Jeff Nixon’s 24-year coaching career includes stops with multiple NFL franchises including the Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers.
But not a single previous season measures up to what he experienced this year as the running backs coach of the Carolina Panthers.
“If I had one word to describe it [this season],” Nixon said, “the word I would say would be crazy.”
Nixon, a former running backs coach at Shippensburg University from 1999-2002 — most known for his recruitment of SU Athletics Hall of Famer and NFL great fullback John Kuhn — recently completed his first season with the Panthers under head coach Matt Rhule. The Panthers ended their 2020 season with a 5-11 record and used this year to find their identity — building a foundation for how they want to play football for years to come.
However, attempting that during a season in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, comes with its concerns and challenges. Everything from training camp, to practices and meetings, to life off the field, changed for Nixon.
Nixon said his typical day at the office started at 6-6:30 a.m. As soon as personnel entered the Panthers’ facility, masks were on and officials administered a COVID-19 coronavirus nasal swab test. From there, masks had to be worn throughout the entire day whether that be in meetings, on the practice field or in the locker room.
Additionally, Nixon said social distancing was in effect, except for when it was not possible. Everyone had to do their part. It was a team effort.
“It was a full-time commitment by everybody in the organization,” Nixon said. “Whether you had been the media, a player or a coach, we all understood the responsibility we had to keep one another safe.”
And kept each other safe they did. The NFL experienced some mild outbreaks throughout the course of the season, some games were pushed back, but in the long run, no game was canceled. Teams completed a full 17-week regular season.
Nixon credits some of the league’s success to the use of virtual meetings. He said the Panthers relied heavily on Zoom, Cisco Webex and Microsoft Teams for team and position player meetings. It was another way to practice social distancing.
Nixon said it was difficult to get used to at first, but over time, it became the new normal.
“I think the biggest adjustment all coaches had to make, and the NFL as a whole, was the transition to coaching online,” he said. “If we did have any type of player meeting or team meeting in person, that’s when we had to make sure we were at least 6 feet apart.”
Another area where things took a complete “360,” was life off the gridiron. Sacrifices had to be made.
As an NFL player or coach, being off the football field can serve as an escape. A time to get out of the spotlight. Many use their free time to go out on the town, visit family and friends or take a vacation.
But in the uncertain times of a pandemic, a lot of that did not happen. It was stripped away — another sacrifice to make. No one wanted to be the cause of a team outbreak.
Nixon said over the past few months he did not see relatives outside of his immediate family. He did not eat out much, and if he did, takeout was normally the go-to. Holidays were also affected, as the suggestion to personnel was to not travel or hold celebrations.
“Pretty much my everyday routine football wise was to go to the facility, do my work there, whether that be meetings or practices, and then I’d come straight home,” Nixon said. “We couldn’t go out into big crowds or sit down at a restaurant for a dinner or anything like that. So, that was a big sacrifice.”
It was the same situation when the Panthers hit the road. Nixon said once the plane touched down and they arrived at their hotel, everyone had to stay-in for the night. There was no experiencing the night life or a new city like years past.
“When we were at the hotels, you couldn’t work out in the gym,” he said. “It was only you’re either up in your room, at the team meetings, or sitting down for the team meals. That was it, until it was time to get on the bus for the game.”
From Nixon’s perspective, in lieu of all the protocols, the most rewarding part of this season was seeing the resiliency and determination the players showcased. Without a true offseason this year, there was a league-wide concern for players’ health and readiness for the season.
Nixon said from the beginning of training camp, his athletes impressed him.
“The guys pretty much showed up to training camp and were in shape and ready to go, both mentally and physically,” Nixon said. “That was the main concern. Were the guys going to be able to come in and perform at a high level without any OTA’s (organized team activities) or mini-camps? And they were. And they proved that to all of us.”
In the end, Nixon said he has many takeaways from this season and learned many lessons along the way that he will hold onto for years down the road. While this season challenged him mentally at times and tested him repeatedly, it is an experience he will never forget.
And when asked if he would repeat the whole process if he had to, the answer was simple: Yes.
“It was shocking that we were able to get through this whole season without any sort of long delay or having to miss or forfeit any games,” Nixon said. “I think the NFL did an excellent job of putting together a great plan to make sure all 32 organizations were safe and that we could go out and perform on a daily basis and hold games every Sunday.”
“Everything we had to go through this season almost became a way of life,” he added. “I think if we had to go through it all again, it would be a smoother transition because everybody would sort of know what to expect. So, without a doubt, it was definitely worth it in so many ways and with our team coming together as a family, I think we’d all be ready to do it again.”