It is possible, even likely, that the NFL will have to employ at least one of its contingency plans for COVID-19 this season.
It’s only Week 6, but 11 games already have had to be rescheduled after an outbreak with the Titans and positives with the Patriots. The Falcons shut down their facility Thursday after a positive test, putting Sunday’s game against Minnesota in doubt.
NFL leaders said Tuesday that they have debated for months the viability of going to a “bubble” scenario for the regular season or playoffs. They have considered adding a Week 18 and pushing back the Super Bowl. And they have considered pressing pause on the season for a week or two.
“Frankly, it would be foolish for the NFL not to have had those contingencies being developed,” said Marc Ganis, a prominent sports business consultant who has worked with NFL teams for decades. “Of course they spend a tremendous amount of their time planning for alternatives.”
But it would be premature to make any major changes now. There is no need to extend the season until it is absolutely necessary. Having to reschedule just one game is complicated; to postpone Patriots-Broncos from Week 5 to Week 6, the NFL had to move around seven other games. But it’s still more appealing than pressing pause, or adding extra weeks, or pushing back the Super Bowl.
NFL fans should get used to the idea that the 2020 schedule is written in pencil, not pen. The bye weeks are valuable tools for switching games around, and 26 teams still have a bye week on their schedule.
“I think you’d be talking about all the alternatives and thinking about all of them, but you don’t know how [the pandemic] is going to play out,” said former NFL executive Jim Steeg, who ran the Super Bowl for 26 years and is credited with turning it into a weeklong extravaganza. “So why speculate publicly about it? It’s the old ‘don’t give me a hypothetical if I don’t have to answer it right now.’ ”
Of all the scenarios, adding an extra week to the season is the simplest and most feasible. And once teams run out of bye weeks (Week 13 is the last), the NFL almost certainly will have to tack on a Week 18, assuming it doesn’t just cancel games.
Adding a Week 18 won’t affect much else on the schedule. The only change is eliminating the bye week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, as the NFL did in 2002 after 9/11.
The downside is that if a team loses more than one game, it won’t be able to play them both in Week 18. Then the NFL has to consider whether it can squeeze in a Week 19 or has to cancel some games.
And the state of the pandemic in January is a major wild card. Who knows whether conditions will be better to play football in October or January?
“Don’t put things off for the future," Ganis said. “Get things done now.”
Pressing pause on the season is another option if the NFL has a repeat situation of multiple teams experiencing an outbreak. It could keep all 32 teams out of their facilities for a week, isolate the players, and get the virus under control. It would require eliminating the Super Bowl bye week, and possibly pushing back the Super Bowl, but could be easier than taking a sledgehammer to the schedule.
But as the Titans have shown, it’s not easy getting a large group of people to isolate for several days. The Titans tried to stay in shape by working out on their own, which may have contributed to the spread. And players and coaches aren’t living in a bubble. Sending everyone home sounds good in theory, but in reality, it could lead to an increased presence of the virus.
“Once you send everybody out, you have to do the starting process all over again,” Ganis said.
If the NFL did add extra weeks or press pause, it would have to consider pushing back the Super Bowl, currently scheduled for Feb. 7 in Tampa. And moving the big game is easier said than done. The Super Bowl is a weeklong bonanza of NFL events, parties, fan experiences, and more.
One major roadblock is hotel availability, with the NFL needing approximately 30,000 rooms. Steeg said the NFL looked into pushing back the Super Bowl in 2002, but couldn’t because another convention was scheduled for the next weekend in New Orleans
But pushing it back this season is likely more feasible because of the pandemic. Raymond James Stadium doesn’t have any events planned between February and May. And hotel vacancies are expected to be much higher.
“I don’t think there’s going to be too much going on down there the next couple of weeks after the Super Bowl,” Steeg said. “And my guess is the number of people going to a Super Bowl probably wouldn’t be as great as it would be normally.”
Super Bowl Week almost certainly will be scaled back, but the NFL is planning for full crowds at the game and at its outdoor NFL Experience.
“We may see a very different mix at the Super Bowl — maybe far less corporate and far more individuals,” Ganis said. “A lot of parties and events like that just won’t be able to take place. But [the NFL] is focused on game day and the NFL Experience, and both of those are being planned to be full occupancy.”
The final contingency that gets the most attention is moving to a “bubble,” whether it’s requiring all 32 teams to live in hotels for the rest of the season, or moving to a centralized location for the postseason, as the NBA and NHL did with great success.
The NFL has been discussing a bubble scenario since March, but for now doesn’t have the appetite for it.
“First of all, a bubble is not going to keep out all infections,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. “You still have other individuals that come in and out — workers, security, other personnel. And we’ve known from other experiences that those personnel can be infected. So simply being in a bubble doesn’t keep us safe.”
Second, a bubble is arguably worse for keeping the virus at bay. If one person gets infected, the entire bubble could be ruined.
“Infection can spread more rapidly inside a bubble if it is introduced,” Sills said. “We still have to do all these measures of mitigation, with PPE and testing.”
And third is the mental toll of living in a bubble. Asking thousands of players, coaches, staffers, and other employees to leave their families for several months is not easy. The NFL is a far larger operation than the NBA or NHL.
“Imagine being sequestered away from our families, all of our loved ones, for three, four, five months on end, especially when you talk about the holiday season,” Sills said. “That’s a really significant stress point, and I think we have to acknowledge that’s as much of a health and safety consideration as a COVID infection.”
All of these contingency plans are certainly on the table. But now is not the time to use them. The NFL still has room to move the schedule around.
“They used up some of their cushion, but there’s more cushion to be had,” Ganis said. “They haven’t exhausted all of their options yet.”