We have reached that point of the NFL season where we need to start asking if, throughout this Coronavirus pandemic, it’s actually going to get finished on time?
Back in March, the NFL season seemed like another age away. No one was considering getting teams of hundreds of players, coaches and staff to travel the nation playing football each week. Baseball and basketball were quickly postponed, and sports across the country seemed extremely unlikely to resume anywhere as the virus started to take a grip on the nation.
Training camp seemed like a breeze, almost too good to be true. There were only seven positive tests throughout the entire NFL up to Week 2. It’s worth noting here that the NFL is monitoring over 8,000 employees across its 32 teams on a weekly basis. Logistically, it is an absolute nightmare, but they got it sorted. There are strict protocols in place, including self-isolation and quarantine periods for players and staff who produce a positive test. Teams have to test rigorously. And there were no fans in stadiums for the earlier parts of the season. All of this sounds well and good, but is it starting to unravel?
When the draft was moved to a virtual setting, I was actually rather surprised that they still went ahead with it at all. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due, the draft experience this year was actually really something. The 2020 NFL Draft was the most watched in the history of the league. It was great to see young players learn of their fate live from their own living rooms, surrounded by their family and friends. It made it more real and less of a big charade. The NFL did a terrific job. Although I’m sure I’m not alone in saying it would have been amazing to watch 350lb+ lineman try and board a boat to venture across the Bellagio fountain and embrace Roger Goodell. We can only hope that the brain trust at the NFL have that slated for the first draft that eventually takes place in Las Vegas!
The reality of the game of football being played seemed a very long way off as teams awaited confirmation from the NFL as to how the season would operate. Then, on 7 May, the league went ahead with its schedule announcement, along with strict mandatory protocols to be observed by every team applying to every single person affiliated with the NFL. It was going to be difficult, there would be challenges, but there was going to be a 2020 NFL season. It was on.
Rookie camps and OTAs were quickly moved online and any physical presence at team facilities were limited and socially distanced. When training camp first opened and players reported to team facilities, they had to pass three separate COVID-19 tests administered over a four-day period. The league voted to cancel all pre-season games and were only allowed to have three full weeks of padded practice, which is absolutely nothing at all for one of the most physical games out there. Still, the league rumbled on.
Now Week 6 is here. There have been several positive tests across the league and not just among players. Even Head Coaches like Doug Pederson in Philadelphia have tested positive for the virus. A couple of teams seem to be in the midst of an outbreak and while they seem to be coming out the end of it, at what cost? The NFL reshuffled the schedule, affecting eight separate teams to enable the Patriots and Titans to have an impromptu bye week. Why are the NFL allowing this when strict protocol breaches have taken place that have led to games being postponed?
The Patriots, Titans, Chiefs, Raiders, Jets, Colts and Falcons have all had at least initial positive tests that have led to them completely shutting down facilities for at least a day and throwing that week’s schedule into uncertainty. The problem that teams face is that as soon as there is one test that comes back positive, everything has to be put on hold to avoid an outbreak like the one the Titans had. The NFL needs to be coming down harder on teams that are so blatantly disregarding the rules and protocols put in place. How on earth can the Titans hold a private practice in the middle of their outbreak and get away with it, at the cost of postponed games affecting at least eight other team’s schedules?! The precedent has been set now…
For now, the league is coping, but let’s look into a hypothetical scenario a few weeks in the future. It’s Week 12, and 30 out of 32 teams have had their bye week. Only Carolina and Tampa Bay remain to have theirs in Week 13. It’s also Thanksgiving week, people are interacting with and hosting family and friends. Let’s take the two Thanksgiving games as an example: if there is an outbreak at Houston and Dallas, both in Texas where restrictions are being relaxed at a crazy rate, and both games are postponed, when are they going to be played? We’re already deep into November, and 30 teams have already had their bye. The NFL is going to find it tough to shuffle the schedule as the weeks roll on.
For now, it is not too difficult. Teams still have 12 weeks during the regular season to shuffle things around. However, as the season goes on, this is going to get much, much more challenging for the league. The NFL is going to have to start making an example of teams that break protocol. Whether it’s players not wearing masks at charity functions or organising team practices when they’re supposed to be self-isolating, teams need to know that there are consequences to breaking these rules. I’m not even against teams being made to forfeit games if the breach is serious enough to warrant it.
Sure, they could extend the season, tag a couple of extra weeks on in January and push the Super Bowl back a week or two. However, I just can’t see it. The NFL is clearly more concerned with carrying on with the season, and looking good while doing it, than preventing more positive test results. The NFL was relentless in its efforts to get the season up and running on time, and that isn’t going to change now.
I don’t have the right answers, nobody does. But if the league keeps digging its head in the sand over this, the virus is going put the entire season in jeopardy. We are a long way from home yet but I worry that, short of a bubble like those incorporated by the MLB and NBA, the completion of a full 2020 season will require repeatedly successful outcomes from a muddle of ongoing risks.
Steve Tough (@SteTough)