EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – A sense of normalcy returned today to the Giants, or at least as normal as possible after one of their players was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
That player, left guard Will Hernandez, remains in quarantine and will be away from the team for an undetermined period. But the five offensive linemen on the active roster who were instructed to stay home yesterday returned to practice today and are on track to play Monday night, when the Giants will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in MetLife Stadium.
Those players were tackles Cam Fleming and Andrew Thomas, centers Nick Gates and Spencer Pulley and rookie guard Shane Lemieux. Guard Chad Slade, who is on the practice squad, was also in the group. The tackles and Gates are starters. Lemieux is expected to start for Hernandez.
"Obviously, we were relieved that there were no more positive tests at this moment and that our guys are back in the building working," coach Joe Judge said. "We just need to put the emphasis on we have to continue to be very cautious, and we have to be proactive in the steps we take, which tied into we did install meetings this morning virtually, we cleaned up our tape after practice yesterday virtually as well. Both of those have gone smoothly so far."
The Giants continue to hold their meetings virtually and today practiced in MetLife Stadium because their practice fields were soaked after a day-long downpour here yesterday. Otherwise, it was a pretty routine workday – particularly compared to yesterday, when the Giants had just four available linemen in right guard Kevin Zeitler, inexperienced reserves Matt Peart and Jackson Barton and practice squad rookie Kyle Murphy.
The lineman shortage prompted the coaches to put tight end Eric Tomlinson at right tackle.
"I think he was born to block, so (he performed) pretty good," Judge said. "He's probably happy he can get a few more cheeseburgers on the diet."
"It was a strange practice yesterday, for sure," defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. "But I think everybody stepped into the role and did their part in doing what they can to get the practice going and giving good looks and stuff like that to prepare for Monday. Everybody bought in and was willing to do whatever it took to get it going."
That's exactly what Judge expected. The coach characteristically treated the week's COVID-19-induced curveball not as a nuisance or hardship but an opening.
"I think it was a great opportunity for our team to see how everyone needs to step up and be ready at all times," Judge said. "I thought we had a really good practice yesterday as a team. There was a tremendous amount of energy. Guys got a chance to run around in the rain. There was a lot of energy. Guys were really enjoying being out there. Obviously, there were some adjustments to what we had to do a little bit schematically. Then also, practice organization. Having a limited menu for offensive linemen, that tied a little bit to our team prep periods for the defense as well. When we were working against each other, we had to adjust a few things. But it was productive in what we decided to work on going forward."
But it was admittedly strange. Not only did the Giants not have five linemen for the offensive periods in practice, they had no backups to work on the scout team for the defense.
"We used both the guys that work on our regular offensive line as well as use some defensive linemen over there as well," Judge said. "That ties into everything we're preparing for. At some point in time, you may have to have a defensive lineman or a tight end playing on the offensive line, and we have to have a plan for it. We worked yesterday a combination of staying as close to our game plan as possible, as well as mixing in a couple curveballs in case we have to make some kind of adjustments."
"It was a really interesting challenge, obviously," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "I don't know if we've ever been out on a practice field where you try to function with four offensive linemen, a couple young guys playing, guys playing out of position, and then Eric Tomlinson playing right tackle for you. But I thought those guys handled it really, really well. Coach Judge did a great job organizing the practice in such a way that it could be productive for everybody. I thought those young guys benefited from the reps and handled themselves well. Hats off to Eric for being able to jump in there. He's a good football player, he's a smart guy, he's a tough guy, handled the work well and allowed us to function. I thought we got something out of yesterday's work."
Hopefully, it will prove productive when the Giants face a Tampa Bay defense that is ranked first in the league in both rushing yards allowed per game (66.0) and per carry (3.0). The Bucs are 5-2 after winning five of their last six games. They have numerous outstanding contributors on defense, including inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive backs Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead.
No matter what happens in the game, no one on the Giants will use the practice absences as an excuse.
"I think anytime as a football coach, you're always thinking about contingency plans for any situation," Garrett said. "I think all of us, in football and out of football, in 2020 are having to think about contingency situations. Yesterday was an up-close look at it for us as a coaching staff. Again, I thought our players responded well to it. But you're always going through those 'what if' situations and you're probably doing it more so now, just because of the situation that everybody is in around the world with COVID-19. You try to make sure you dot all the I's and cross all the T's, and more so now.
"We've talked about different situations. You throw out different hypotheticals and you say, 'How would we respond to this?' The thing you don't want to do is chase ghosts all over the place and spend all of your time on stuff that the likelihood of it happening isn't very high. But having said that, yesterday we had a number of offensive linemen who weren't in our building. That's a real-life situation that we have to contend with and have to be ready for."