Football amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic already looks different, and the changes will be even more jarring when the season begins and a sizable portion of the NFL's stadiums are empty.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer isn't happy about how the pandemic has changed the world in which we live. But he's also not pleased because of the competitive advantages it might provide his opponents.
"It's going to be very hard because some stadiums they're allowing people in and it looks like we're not going to have any fans in there early, which really stinks because we have unbelievable fans, and they make that place rocking every Sunday," Zimmer said Friday. "But the best way to have homefield advantage is to play really good. Execute, make tackles, don't make mistakes, don't commit penalties, turnovers, all those things."
Currently, the Cowboys, Chiefs and Jaguars have each announced plans to have fans in attendance in some form.
However, the best way is still possible for Zimmer's Vikings, who are coming off a 10-6 season that included a playoff appearance and a wild-card upset over the higher-seeded New Orleans Saints. They're still going to take the field and have plenty of opportunities to play disciplined, fundamentally sound and error-free football -- it just might not be in front of many Skol-chanting fanatics.
That still irks Zimmer, who is waiting to see how traveling affects each team's very precious on-the-road routine. He's just not going to be very happy when his team comes out of a tunnel and sees a smattering of opposing fans at some point this season.
"Other than the comfort level of being in your own stadium, and we haven't traveled yet in this pandemic so I don't know what that's totally going to be like," Zimmer said. "So I guess that would be the only thing as far as playing in the field I think it's just normal football now. I think there are some unfair things going on around it as far as some teams can have fans and some teams can't. So I think there is a competitive disadvantage in some of those areas."
It's not uncommon for a football coach to identify what he or she might see as a competitive disadvantage. There's a reason the team that lost the coin toss still gets to choose what end zone it defends.
In this new age, though, fan attendance -- no matter how small of a percentage -- is a sticking point for some. It makes sense, to some degree. Why can they have fans when we can't?
Twenty percent of 70,000 or so fans amounts to 14,000, which would still make for a very loud high school environment and would beat out some of the smaller Division I mid-majors for average home attendance in a typical, non-pandemic year (looking at you, Akron). It can still have an effect, especially when compared with a team playing its home games in an empty stadium.
But right now, we're lucky to have the sport at all. We'll see in September how much a percentage of fans, or no fans, affects the outcome of a sport for which these teams have spent more than a month preparing.