COVID-19. Injuries. Personal tragedies.
You could hear the exhaustion in New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears’ voice as he rattled off all the blows he and his position group have absorbed over the course of this terrible, terrible year.
?It?s probably the craziest year I?ve ever been around,” Fears, who’s been coaching in the NFL since 1991, said Friday in a conference call.
The coronavirus pandemic has hung like a thundercloud over the 2020 NFL season, and it hit the Patriots’ locker room hard in early October. Eight players landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, two games were postponed and the team looked out of sync for a month, dropping four straight games following a promising 2-1 start.
Two weeks before Cam Newton’s positive test triggered that COVID ordeal, veteran running back and co-captain James White took a leave of absence from the team after losing his father, Tyrone, in a car crash that left his mother hospitalized.
Last month, Markus Paul, a former Patriots strength coach who played under Fears at Syracuse in the 1980s, died suddenly at age 54.
This steady stream of bad news has been difficult for the 66-year-old Fears to bear.
“As far as some of the stuff that?s happened on the field and off the field, some of the things that have happened to me personally with friends like Markus and James?s situation, and with the COVID, it has been extremely hard just to focus in on playing football and enjoying the football season,” said Fears, whose Patriots tenure predates Bill Belichick’s.
“It?s been just the opposite. It?s been a real challenge. I thought the guys have done a great job of trying to deal with the COVID protocols and all the stuff that goes on with it and the threat — the threat of health problems and the threat of bringing that home to your family and worrying about what other guys are doing. Are they putting you at risk?
“It?s just a tremendous amount of stuff that surrounds the game. Just being able to play the game is kind of fun compared to all the other stuff we go through to get to the game and to prepare for a game.”
Fears has dealt with on-field anguish, too. Though the Patriots’ five-man running back group has been highly productive this season, three of its members have spent time on injured reserve.
Sony Michel missed seven games with a quad injury and also contracted COVID-19. Damien Harris began the season on IR after an impressive training camp. Rex Burkhead was lost for the season in Week 11 with a knee injury that could sideline him into 2021.
At 6-7, the Patriots are assured of their worst finish since 2002, breaking a streak of 17 consecutive seasons with double-digit wins. They’ll almost certainly miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“It?s been hard,” Fears said. “It?s been really hard. But I?ve had four of the best guys you can possibly have in the room to deal with this and to deal with the stuff that?s going on. And if anything had to happen to anyone, James is probably the strongest guy to deal with it, and he did.”
Harris suffered a back injury that knocked him out of Thursday night’s 24-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He’s been a bright spot in a frustrating offensive campaign for the Patriots, excelling as New England’s lead back since replacing an injured Michel in Week 4.
Fears said the second-year pro felt “much better” by the time the Patriots left SoFi Stadium but wouldn’t predict whether Harris will be available for next Sunday’s matchup with the Miami Dolphins.
If Harris can’t go, the Patriots will rely on Michel, White and undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor, who hasn’t seen the field since Week 3.
“I?ll tell you what, from my point of view, I?ve got a great group,” Fears said. “I?ve got a great group that?s dealt with a hard, hard year emotionally, and we?re not done yet. That?s all I?ve got to say. We?re not done yet. I don?t know who?s going to be able to play, but somebody?s going to line up, and we?re going to play. That?s the way I feel about it.”