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Could late-season COVID outbreak be responsible for Colts’ disappointing finish?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts-Training Camp Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

The impacts of COVID-19 have been heavily publicized since early 2020. Hospitalizations and loss of life have been historically significant.

The Omicron variant has been something new.

The good? Omicron appears to be considerably less life-threatening and reportedly the symptoms are frequently less intense. The bad? It’s hard to imagine an illness that has ever spread with such speed and efficiency.

A note is that many who test positive get through the worst of their symptoms in 24-48 hours. However, some have reported lingering symptoms that last for weeks. Among these lingering symptoms, fatigue and a lack of respiratory endurance are potentially the most common, even after the contagious period has ended.

There is no way to quantify the impact these symptoms may have had on the outcome of the games. Players could come forward to report these issues but it’s unlikely they will do so. A loss is a loss and at the end of the day, and players rarely dwell on excuses.

What are some signs that the roster was contending with carry-over from the late-season COVID outbreak? Hard Knocks has been useful in providing us with some insight.

We know that after Arizona, the COVID protocols impacted how the team prepared. The team held more virtual meetings than normal, had less certainty on which players would be available, and the protocols not only impacted who was available for live practices but the frequency the team could meet for live practices. Prior to the Raiders game, the Colts had practices where uncharacteristic mental errors led to some frustration, and perceived effort was called out by coaches and player leaders. This is a team that has taken pride in not making mental errors and in keeping a tally of when players take plays off with a “loafs” list.

Is it possible that one of the most common, lasting symptoms for those who test positive for COVID had an impact at just the right time? Could it be that Pro Bowl players were quiet in Jacksonville because they were experiencing residual fatigue?

The alternative is that the Colts just quit. Their effort disappeared uncharacteristically. Loafing went from something avoided like each player’s career depended on it to a defining characteristic seemingly overnight, when the players ought to have been more motivated than they had been at any other point in the season.

Frank Reich went from a leader who had his team ready to face two playoff teams in back-to-back weeks and under less than ideal circumstances to a coach who was responsible for not getting his team mentally or emotionally ready to finish out the season. A team assembled in no small part after carefully vetting players for mental toughness through a process developed by former Green Beret Brian Decker whiffed on a massive scale, and the team’s leaders were integral in those misses.

Sorry. It just doesn’t make sense.

Grasping at straws? Maybe. But this one seems more rational than the alternatives.