Following a week in which one NFL club experienced a COVID-19 outbreak (at press time, 25 members of the Tennessee Titans organization had tested positive) and a pair of games was postponed (Titans-Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs-New England Patriots), Roger Goodell sent out a league-wide memo addressing several changes to pandemic protocols. The commissioner stressed compliance with the reimagined safety measures and threatened clubs with the loss of draft picks “or even the forfeit of a game” for any violations that result in an adjustment of the regular season schedule.
The league office insists that its focus remains, as NFL VP of Communications Brian McCarthy said, to “[put] clubs and personnel in a position to safely and responsibly play games as scheduled.” However, as the number of coronavirus cases nationwide trend upwards, doubts have begun to creep in about the league’s ability to play 256 games by Jan. 3, the scheduled end of the regular season. In fact, ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio recently reported that several NFL coaches suggested the schedule be reconfigured so that each team plays just 12 games. But a source within the NFLPA says the biggest threat to the sanctity of the 16-game NFL season isn’t team outbreaks; the league believes it can manage the virus with the protocols in place. “The biggest threat to our season—and one people aren’t talking about enough—is what happens within our country [with coronavirus]. States are going to be quick to close back up if infection rates rise back up to the levels they were at in April,” said the source.
Our Take: The two rescheduled Week 4 games were the first two to be postponed this season, so one can understand why the NFL is confident that when there is absolute compliance, 100% of the time, the COVID-19 safety protocols work (Tennessee is known to have violated various protocols). But as former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins GM (and current Columbia University professor) Mike Tannenbaum said, “When you look at the science and math, the reality is [the league] is going to see more positive tests [as the season wears on].” If that is in fact the case, the NFL very well may need more flexibility in the schedule than it currently has (just one bye week per team) to complete all 256 games. The presumption is that by eliminating games (as PFT suggested), the league would gain four extra weeks to make up games lost to team outbreaks.
Tannenbaum does not believe trimming one quarter of the schedule is the most sensible solution. Competitive balance issues aside, there are several other issues that would have to be addressed before the NFL could eliminate games—none bigger than getting the players to sign off. Remember, vested veteran players are getting paid on a pay-for-play basis this season (as opposed to their contracts being fully guaranteed if they are on the Week 1 roster). They’re not going to willingly sign up for a 25% haircut (along with the ’22 salary cap implications). The league and its teams would also need to work out agreements with various business partners (think: television broadcast, local radio/media, sponsorships) and in some cases, the municipalities in which teams play. It should be noted that the lack of tickets and suites sold for this season does help to mitigate one issue teams would otherwise have to face.
While it’s certainly possible to navigate the challenges cited, Tannenbaum insists that the most logical solution is simply to bump back the date of the Super Bowl. “It makes more sense to play 16 games and have the Super Bowl in March, than it does to have an abbreviated season and to play [the Super Bowl] in February,” he said. Like the 12-game slate proposed, a March Super Bowl would give the league additional weeks to make up games should the virus force a series of postponements. In the unlikely event the league manages to play out the balance of its regular season without having to postpone additional games, the seven qualifiers within each conference would simply enjoy a couple of weeks off to get healthy before the playoffs begin. “If you’re sitting there with unused bye weeks at the end, it’s certainly the lesser of two evils,” said Tannenbaum, an ESPN front office insider. There would certainly be logistical headaches associated with postponing the Super Bowl, but he suggested that they could be overcome: “When the league hands out Super Bowl bids, part of the [host committee] bid is to guarantee flexibility in when [the city] hosts it.”
Going into Week 5, the NFL has no intention of eliminating games, moving the Super Bowl or creating individual team bubbles (another idea mentioned in the PFT article). Our NFLPA source said it was simply too early (in terms of the number of team outbreaks experienced) to make drastic adjustments to the league’s approach. The belief is that the enhanced protocols and threat of severe penalties will be enough to keep teams healthy enough to play out the balance of the season slate as scheduled. Of course, that’s subject to change should a rash of outbreaks occur, and with the NFL and the NFLPA re-evaluating the landscape every two or three weeks, it is possible the league could be singing a different tune sooner than later. Three different teams (Titans, Patriots and Las Vegas Raiders) had players test positive earlier this week and the league has since moved Sunday’s Denver Broncos-Patriots game to Monday night and the Titans-Buffalo Bills game to Tuesday night; if the latter matchup takes place, the Bills-Chiefs Week 6 contest originally scheduled for Thursday will be “moved to later in the weekend.”
The NFL is less confident in its ability to complete the 2020 season if large swaths of the country start to shut down. Remember, unlike the UFC and WWE, which were able to hold events in Florida during lockdown, the NFL has teams playing games across multiple state and county lines, each with varying guidelines. In theory, Los Angeles, with several pro sports venues and more than enough hotel rooms, could host all 32 clubs, but it seems highly unlikely that a state with a progressive governor who has shown a tendency to take a conservative approach to the virus would grant the league permission to play under those circumstances.
Even though regular season bubbles seem unlikely at this point, former Raiders CEO Amy Trask suggests the league “ought to strongly consider creating [one] for all postseason participants.” She reasoned, “[The league] really can’t postpone games in the playoffs because of the way seeding works.” Tannenbaum agreed that the concept of a postseason bubble makes sense: “Once you’re rolling in the playoffs, you want to try and keep that on schedule to the extent you can.”