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Postponing Patriots-Broncos game was necessary to avoid an NFL player revolt

Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said players are “trying to figure out who has our best interest in mind.”
Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said players are “trying to figure out who has our best interest in mind.”Steven Senne/Associated Press

Postponing the Patriots-Broncos game that was supposed to take place Monday evening was not ideal for the NFL.

It takes a wrecking ball to the league’s schedule. The domino effect of having to move just one game is maddening — a total of eight games had to be moved around, affecting six other teams.

Yet postponing Patriots-Broncos to next Sunday was the only decision for the NFL to make if it wanted to avoid a player revolt.

A noticeable whiff of rebellion has been in the air this past week. With the Titans experiencing an outbreak that infected at least 24 people and the Patriots having to fly to Kansas City to play a game just two days after a significant portion of the team was exposed to Cam Newton, NFL players are starting to question the league’s protocols and the executives making the decisions.

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The Patriots are upset they were forced to play last Monday night against Kansas City. The Broncos are upset they practiced all last week and won’t get a true bye week. The Titans have lost faith in the testing system. The Dolphins, Jets, Jaguars, and Chargers want to know why their schedules were likely blown up by a Patriots-Broncos game that had nothing to do with them.

And it’s not just the NFL league office drawing raised eyebrows. The NFL Players Association, which has had equal say in developing the league’s protocols, isn’t inspiring confidence from the players, either. Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said he has been his team’s voice on recent NFLPA conference calls, “trying to figure out who has our best interest in mind.”

“The people that don’t have to walk in our building — whether it is the league office, whether it is the NFLPA — they don’t care,” McCourty said Saturday, before the Patriots game was postponed. “For them, it is not about our best interest, or our health and safety. It is about, ‘What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good, looks good, and how can we go out there and play games?’ ”

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The Patriots took several extra precautions in their trip to Kansas City: They flew there the day of the game; they put the 20 people exposed to Newton on a separate plane and distanced them; Bill Belichick wore two masks during the game.

Yet playing the game just two days after 20 people were exposed to Newton was madness, especially considering that the Titans’ outbreak was possibly aided by a plane trip to Minnesota.

Despite the precautions, the Patriots were still crammed together in a small visitors’ locker room, in which the only modification was plexiglass shields in between the stalls. The Patriots were still breathing all over each other all day. Who knows how many players had the virus incubating in their system that night?

“If you get a chance to talk to the NFL or the NFLPA, we would greatly appreciate you bringing up that point and letting them know,” McCourty said. “[Those] were the same questions we were asking our union before we headed out there. But you guys saw, we took off, and we played in the game, and we came back.”

Sure enough, the Patriots announced Wednesday Stephon Gilmore had tested positive, throwing Week 5 into flux and leaving everyone nervous that the Patriots would be the second team to experience an outbreak.

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Belichick was asked Thursday if he had wished the NFL hadn’t played the Patriots-Chiefs game Monday. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either.

“There’s a lot of decisions and things out of our control,” he said.

It is unclear if the Patriots forced the NFL’s hand into postponing the Broncos game. But I was told that Belichick has been proactive and engaged on conference calls with the NFL in the past week. And McCourty speaks for a lot of the players in the locker room. When a report from ESPN emerged Sunday morning that the NFL still hoped to play Patriots-Broncos Monday night, left tackle Isaiah Wynn tweeted, “Caught up in the rapture,” and running back James White tweeted a pondering emoji and a stink eye.

The NFL ultimately postponed the game shortly after 9 a.m. Sunday, before more players could speak out.

The Patriots aren’t the only ones questioning the NFL and NFLPA. The Broncos weren’t too pleased to learn that they were now being given a bye week even though they practiced all last week.

“Injuries at an all-time high and our bye week was burned up with practices,” tweeted safety Justin Simmons, a Boston College product.

The collective bargaining agreement states “players will be given a minimum of four consecutive days off” on a bye week, and that this period “must include a Saturday and a Sunday.” Either the Broncos will be forced to take off days this week as they prepare to play the Patriots, or they simply won’t get off days. Neither is ideal. It is unclear if the NFLPA will fight for the Broncos to get days off.

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The Titans also aren’t too thrilled with the NFL’s testing protocols. Of course, the Titans perhaps shouldn’t be complaining publicly, given that the players are being investigated for holding practices on their own, which may have contributed to their outbreak.

But some major cracks have surfaced in the testing program — most notably, the 18-to-24-hour lag time between taking a test and getting the result. This lag resulted in a Titans coach potentially infecting several people two weeks ago and resulted in Newton potentially spreading it to his teammates last weekend.

The testing results also have been inconsistent.

“The fact that we had guys with no symptoms testing positive, and we had guys with full-blown symptoms getting consecutive negative tests on multiple days, was really eye-opening,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “Unfortunately, really probably lost some faith in the testing system just through everything we’ve been through over the past week and a half.”

Too many players around the league are starting to question if the NFL’s commitment to safety is genuine or just public relations. And too many players are starting to wonder if they were truly given the full picture when the NFL and NFLPA apprised them of their plans in August.

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“We’re trying to continue to push the envelope to hold everybody accountable and make sure that they have our best interest in mind,” McCourty said.

The NFL needed to postpone the Patriots-Broncos game, even if it took a sledgehammer to the schedule. Holding the game could have led to a full-blown player rebellion.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.