning games. Quarterbacks are regarded as the most important players because they handle the ball most. About half of the NFL's starting quarterbacks have said they are vaccinated.

"It's a competitive advantage, but it's also way more than that," Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield told reporters in July. "It's about safety and general health and well-being of human life."

Some coaches urge players to get vaccinated in the name of safety and on-field success, while others call vaccinations a "personal decision." Teams and the players union continue to educate players and coaches on the vaccine and NFL COVID-19 protocol.


"We have to be responsible for the close contacts and tracing and make sure we are tracking who is wearing their mask. ... That's where I think the competitive advantage could come," Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel said in July.

Quarantines and close contacts aren't the only obstacles teams face ahead of the 2021 campaign. Players also must stay healthy and work out contract disputes.

Injuries, uncertain player status

The playing status of Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is one of the biggest storylines of the NFL off-season and lurks into the preseason.

Watson requested a trade earlier this year. Fewer than two months later, nearly two dozen lawsuits that allege sexual assault and inappropriate behavior were filed against the three-time Pro Bowl selection.

Watson, who is under investigation by the NFL and the Houston Police Department, returned to Texans practice last Monday after a week-long absence.

Outside of other legal matters and contract disputes, injuries already made an impact on several teams this year.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz and All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson each sustained foot injuries last week and are unable to practice. They were initially given five to 12-week recovery timetables, but coach Frank Reich told NFL Network on Wednesday that they could still be ready for Week 1.


Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers sustained one of the most serious injuries this off-season. Akers tore his Achilles in July and will miss the entire season.

Several wide receivers also sustained injuries this offseason, including: DeVonta Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles, Rashod Bateman of the Baltimore Ravens and Justin Jefferson of the Vikings.

Pro Bowl wide receivers Amari Cooper of the Dallas Cowboys and Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints also entered camp with injuries.

Cooper, Jefferson and Smith have returned to light activity. Bateman is expected to miss several weeks of action. Thomas also remains sidelined due to an ankle injury.

Several key players, like Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals, Nick Bosa of the San Francisco 49ers and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants should provide boosts for their teams in 2021 after they sustained season-ending injuries in 2020.

The 2021 NFL preseason ends Aug. 29.

Week 1 schedule


Times in EDT

Sept. 9

Cowboys at Buccaneers at 8:20 p.m.

Sept. 12

Seahawks at Colts at 1 p.m.

Jaguars at Texans at 1 p.m.

Eagles at Falcons at 1 p.m.

Chargers at Washington at 1 p.m.

Steelers at Bills at 1 p.m.

49ers at Lions at 1 p.m.

Vikings at Bengals at 1 p.m.

Jets at Panthers at 1 p.m.

Cardinals at Titans at 1 p.m.

Browns at Chiefs at 4:25 p.m.

Dolphins at Patriots at 4:25 p.m.

Broncos at Giants at 4:25 p.m.

Packers at Saints at 4:25 p.m.

Bears at Rams at 8:20 p.m.

Sept. 13

Ravens at Raiders at 8:15 p.m.

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