The Patriots are virtual, but the Broncos are practicing. The Titans are idle, so the Bills are waiting. The Steelers are smarting, and the league is listening.
Football is spiraling, and only the next few days will tell us how deep the NFL’s problems will go.
But no matter what the solutions are to this week’s pandemic-induced problems, whether games such as the Patriots’ rescheduled Monday night date with Denver are postponed, whether Tennessee is forced to forfeit its game with Buffalo — now scheduled for Tuesday — a week after being unable to play against Pittsburgh, everything feels like a temporary fix.
The cracks in the NFL’s return-to-play plan are starting to show, and no matter how many fingers are being plugged into dams across the league, the threat of a deluge remains. From coaches to players to fans, uncertainty continues to creep in about how, or even if, this season can reach its intended conclusion in a fair and safe manner.
If that’s the case, how much should we be investing in a season heading into potential oblivion?
You could hear the concern in the voice of the unflappable Bill Belichick Thursday, when the Patriots’ 68-year-old coach addressed reporters for the first time since Stephon Gilmore joined Cam Newton on the COVID-19 positive list. Belichick, speaking on a conference call, cited his players’ health and well-being in opting for virtual meetings Thursday despite a reported full slate of negative tests that morning. His opening comments spoke for us all.
“Obviously, I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” he said, “I have a lot of questions, we all have questions, and this is really more of a medical situation than a football situation, so we will work through the decisions and input from the people in the medical field — a combination of Patriots and league, and people that know the situation, know the virus and the specific circumstances that are involved here, both in the past and going forward.
“So, it’s not really something I’m going to be able to give much insight on. Again, we have a lot of questions on our end, but for right now, yesterday and today, we are closed and we are going to work virtually to prepare for Denver and just take it day by day. That’s really about the best I can give you — about really all there is, to tell you the truth.”
The NFL is trying its best to contain these viral spreads, knowing from the opening of its virtual training camps that positive tests would be inevitable, that containment would be paramount. The plan to keep playing was always predicated on following protocols, by following medical advice, by depending on proper behavior of every player and team employee. So far, evidence doesn’t show the Patriots as having done anything but, with Belichick defending their adjustments for Monday night’s rescheduled game, including the same-day travel and the separate planes based on contact tracing.
But as we’ve learned over the past few days, the same is not true for the Titans, who reportedly held some group workouts off site, or even before that with the Raiders, where various players attended a teammate’s charity function and did not wear face coverings while indoors.
Players around the league are rightfully angry, starting with the Steelers.
When Pittsburgh had its game against the Titans postponed, it forced the bye week to be moved up, leaving the Steelers with 13 straight games scheduled into the playoffs. For a veteran team with an old quarterback that has designs on a Super Bowl run, it’s no wonder said senior citizen Ben Roethlisberger complained Wednesday his team had gotten “the short end of the stick.”
I admit that at first, I thought Big Ben was being cranky and stubborn at a time when we all need patience and flexibility, but if the Titans are now forced to forfeit as punishment and the Bills get a walkover win, he’s right. How is that fair?
The NFL always has been predicated on parity, on competitive balance in a way that separates it from its fellow major sports. Where baseball can handle a different total in number of games and base its standings on winning percentage, the NFL needs to have every team play the same number of games. And if it ends up extending the season to allow for more bye weeks and makeup dates, if it somehow decides that a 14-game season for everyone is the ultimate solution, it also has to maintain equitable division schedules to determine playoff teams.
It’s a major puzzle, and right now, it feels like the pieces are scattered hither and yon. I don’t blame Belichick for feeling uncomfortable at the mercy of decisions he can’t control. And I understand why he gave an uncharacteristic answer when pressed Thursday about what he may have told the NFL is the minimum amount of in-person time his team would need to be ready to play.
“I’ll let the league speak on that so that way it doesn’t get taken out of context,” he said.
I was suddenly reminded of the weeks leading up to the league’s virtual draft, when expressions of doubt about the timing and wisdom of holding the event were quashed in a letter from commissioner Roger Goodell that threatened fines for public disagreement. Belichick certainly isn’t known for his public candor, but surely he has a number in mind. He wouldn’t share that, but he did share the sentiment we are all feeling now. Is there any way the Patriots can reasonably expect to play, even on Monday?
“Those are all the questions that we are asking, and again, we are relying on doctors and the people in that field to take everything under advisement,” he said. “Really, these aren’t football decisions. These are medical decisions. So, in terms of medical decisions, those fall to medical people. Football decisions fall to football people. And so we will see how it goes. Where we are today, I don’t think we can really plan too far ahead to start talking about Saturday, Sunday, a bunch of other days.”
Many questions, not many answers.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.