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Bucs’ Antoine Winfield Jr. relies on Dad’s FaceTime calls to help navigate NFL

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TAMPA, Fla. — It will soon be a Wednesday night in Week 8 of his first NFL season, and just as he did the week before and every Wednesday and Thursday prior, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will go to his most trusted resource as he prepares for this week’s opponent, the New York Giants, on Monday Night Football: his father, Antoine Winfield Sr.

The call comes in at 6 p.m., and via FaceTime, the two discuss their plan of attack. Winfield Jr., the Buccaneers’ second-round pick, sits at either his couch or the kitchen table and points his phone at his laptop. His father, who spent 14 years in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings, sits on his couch more than 1,000 miles away in Texas and studies the screen.

On Wednesdays, they go over first and second downs. They talk about formations, playcalls and route concepts, with the goal of helping Winfield Jr. play fast.

Winfield Sr. has been instrumental in helping his son — Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated defensive rookie through Week 5 — adjust and even thrive in his first season in the league.

“I taught him everything I know,” Winfield Sr. told ESPN. “He plays exactly like I do, but he’s gonna be a better player than I was.”

Coaching up Junior

Winfield Jr. and the Bucs have already seen these calls pay off.

Before the Bucs’ Week 2 game against the Carolina Panthers, Winfield Jr. told his father, “Dad, keep in mind this formation. We have a blitz called, so I’ll be coming off the edge.”

So Winfield Sr. told him, “OK, of course the running back is gonna pick you up, he’ll see you coming to the line of scrimmage. When you blitz, get on the edge, get on the shoulder of the running back, because the quarterback is gonna step up and he’s gonna escape.”

He got to the point, fell back and chased quarterback Teddy Bridgewater down, sacking him and knocking the ball loose. It was recovered by Jason Pierre-Paul, setting up a 23-yard touchdown throw to Mike Evans.

“I was so excited,” Winfield Sr. said. “I [was] running around the house, yelling, jumping.”

He couldn’t be at the game, as no fans are allowed at Raymond James Stadium because of COVID-19, but distance didn’t diminish his excitement or the magnitude of the moment.

“I lose my voice every Sunday,” Winfield Sr. said. “I know this means a lot to him. He puts a lot of time in, a lot of work — I’m just ecstatic for him.”

When he was able to see his son play in person, in Week 3 at the Denver Broncos, Winfield Jr. blitzed from the other side and took down Jeff Driskel for a sack and a loss of 8 yards.

“It was cool just to have him out there,” Winfield Jr. said. “He told me I did a great job and to keep ballin’.”

Winfield Jr. is doing what defensive coordinator Todd Bowles instructed when he named him the starter at the end of camp: “Go out and own it.” His 2.0 sacks are tied for the most among safeties in the NFL this season, while his four pass breakups are tied for third most. His 242 coverage snaps are the most of any rookie this season and his 37 combined tackles (25 solo) are fifth most. And he’s done it at different positions. When Sean Murphy-Bunting suffered a hamstring injury, Winfield Jr. moved to nickelback without batting an eye.

“He’s a good football player, regardless of this situation or any situation. He’s smart, he’s heady, he makes plays and he makes you trust him,” Bowles said.

“It’s not a lot of times you get a rookie coming in as a free safety and making calls,” defensive captain Lavonte David said. “Sometimes they’re not sure of themselves, but he’s very sure of himself. He’s talking, he’s communicating, he’s making sure you get the call. … I really like that.”

On Sunday, the Las Vegas Raiders had pulled within four points in the fourth quarter, before Tom Brady and Chris Godwin connected on a 4-yard strike to make it 31-20. But they needed some cushion to their lead. That’s when safety Mike Edwards dove in front of Nelson Agholor on a dig route, with Winfield coming down with it for his first career interception. “It just came straight to me and I just caught the ball,” Winfield said.

“It’s a great feeling, getting my first interception. I feel like I should have had it last week, but it was great finally actually catching the ball. It just felt amazing.”

‘Football’s in our DNA’

Winfield Sr. can still remember placing a football in Winfield Jr.’s hands when he was a toddler and watching him take off with it — his father gently tackling him to the ground from his knees.

“He didn’t really have a choice,” Winfield Sr. joked. “I mean, he’s my junior, my firstborn — I put a football in his hands when he came out of the womb. I think football’s in our DNA.”

He also remembers his son climbing into bed with him when he studied film after practice, which progressed into more detailed instruction when he got into high school.

“He would jump in next to me [and ask], ‘Dad, whatcha watching? Who you playing this week? Why are you always in the bed watching all this film?'” Winfield Sr. said.

“I said, ‘Son, this is my job. 24/7, 365 days we’re working. I have to get out there and perform well. That’s the tip that you get as a DB. Because quarterbacks and receivers are really good. So if you’re watching film, you can get a head start and recognize some things — that gives you an opportunity to make plays.'”

“I was like, ‘All right. … OK, I see. That’s what I’m gonna have to do when I get older and play in the NFL,'” Winfield Jr. said.

There are lessons to be learned each week, but not always X’s and O’s. When the Bucs lost a Thursday night game to the Chicago Bears in Week 5, father told son, “It’s football. You’re not going to win every one.”

“He’ll say, ‘If you have a loss, get back and get ready to go to work,'” Winfield Jr. said. “Watch the film, correct the changes and mistakes, just learn from it. Grow from your mistakes that you made so you can just get better.”

His biggest piece of advice?

“Always be prepared,” Winfield Sr. said. “When you’re prepared, that breeds confidence. Confidence leads to you going out there and making plays. I told him, ‘Every time you step on the field, you always gonna think in your mind, “I’m the best player out here. I’m gonna make the plays I’m supposed to make. I’m gonna be in the position I’m supposed to be in.” If you do that, you’ll have a long, successful career.'”

Like father, like son

The similarities between father and son are endless, even if they play different positions. Both are 5-foot-9, although Winfield Jr. plays at 203 pounds while his father played at around 180 to 185.

“They’re identical,” said cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross, who coached Winfield Sr. in Minnesota for three seasons. “They each have a 6-inch punch. [Winfield Jr.] practices very hard, he’s very smart, very instinctive. … I think he’s going to have a hell of a year.”

“I didn’t have the size,” Winfield Sr. said. “He’s definitely stronger than me. He has more knowledge of the game than I did. I was the first to do it in my family. … With me helping him from an early age, and watching him through the years, elevating his game, he’s a special player. As you see it on Sunday — he’s out there, doesn’t look like a rookie.

“He’s blitzing a lot more. He’s playing in the post. I wish I could have played like that. It’s just the awareness.”

But how?

“I would say it’s natural, but it also comes with a lot of hard work,” Winfield Jr. said. “If you do it in practice, you’ll do it in the game, so my goal is always to stay around the ball in practice. Then it shows up during game time. You have to practice it all the time for it to actually happen.”

The same could be said for their father and son film-study sessions too, which they’ve got down pat.

“He plays beyond his years right now,” Bowles said. “He plays like a veteran, he understands the game, he plays the game the right way. He makes his plays and he understands that when his opportunity comes up, he has to make a play — and he does.”

The real question will be if he can ultimately outdo his dad. With Winfield Sr.’s 20 career interceptions, he has 19 more to go.

“I’m definitely gonna try to pass him in all his stats,” Winfield Jr. said. “That’s my goal, to beat him in everything — tackles, picks, forced fumbles, whatever it is — I want to have a better game than him.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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