Next Pats Podcast: Infectious disease expert weighs in on sports returning in 2020

Next Pats Podcast: Infectious disease expert weighs in on sports returning in 2020

The NFL has set its regular season schedule to begin Sept. 10 when the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans in the 2020 opener.

As of now, the league has not changed that date, but of course, the COVID-19 pandemic could impact the league's plans.

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It's unknown what the COVID-19 situation will look like in the United States by the time September rolls around. Many states have seen a spike in cases after slowly re-opening local economies over the last few weeks. States such as Florida and Texas have been hit particularly hard of late.

In the latest episode of the "Next Pats Podcast", NBC Sports Boston's Patriots insider Phil Perry talks with Helen Boucher, MD, who is the Chief of the Division of Geographic Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Tufts Medical Center. They discussed the challenges the NFL faces in returning to play, what the likelihood is to have sports come back, and much more. 

There's been a lot of talk in recent months about a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall/winter, which is typically when influenza and other viruses are more prevalent. How could a second wave of COVID-19 impact sports coming back?

"We are in the first wave in the United States," Dr. Boucher said. "Based on what we're seeing in the southern hemisphere, in places like Brazil and Guatemala, they're in their winter respiratory season now and it's not going so well. COVID is running rampant down there. So I think we have to be concerned that we will see a second wave next fall and that we'll have both COVID and influenza, and other respiratory viruses coming all at once.

"So, many people are making plans to try to squeeze things in, like college, for example. Colleges and universities, many have come out with plans to have kids back a week or two early and then send them home at Thanksgiving and finish the semester via remote learning. People are thinking that way in anticipation of a second wave. And to come back to our earlier discussion -- plan for success, but I think it's very prudent to think about trying to get things in that window of better weather before the other viruses re-emerge for the season."

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Would it make sense to push back the start of fall/winter sports to later in the winter or even the spring of 2021? 

"It's certainly an option," Dr. Boucher said. "We're hoping for a vaccine at some point, and there's been a lot of talk, very optimistic talk. Dr. (Anthony) Fauci himself talked about maybe having access to a vaccine as soon as the end of 2020, which is very optimistic. I think it's more likely that we would see it during the beginning of 2021, more like closer to a year from now. But if a vaccine became available, that would be a game-changer. That would really change, no pun intended, the sports world and a lot of other parts of our life.

"I think the focus of a lot of folks now is on what can we do in the short term when things are better. Things are better here (in Massachusetts), we're fortunate at the moment. So these are hard decisions and often they came back to the financial aspect. So that's way out of my league in terms of my expertise, but it's a very reasonable question and I think it's likely that by the spring of next year we will have more therapies available. We certainly have reason to believe we'll be better at treating the disease. We're learning a lot about treating the disease, not just with medicines but with other therapies and the way we take care of people. I'm optimistic that by next spring things will be better, but there's no guarantee."

For more of Dr. Boucher's conversation with Phil Perry, check out the Next Pats Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch on YouTube below:

Why Chris Simms thinks RB Lamar MIller will play big role for Patriots

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Why Chris Simms thinks RB Lamar MIller will play big role for Patriots

Over the past 12 seasons, the Patriots have had eight different players lead the team in rushing yards.

Only Sony Michel, Legarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have repeated, while Dion Lewis, Jonas Gray, Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris each led New England for one season over that stretch.

So could there be another changing of the guard in the 2020 season?

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Michel is starting training camp on the PUP list and his availability for Week 1 is reportedly in question, potentially leaving the door open for one of the team's other running backs to hit the ground running when the season opens next month. And while James White, Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris are the incumbents on the roster, a newcomer could take the opportunity and — pun definitely intended — run with it.

Lamar Miller reached agreement on a one-year contract with the Patriots on Monday, but just a year removed from tearing his ACL in a preseason game with the Texans, he's a long-shot, right? NBC Sports NFL analyst Chris Simms doesn't think so, telling Mike Florio on NBC Sports Network's "Pro Football Talk" that he thinks Miller can recapture the form that made him a Pro Bowler in his last full season (2018).

"I'm going to say he has a significant role. Lamar Miller didn't play last year, but two years ago, (he) was very impressive," Simms said. "I mean, he's a home run hitter. He can bounce it outside and take it 70 yards up the sideline. He's always been that type of player. Unfortunately, like the guy we just talked about (Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette), he's been on some teams — the Dolphins, the Houston Texans — who have had just crap offensive lines in front of him.

"So his stats are never going to tell you how good he is, but the fact he knows that system, being from Billy O'Brien and then going into New England, he'll have the jump-start there. And you know them, they're never going to have a true bell-cow, but I think he will be a part of that rotation and have a serious role this year."

Even if the stats don't tell Miller's full story, they still paint the picture of a solid running back.. Prior to the ACL injury, the 29-year-old had rushed for at least 850 yards in five straight seasons, only missing four games over that stretch. He's also busted off a pair of 97-yard touchdown runs over his NFL career, something that Mike Florio pointed out while illustrating what a low-risk, high-reward addition Miller could be.

"If he's healthy, who knows what he can do for New England?" Florio added. "And it's going to be one of those situations where we say 'Bill Belichick, the genius, at it again.' A guy who's just out there, waiting to be signed and Belichick does it."

Patriots Talk Podcast: Don Yee and the remedy for college football’s ‘industrial complex’ | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Patriots Talk Podcast: Malcolm Butler would be poster child for Don Yee's NFL feeder camp

Patriots Talk Podcast: Malcolm Butler would be poster child for Don Yee's NFL feeder camp

The New England Patriots took a chance on Malcolm Butler, and he rewarded them with the game-winning interception in Super Bowl XLIX.

But what if there are more Malcolm Butler types who are going undiscovered?

That's part of Don Yee's inspiration for launching HUB Football. The powerful agent of former Patriots quarterbacks Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo is spearheading a "1-2 day strategically intensive, professional football development and teaching camp" to connect undrafted players and other NFL hopefuls with clubs that can use their services.

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On the latest episode of the Patriots Talk Podcast, Yee joined Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran to explain why Butler is the perfect example of a player who would benefit from the HUB Football model.

"There's a lot of guys that can play," Yee told Curran. "It's just sometimes the opportunity meeting the timing, and the exposure."

"It's tremendous credit to Malcolm and the Patriots coaching staff that that even happened. Tremendous. And as you know, because of that, it changed NFL history, right?"

Patriots Talk Podcast: Don Yee and the remedy for college football’s ‘industrial complex’ | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Butler went undrafted out of Division II West Alabama in 2014, but the Patriots invited him to their rookie minicamp, where he impressed enough to earn a three-year contract. The rest is history: Butler intercepted Russell Wilson on the goal line to seal the Patriots' dramatic Super Bowl XLIX win over the Seattle Seahawks and spent four seasons in New England before moving on to the Tennessee Titans in 2018.

As Yee pointed out, though, several circumstances had to line up for Butler to even join the Patriots in the first place.

"That event is the result of Malcolm being unemployed but staying in shape and believing in himself," Yee said. "It also was contingent on whomever his agent was at that point probably begging any teams to give him a look of any kind.

"It also was contingent on somebody in New England keeping an eye on him and saying, 'Hey, why don't we at least invest a little bit of money and take a look at this guy?' And then it was contingent on the efforts of the coaching staff and their belief."

"So, a lot of little things that ultimately became big things had to connect for that moment to happen in the Super Bowl, which literally changed a lot of narratives."

Yee's HUB Football initiative aims to make it much easier for teams like the Patriots to find players like Butler by putting players in the best possible position to land an NFL gig.

"We want to make it far more efficient and really, truly customize the product to exactly what an NFL general manager wants to see," Yee said. "How it is conducted, the timing, the types of people invited. So, it's not going to be all comers. We will vet the players that are interested. This is a product really only for those players that truly have NFL type of ability."

Butler is far from the only undrafted player to find success in the NFL. (Ever heard of Antonio Gates, James Harrison or Priest Holmes?) But there likely are similarly talented players who never got their chance due to unfortunate timing or any number of other circumstances.

Yee's product hopes to uncover more diamonds in the rough and make Butler's story more of a norm than an exception.

Check out the latest episode of the Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or on YouTube.