Players’ decisions against vaccination ‘personal,’ but carries team ramifications

Indianapolis Colts
Colts QB Carson Wentz and Coach Frank Reich

WESTFIELD, INDIANA – AUGUST 12: Head coach Frank Reich and Carson Wentz #2 of the Indianapolis Colts talk on the field during the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts joint practice at Grand Park on August 12, 2021 in Westfield, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – They’re performing a delicate balancing act, and the possible ramifications are staring them in the face.

Had Carson Wentz, Ryan Kelly and Zach Pascal been placed on the NFL’s COVID-19 list as unvaccinated close-contact cases a few days before the Sept. 12 opener against the Seattle Seahawks – or in the days leading up to any subsequent game – the Indianapolis Colts would be without major components on a team with lofty aspirations.

As it is, there’s every likelihood that trio will be cleared and return to practice as early as Thursday and be available for the opener. But the opposite also can’t be casually dismissed.

The threat of suddenly losing a player – or players – with a positive test or as a close contact figures to hover over the Colts throughout 2021.

Coach Frank Reich conceded a player’s decision not to be vaccinated is “an individual decision, but it does have consequences and ramifications to the team. That’s where it makes it so complex.’’

Reich and general manager Chris Ballard have repeatedly addressed their players on the importance of getting vaccinated. Owner Jim Irsay has offered a stronger voice.

They’ve laid out the scientific and medical research. Reich has counseled, listened, done everything possible short of veiled threats to convince the roster it’s better for everyone if the entire organization was vaccinated.

Reich admitted there have been times he’s been frustrated while discussing the issue with a player.

“I do try to listen and respect,’’ he said, “but I also do not shy away from saying what I believe is right, the research that I’ve done. I don’t hesitate saying what I believe is best for the team, but will continue to reiterate this is an individual decision.’’

With this week’s additions, nine players and four staff members – including Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus – have missed time for COVID-19-related issues.

“What you’re going to hear from most people in that camp is a lot of the decisions to not get vaccinated are . . . more family-type reasons,’’ he said. “What are you going to say about that? The guy is prioritizing his family.’’

However, a repercussion might be that player being unavailable for a critical game in October, November or December. When the Colts were throttled 45-26 by the Tennessee Titans in week 12 last season, running back Jonathan Taylor, All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and defensive end Denico Autry were on the COVID-19 list.

Reich insisted he isn’t “worried’’ about that possibly happening again.

“It is what it is,’’ he said. “I believe in our team. I believe in our players. We’re going to continue to do what we do.’’

The NFL cannot mandate vaccinations for all players without an agreement of the players union. The league said last week 93% of all players have been vaccinated, but the Colts remain one of the least-vaccinated teams at roughly 75%.

As much as Reich supports vaccinations, he made it clear coming at the players with a heavier hand than he has to this point isn’t the answer.

“Being more forceful could pay short-term dividends but could cost you long term,’’ he said. “We talk a lot about trust.

“I learned it more from Tony Dungy than anybody else. Sometimes it seems like the obvious answer is to come in with the hammer. The problem with the hammer is there’s a lot of collateral damage that you don’t see until later.

“We’re building something long term. We want to be a perennial contender and we just believe in order to do that it starts with trust.’’

A major issue revolves around many of the team’s established players not being vaccinated: Wentz, Kelly, Pascal, Quenton Nelson, Eric Fisher and many others.

Reich was asked whether Wentz’s personal decision reflects a lack of leadership. The franchise quarterback, it was pointed out, carries a higher level of responsibility.

“The franchise quarterback is a critically important position,’’ he said. “It is without question a leadership position. Carson is many ways is an exemplary leader. Are any of us the perfect leader? I don’t think so. We all have holes in our game somewhere.

“What I can say is I know every one of our players cares very deeply about this team. Every one of our players who is here knows that we’re on a mission. I really believe every one of these players is a team-first guy. There are complexities to life. It’s not easy. You’ve got to deal with the complexities of life and some of these decisions.

“You work through it as a family. That’s the only way we know how to do it.’’

Buckner and Michael Pittman Jr. are among the players who opted for vaccination. When training camp opened in late July, Buckner mentioned his frustration of missing the Titans game last season.

Neither player was critical of unvaccinated teammates.

“Everybody respects each other’s decisions,’’ Buckner said. “Everybody has the right to get vaccinated or stay unvaccinated. There are reasons why.

“As a man . . . you have to respect those decisions.’’

Pittman’s decision to get vaccinated basically was a business decision.

“For me being a younger guy, I feel like I don’t have the same luxuries as some of the contract guys,’’ he said. “With all the strict rules, I just thought it was the best thing to get vaccinated because I just can’t miss games because of COVID.’’

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