What gets you, what really irritates you, about the NFL’s attempts to play during the COVID-19 pandemic, is how its leaders had every advantage to get this right, and still tripped over their own arrogance well short of the end zone.
The NFL had, at minimum, a five-month grace period to figure out how to best proceed without endangering its players and personnel while also constructing a schedule with a little bit of built-in wiggle room for the inevitability of positive tests for the virus.
Rather than watching the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball, which all had to deal with this much sooner, to figure out what protocols and procedures worked and what didn’t, the NFL essentially put its head down to try and plow through the pandemic like it was 1958 Jim Brown trampling some 205-pound linebacker.
A 16-game schedule. No extra bye weeks built in for flexibility. Business as usual. The shield will protect us. Plow ahead.
One problem. One major, oh-so-predictable, problem. The NFL forgot that the virus doesn’t adapt for anyone. And in all of its pompous determination to plow ahead, the approach suddenly is about as effective as 1994 Marion Butts.
The NFL schedule has collapsed into itself, with more chaos almost certainly assured in the coming weeks. The Patriots-Broncos game, originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon, then Monday night, and now next Sunday as the team’s COVID-19 case count has reached four, is one domino, but it has already knocked over a couple of others.
The Patriots lose their bye week next week now that they must play the Broncos. This week, during which they prepared under trying circumstances, is now their bye. The Broncos also lose their bye week down the road. It was scheduled for Week 8, but they’re now playing the Chargers then. The Dolphins, who were supposed to play the Broncos next Sunday, will now play them in Week 11, losing their bye week.
Overall, on Sunday the NFL announced eight schedule changes affecting eight different teams, without adding any extra space in the schedule. And none of those changes involved the Titans, the team with far and away the most positive COVID-19 cases. The NFL schedule is becoming so convoluted and complex that if Will Hunting saw it written out on a whiteboard, he’d abandon trying to figure it out and get on with his janitorial duties.
The logistics become even more complex when television and the requirements of the league’s broadcast rights holders are taken into account. Consider the circumstances of the Patriots-Broncos game this week. Thursday night, for reasons that didn’t totally make sense — an extra 24 hours or so wouldn’t make much difference in the incubation period for the virus — the league announced it was moving the game from late Sunday afternoon on CBS to Monday night on ESPN.
While such a move didn’t have a significant effect on the advertising aspect of the business — the networks don’t sell advertising based on specific matchups, but rather on the windows the game airs in, so CBS was fine with airing Cowboys-Giants at 4:25 p.m. Sunday in the national window instead — it does have a major effect on the people involved.
The broadcast teams and production crews typically find out their assignments a couple of weeks in advance. But the chaos with the schedule adds so many layers to that. For instance, Kevin Harlan and Trent Green were set to call the Patriots-Broncos game for CBS. When it got moved, much of the CBS crew was already in Foxborough preparing for it, but ended up with no game to broadcast this weekend.
ESPN got word between 6 and 8 p.m. Thursday that it was getting the game. When it was announced by the NFL around 8:30 p.m., Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit hadn’t even been approached about calling the game yet. ESPN’s top college football pairing did earn excellent reviews for calling the first game (Raiders-Giants) of a “Monday Night Football” doubleheader to open the season — the first NFL game they had called — and they were the logical choice for the Patriots-Broncos assignment.
They got it, but the short notice left them little prep time, especially since they also had the call of the Miami-Clemson game Saturday night. After that game, Fowler, Herbstreit, and the crew flew to Boston, arriving at 2 a.m. At 9 a.m. Sunday morning, they found out the game was postponed again, and the trip was for naught.
The adjustments broadcasters have to make is a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but it does help demonstrate just how many variables and effects there are relative to the NFL’s decision-making as it tries to cram in a regular schedule into its usual parameters.
It would have been so easy for the NFL to build in a couple of extra weeks to the schedule — I suggested a 20-week schedule with three byes, to allow for unforeseen circumstances while also giving the players built-in extra recuperation time after not having anything resembling a normal build-up to the season.
And it wouldn’t be that difficult to adjust now, to at least add an 18th week. But instead, it lurches ahead cynically, just as it always does. The Patriots shouldn’t have had to board a plane and head to Kansas City last week after Cam Newton’s positive test, when there wasn’t enough incubation time to tell whether other Patriots were affected. Patriots-Chiefs was the marquee game of perhaps the season, and the NFL 's priority was to play on, to hoard those fat TV ratings for CBS.
They shouldn’t have had to think about playing this week, either, after Stephon Gilmore tested positive and Bill Murray was added to the COVID list. It was only Sunday, when word broke that Byron Cowart had tested positive and rumors had long since been percolating that Patriots players were having second thoughts about playing, that the league acquiesced and moved the game again.
Maybe the league will get its wish, and this time it will go off without a hitch. But the NFL still hasn’t allowed for any extra space between those dominoes, and only the most arrogant of fools wouldn’t expect more to fall. Another week or two of the business-as-usual approach, and the question won’t be about how to further rework the schedule, but whether there will be one at all.