Decades from now, football historians will talk about this NFL season the way folks today talk about Major League Baseball during World War II.
Wait, you mean the St. Louis Browns were in the 1944 World Series? And they played the Cardinals? And every game was played in the same ballpark?
People will look at the 2020 NFL season and wonder how it was that the Patriots postponed games three times in eight days in October. Why did they fly to Kansas City, play a game, and come home on the same night? Why did they start Brian Hoyer at quarterback? Why did they go almost a whole week without reporting for practice at Gillette Stadium?
At this hour, everybody knows why. This is the season of COVID-19. A global pandemic has impacted the games we love the same way it has changed the way we work, travel, worship, and socialize.
The NHL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball have been dealing with the coronavirus since March and it looks as if all three sports are going to complete a semblance of a season.
The NFL had it relatively easy. Super Bowl 54 was played just over a month before everything changed in America. While hockey, basketball, and baseball scrambled to cobble something together, it was business as usual for the NFL. The free agency period and the draft came and went the way they always do. The NFL schedule came out and all the season openers were played on schedule. There were no “bubbles” and some of the franchises were able to play games in front of fans.
Now COVID-19 has emerged as a threat to everything the Shield holds dear: a full 16-game schedule; fair bye week; a normal playoff season and, of course, the festival of gluttony that is the Super Bowl, which is scheduled to be played Feb. 7, 2021.
Pretty soon, maybe this week, the NFL will acknowledge that the virus is going to prevent our Sports Industrial Complex from Having It All. Some adjustments are going to have to be made. The league for the past two weeks has been tossing sand bags into the onrushing wave of COVID-19. Check out the schedule changes forced by the Patriots-Broncos postponement. It will make your skull implode.
Let’s not forget the situation in Tennessee, where the 3-0 Titans had 24 confirmed COVID-19 positives as of Sunday afternoon. Incredibly, the Titans are still supposed to play the 4-0 Bills Tuesday in Nashville. That’ll probably be changed by the time you read this.
Patchwork scheduling and bye-week maneuvering is not a sustainable model. The center will not hold. The NFL may have to hit the pause button. Maybe the coveted 16-game schedule will have to be shortened. Maybe the almighty Super Bowl should be moved back a few weeks. Every other sport has acquiesced to the virus. Time for the NFL to face reality.
We’ve watched a slow bleed from Foxborough in the last eight days. First Cam Newton tested positive. Then Bill Murray went on the COVID-19 reserve list. Then Stephon Gilmore tested positive after he got back from Kansas City. Now defensive lineman Byron Cowart.
To his credit, Bill Belichick has demonstrated remarkable flexibility, even compassion. A guy who plans his entire year in advance is acknowledging he is going "hour by hour.'' The Hoodie canceled practice Friday, when he could have made his players come to the facility. It seems he is sincerely guided by player safety.
But we really don’t know anything and new media restrictions encourage confusion and speculation. It’s harder than ever to take the pulse of the locker room.
It looked to me as if the Pats telegraphed things clearly Saturday, when we still thought they were going to play Monday at home vs. Denver. Saturday is when Jason McCourty said "They [NFL] don’t care'' about the health of the players, adding "It’s gonna be up to us.'' Later that day, the Pats issued an injury report in which Jason’s twin brother, Devin, a Patriot captain, was listed as not having participated in Saturday’s practice, with the unusual cause listed as "not injury related.'' An uninjured Devin McCourty was listed as “questionable” for Monday’s game.
It looked like a red flag to these cynical eyes.
At some point, NFL players are not going to go along with a league that insists on playing its full schedule in the middle of a pandemic. Players had a chance to opt out over the summer and eight Patriots chose to sit. For the players that are still here, the only leverage is a wildcat strike — something maybe the Patriots players wish they considered before they went to Kansas City (two planes — one for the guys exposed to Newton, and one for everybody else) last Monday.
This being pro sports, this being the NFL, Sunday’s postponement of Patriots-Broncos was viewed by many as gamesmanship. Some Broncos players complained that the Patriots just wanted extra time because New England did not practice most of this week and probably would be without Newton and Gilmore. Swell.
I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t view this latest postponement through the lens of competitive edge.
The arrogant NFL needs to stop its presidential pretending that COVID-19 is a mere nuisance that might change the date of the sacred Super Bowl. It’s more than that. It’s about the health and safety of the players and their families. The virus has plans that Roger Goodell cannot control.