Here is a new motto for the NFL’s 2020 season, though it’s not one that will sell too many jerseys or hats: “Don’t hold your breath.”
Don’t plan your big life events around the NFL schedule or count on attending a game this fall. Don’t worry too much if your favorite team isn’t having a good season, or if your fantasy team is struggling, or who is going to win the Super Bowl or MVP this year.
It’s all tenuous at best, given the current realities of the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 is one opponent the NFL can’t game plan for. It is wild, unpredictable, and will wreck everything in an instant.
The NFL is learning that the hard way this weekend. Even with a multimillion-dollar system of daily testing (six days a week), and social-distancing measures, and masks, and wearing contact tracing devices, and frequent disinfecting, the NFL had to postpone two games in Week 4 due to COVID-19.
The Patriots-Chiefs game, one of the premier games of the NFL season and a massive ratings-grabber for CBS, had to be postponed until Monday or Tuesday (at the earliest) once Cam Newton was notified late Friday night that he had tested positive. And the Titans-Steelers game had to be pushed back to Week 7 after the Titans suffered a full-blown outbreak, with 18 players and staffers testing positive over an eight-day span.
Football is a fun diversion for the time being, but don’t count on it being a consistent entertainment option between now and February. And the 2020 season will likely go down as one giant asterisk. Sure, the Chiefs and Patriots may play Tuesday. But will anyone take it as legitimate if (when) Brian Hoyer starts instead of Newton? Will anyone be impressed by a Super Bowl champion who may win its trophy not by being the best team, but by being the team least affected by COVID-19?
The NFL will still try to squeeze the Patriots-Chiefs game into this week, but it would be incredibly risky. Although no Patriots players tested positive in follow-up tests Saturday, the typical incubation period is five days, according to the CDC. The Titans discovered that last week, when they closed their team facility and sent everyone home Tuesday but had positive tests pop up Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
Even if the Patriots continue to pass tests Sunday and Monday, the last thing the NFL should do is pack up the Patriots and keep them in close quarters in an airplane, hotel, and buses for 48 hours. Instead, the Patriots should get the week off, and they should use the next eight days to get healthy and ready for the Week 5 game against the Broncos.
There is no obvious fix for rescheduling Patriots-Chiefs, other than massively redrawing the schedule, or creating extra weeks at the end of the season. The easiest solution may also be the most prudent — simply canceling the game.
The NFL certainly doesn’t want a situation where teams are playing different numbers of games. Sorting out the playoff field won’t be easy when some teams have only played 14 games, and other teams have only played five division games, and so on.
But those are small potatoes. All that really matters is playing as many games as possible, and getting to the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 in Tampa. If it takes an unequal schedule to get there, so be it. Instead of focusing on the number of games lost, the NFL should be grateful for every game that gets played.
Frankly, it’s a miracle that it took this long for COVID-19 to wreck the schedule. Newton, believe it or not, is the first Patriots player to go on the COVID-IR list since testing began July 27. Training camp and the first three weeks of the season went so well that it looked like the NFL had figured out how to manage COVID-19.
But it was just a fortunate start, as we have quickly learned.
The one thing you can count on right now is that these COVID-19 scares are probably going to happen more frequently. It’s only Week 4, with 13 weeks to go (and then a month of playoffs). The weather is only going to get colder, and the pandemic is only going to get worse, according to most experts.
There will probably be some calls for the NFL to transition to a bubble scenario, where each team moves into a hotel and cuts itself off from the outside world. But it doesn’t seem plausible to ask hundreds of players and employees to leave their families for a three- or four-month stretch. That wasn’t part of the deal when the NFL presented its plan to players in July and gave them the option of opting out.
Instead, the NFL will just have to forge ahead and keep fingers crossed that the positive cases don’t turn into full-blown outbreaks.
The NFL also probably needs to tighten up its testing procedures. There currently is about a 24-hour lag between testing and getting results. And with no testing on game day, everyone goes about 48 hours between tests from Saturday to Monday. Those lags likely contributed to the Titans' outbreak. And we’re still in wait-and-see mode to determine if Newton ended up infecting other Patriots on Friday.
It certainly was worth a shot for the NFL and NFL Players Association to try to play the 2020 season amid the pandemic. There are billions of dollars and thousands of careers at stake. The NFL and NFLPA treated COVID-19 with the respect it deserves, spending millions on their testing system and fining coaches $100,000 for not wearing masks. And the country needs distractions like pro football to take our minds off the increasingly maddening world outside.
But don’t hold your breath over the NFL completing its season on schedule. Just enjoy whatever football we do get, because it may not be much.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.