After early COVID scare, Frank Reich and Colts got back to work

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JACKSONVILLE, FL – SEPTEMBER 29: An Indianapolis Colts helmet sits on the sidelines during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on September 29, 2013 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – In the end, it was business as usual.

But it began with a startling phone call that threatened to make this anything but a routine Friday.

Before dawn – “5-something,’’ according to an early-rising Frank Reich – Dave Hammer, the Indianapolis Colts’ head trainer/infection control officer, delivered unsettling news to Reich and general manager Chris Ballard: four individuals had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We talked it through,’’ Reich said on a Zoom conference call.

The Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center was closed.

The four individuals were instructed to stay away from the complex, and were retested. Not only was the day’s agenda scrambled – team meetings went from in-person to a virtual format – but Sunday’s game with the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium was in doubt.

Ultimately, normalcy returned.

“All is well,’’ owner Jim Irsay tweeted at 11:22 in the morning.

The retests came back negative, meaning the originals were false positives. The building reopened.

Practice was nudged back to 1:45 in the afternoon, and altered to be in compliance with the NFL’s “intensive protocol’’ under these circumstances. With players required to wear masks under their helmets, Reich opted to have them “jog through’’ practice rather than go speed.

“It just made sense that we could jog through, get all the looks that we needed to get, get our bodies going a little bit, get the heart rate going a little bit,’’ he said. “But not going full speed seemed the right thing . . . not ask them to go full speed with the mask under their helmet.

“It was fine.’’

Finally, it was fine.

But that’s not how Friday began. It began with Reich and Ballard suddenly planning what would be an anything-but-normal morning.

“Our conversation was, ‘All right Chris, you stay on point with the league. I’m just going to stay on point with the coaches and the players, getting the coaches ready,’’’ Reich said. “My next calls were to the coordinators just to say, ‘OK, let’s plan on playing Sunday until we hear anything further. Then let’s have Plan B and C ready if we’re playing Monday night, if we’re playing Tuesday.’’’

There also was talk of Plan D, which would have gone into effect had the Bengals game been rescheduled.

While Reich and his coordinators handled their end, Ballard remained in contact with the NFL, including Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer.

According to Reich, Ballard was “back and forth with the league early-on to make sure we were on point . . . with everything we needed to do to get ready to play this football game.’’

Friday marked the first time since the start of training camp the Colts had personnel directly impacted by COVID-19. On July 27, cornerback Jackson Porter and wideout Malik Henry were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Each no longer is with the team.

However, over the past three-plus months, the organization has strictly adhered to NFL protocol and remained on high alert.

“Every time there has been a quote-unquote scare, I use it not to wear it out, but to take a 15-second or 30-second announcement in a meeting,’’ Reich said.

His message?

Hey guys, this can happen at any time, anywhere. We don’t know. We’re built for this. Create the mindset you’re built for anything. We can come from behind. We can win when we’re ahead. We can win in any circumstance if we have to; adjust with practice, without practice.

It’s an approach Reich and Ballard adopted when COVID-19 forced cancellation of the team’s on-field work during the offseason and condensed training camp. Carry on, but be prepared to adjust as needed.

“Literally Chris and I talk about this every week. I mean multiple times a week. Being ready,’’ Reich said.

Whenever he’s determined it’s necessary to broach the subject with the players – don’t let your guard down – Reich has found receptive ears.

“You know when you’re up front and you get the heads down like, ‘Oh please, are you telling it (again)?’’’ Reich said. “That’s not been the case.

“Guys know this is serious business and we’re trying to do our part.’’

That was the gist of a conversation Reich had with Irsay Thursday evening.

“Just talking about how well I think our players and our organization have done in this regard,’’ Reich said. “You’re never fool-proof here. It can always creep in. A virus is a virus, right?

“But I think our guys have done such a good job. We’re not perfect, but I think we’ve been very diligent.’’

Medical update

Tight end Mo Alie-Cox (knee) and offensive tackle Chaz Green (back) have been ruled out of Sunday’s game.

Linebacker Darius Leonard, who missed last Sunday’s game at Cleveland with a groin injury, is doubtful. Offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo (rib), defensive lineman Denico Autry (ankle/knee), running back Jordan Wilkins (calf) and defensive end Justin Houston (hip) are questionable.

Reich said the team will determine the availability of Leonard and others Saturday.

The fact Castonzo practiced at some level all week indicates he is likely to return to the lineup after missing the Browns game.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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