The NFL made it through the first three weeks of the 2020 season completely unscathed in regards to COVID-19. All 48 games were played, and positive test results were rare.
In Week 4, the dam finally sprung a few leaks — big, concerning leaks.
Two games had to be postponed this weekend, with the NFL pushing Titans-Steelers to Week 7 and moving the Patriots-Chiefs game to Monday or Tuesday at the earliest. The Titans became the first NFL team to experience a COVID outbreak, with 18 players and staff members testing positive in an eight-day stretch. The Patriots-Chiefs game was postponed after each team had a quarterback test positive Saturday — Patriots starter Cam Newton and Chiefs practice squad player Jordan Ta’amu. The Patriots don’t have an outbreak as of now, but the team is monitoring everyone closely.
It is certainly an ominous sign for the NFL’s ability to complete the 2020 season without going into a bubble-like environment. But not all of the fallout from this story is negative. Let’s take a deeper look at the Titans' situation and what means for the NFL:
▪ If these are ultimately isolated incidents, and the only impact is that the NFL had to move around a couple of games, then it’s not a big deal. The NFL entered the season admitting full well that positive cases would occur and COVID-19 would likely affect some games. Any talk about moving teams into a hotel bubble and quarantining them from society is far too premature.
But it’s worrisome that it’s just Week 4, the pandemic isn’t exactly raging in most parts of the country (though it seems to be on the uptick), and the NFL already has had to postpone two games. Most experts predict that the pandemic is going to worsen in the colder months. Considering how quickly the virus spread through the Titans, this could be just the beginning of the NFL’s troubles.
▪ The NFL can’t just keep postponing games and blowing up its schedule. There has to be a sense of reliability to make this season work. It will be a lot tougher to move games around the calendar once the byes are out of the way, too.
It’s also not fair to teams like the Steelers, who just had their schedule turned upside down for something they didn’t do. The NFL can’t keep giving entire officiating crews a week off, either, as they are doing with the crew that worked the Titans-Vikings game. The NFL only has 17 crews.
If more outbreaks occur, the NFL may have to consider forfeits instead of postponements when one team is at fault. A forfeit is fairer than simply canceling a game, which would lead to teams having unequal records and a complicated playoff race.
▪ These incidents highlight two significant holes in the NFL’s testing system. First, while players get tested six days a week, the results take about 24 hours to return, creating a gap where the virus can be spread. Tennessee linebackers coach Shane Bowen and Newton both tested positive on a test taken on a Friday morning, but Newton didn’t get his results until late Friday night, and Bowen on Saturday.
Second, the NFL and NFL Players Association have been testing six days a week, but not on game days, as they don’t want false-positive tests to pull a player or coach from the field. The last test a person takes before a Sunday 1 p.m. game is around 8 a.m. Saturday morning.
But this setup arguably contributed to the Titans' outbreak, and the NFL and NFLPA should consider game-day testing. No one on the Titans tested positive last Saturday morning, allowing them to play in their game against the Vikings. But by Monday morning, eight team members tested positive, followed by eight more throughout the week.
False positives are not uncommon — the Texans had a few pop up before last Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh and had to wake some players up at 5 a.m. — and it would be unfortunate if one mistakenly takes a player out of a game. But it still might be a better alternative than going 48 hours without testing.
▪ The fallout isn’t entirely bad, however. None of the Vikings have tested positive as of Saturday morning, which has to be considered a positive. It provides further credence to the belief that people are more likely to get the virus from a teammate than an opponent, and that games don’t contribute significantly to the spread of COVID-19.
The Falcons also didn’t have an outbreak last week, after one of their defensive backs tested positive last Saturday. The difference between the Falcons and Titans, however, was that the Titans had to go on the road. And perhaps being together in close quarters — on buses, a plane, a hotel — contributed to the virus’s spread. The NFL may have to examine its travel protocols.
The Vikings aren’t out of the clear yet, but if they can stay virus-free, it will be a good sign that the games aren’t major spreader events.
▪ The NFL was doing so well with COVID that perhaps people were getting a bit lax, like many Raiders players did in going maskless at an indoor charity event last week. But the NFL is certainly cracking down now.
The league warned coaches last week that they can be fined, suspended, or have a draft pick taken away if they don’t adhere to the sideline mask requirement. And on Friday, the NFL informed teams that all players and coaches cannot leave town during their bye week and must report for daily testing. One missed test will result in a $50,000 fine and a second missed test comes with an unpaid, one-game suspension.
▪ The Titans situation also exemplified how the virus incubates differently in each person. The initial outbreak came Tuesday, when eight Titans tested positive, and the Titans immediately shut down their facility and sent everyone home for isolation. But another Titan tested positive Wednesday, two more Thursday, two more Friday, and three more Saturday.
▪ This week, the NFL revealed its protocols for teams dealing with an outbreak or that played a team with an outbreak. It includes additional daily testing for all personnel, all meetings being done virtually, all activities being done outdoors, and mandatory masks and gloves at practice for all players and coaches (the quarterback is allowed to not wear a glove on his throwing hand).
But the NFL did not release any guidance on how long a team must keep its facility closed, and instead will treat each case separately. The Vikings were able to get back into their facility Thursday. But the Titans won’t be able to return to work until the outbreak is defeated.
▪ Lastly, it doesn’t seem right that players who test positive get publicly named, but the coaches don’t. It’s not that the NFL makes an announcement, but the player’s identity becomes known to the public when he is placed on the COVID-IR list. However, there is no such requirement for coaches, and their identity remains anonymous, unless the team or coach volunteers it.
It’s important for the NFL to be transparent about COVID-19, for public health and gambling purposes, so I don’t have a problem with the players' identities becoming public. But considering the stigma attached to the virus and the blame that some of the players are likely taking for postponing this week’s games, it seems only right that the coaches should be publicly identified, too.
ADDING IT UP
Offensive stats on record pace
Last week, I wrote about how penalties are way down from last year (especially on offense), scoring is way up, and no one is complaining about either.
The same certainly held true in Week 3, as the NFL has set several offensive records for the first three weeks of the season.
The 273 offensive touchdowns are 32 more than in any other year. The league-wide passer rating of 96.3 is a full 2 points higher than last year’s record. Completion percentage is at an all-time high (66.4), as are touchdown passes (172), completions (2,259), and offensive yards per game (769). The 51 points per game are the most in the league since 1961.
It’s not just passing and scoring numbers that have skyrocketed. NFL teams rushed for 11,640 yards in three games, the fourth most all time and most since 1979. The 4.41 yards per carry is fifth best in league history and the highest since 1958.
Offenses have never been more efficient this early in the season, either. The third-down conversion rate of 43.2 percent is the highest of all time. And teams have only committed 122 turnovers, the second fewest in the Super Bowl era (121 in 2017).
Then we get to penalties. Last year, through three weeks, the NFL saw 721 penalties, the second most of all time (733 in 2015). That’s the equivalent of 15 flags per game. The 2018 season was in the same neighborhood, with 705 penalties (14.7 per game).
But this year the penalties have plunged to 566, or 11.8 per game. The biggest cut is in offensive holding penalties, where there were 183 last year (3.8 per game) compared with just 75 this year (1.6 per game). The Patriots have gone three straight games without committing an offensive penalty, which the team says it had never accomplished in 20 seasons under Bill Belichick.
Let’s hope these trends continue. Fans tune in to watch offense, not yellow flags.
WATCHING THE CLOCK
Rivera ticks off reasons
Bill Belichick caught a little criticism two weeks ago when he didn’t use a timeout near the end of the loss to the Seahawks, and cost himself an extra play or two. But maybe wasting timeouts is now a thing in the NFL.
Washington coach Ron Rivera sat on all three of his timeouts in the second half last week as his team trailed by 11, allowing Cleveland to run the clock from 6:30 to 1:13 and seal a 34-20 win. Rivera also didn’t use any of his timeouts the previous week when trailing the Cardinals by 12 in the fourth quarter.
Rivera’s explanation? He doesn’t want his players to get hurt.
“I don’t want to expose my players to injury,” he said after the Cardinals game “We got an opportunity to learn and grow, and that’s probably, to me, a little bit more important right now than exposing our guys to getting injured in a situation like that.”
I’m sorry, but say what? You would rather lose a game than add a few plays and go for a win? It seems preposterous that an NFL head coach would have this mentality.
Certainly the odds were not in Washington’s favor for coming back, but why not try? Eleven or 12 points aren’t insurmountable deficits by any stretch.
Last week, Rivera again defended his decision not to go all out for a win.
“Once we get past a certain point, yeah [I might use my timeouts],” he said. “But right now, hey, I’m working on developing my football team. This football team is a young team that is going to learn and grow, and we’re going to learn and grow the way that I see fit for this organization.”
Talk about showing no faith in your players. It reminds me of the famous quote: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”
Is this a healthy approach?
With the NFL being all-consumed by COVID-19 this season, is it letting some of its other health and safety standards slip?
The Chargers had a bizarre incident two weeks ago, when a pregame pain-killing injection went too deep into Tyrod Taylor’s ribs and forced him out of the lineup about 30 minutes before kickoff.
The NFLPA is looking into the situation with regard to the doctor, but the Chargers should also be investigated for their handling of the injury report. Taylor, set to miss his third straight game this week, reportedly cracked his ribs in Week 1. But he didn’t appear on the injury report until the next Friday, and was listed as a full participant. If he needed a pregame injection to play, clearly this was more than a minor injury.
There also have been a couple of questionable slips in the concussion protocol. In the Week 2 Patriots-Seahawks game, I was shocked that N’Keal Harry wasn’t sent to the locker room for a concussion check after taking a hit from Quandre Diggs that earned an ejection.
Also in Week 2, Chiefs linebacker Damien Wilson took a massive hit from Justin Herbert that left him limp and wobbly, but he later returned to the game after taking a concussion test. The NFL knows that concussion symptoms often take hours or even days to develop, and it was surprising to see Wilson get back in the game so quickly.
The 0-4 Jets were an absolute disgrace Thursday night, losing at home to a previously winless Broncos team that was starting a practice-squad quarterback. Jets coach Adam Gase gets most of the heat for his team’s wretched performance, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams deserves just as much blame for putting an undisciplined unit on the field. The Jets had a whopping six personal foul penalties, all on defense. They now lead the NFL with seven roughing-the-passer penalties, out of just 23 called league-wide. It’s remarkable to see how poorly coached the Jets are this season . . . Before the season started, a Houston-Minnesota matchup in Week 4 looked like a potentially great game between playoff-bound teams. Instead, it’s the Desperation Bowl, with both teams sitting at 0-3 and Sunday’s game serving as a de facto elimination game. The 1992 Chargers are the only 0-4 team to make the playoffs in NFL history . . . Assuming Herbert (22 years old) starts for the Chargers on Sunday, his matchup against Tom Brady (43) will mark the first time since at least 1950 that a game has a 20-year age gap in quarterbacks. Brady had 19-year gaps in facing Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones the last two years . . . Speaking of Brady, Robert Kraft had an interesting quote about whether Bill Belichick didn’t want to keep Brady this year: “I think it probably goes two ways.” That quote is from a new 12-part podcast, “The G.O.A.T: Tom Brady,” hosted by sportswriter Gary Myers . . . The Saints carry a 12-game October win streak into Sunday’s game. The Patriots' last October loss came in Week 4 of 2017 to some quarterback named Cam Newton . . . The Patriots are getting CBS’s No. 3 crew of Kevin Harland and Trent Green for their Week 5 game against Denver, marking the first time all season that they aren’t getting a national TV game and a network’s No. 1 crew . . . John Elway’s search for a quarterback has become quixotic, Thursday’s win notwithstanding. Brett Rypien became the ninth quarterback to start a game for the Broncos since Peyton Manning retired after the 2016 Super Bowl. That’s the most in the NFL in that time, and their collective QBR entering Thursday’s game was 44, the worst in the NFL. Elway committed roster malpractice this year by putting too much faith in an unproven Drew Lock, and not surrounding him with any accomplished veterans.