The NFL finds itself in a defining moment when it comes to state of the 2020 season as it faces up to the challenges of an inevitable COVID-19 outbreak – but where does the league go from here?
It would have been naive to think this could be avoided, regardless of the success of strict training camp protocols that saw just seven players test positive between August 12 and September 19. Proceeding with the season meant accepting the very real possibility of bumps in the road.
Little under a month in, and the league has been met by its first bump.
NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills spoke in July about the fluidity of the situation and the need for the league to be adaptable as the season progressed. Well, now is the time to see that flexibility on display.
2:14 The Sky Sports NFL team discuss the feasibility of an NFL bubble.
“There’s no finish line with health and safety and I think these protocols are very much living and breathing documents, which means they will change as we gain new knowledge about this virus, as we gain new knowledge about transmission, as we gain new knowledge about testing and there are new tests and new techniques that come online,” he said.
“We very much anticipate that these protocols will change.”
The first setback arrived ahead of Week Three when Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell tested positive in the lead up to the team’s matchup with the Chicago Bears, which went ahead as scheduled.
On that Saturday it was also announced Tennessee Titans linebackers coach Shane Bowen had tested positive for the virus, meaning he was unable to make the trip to face the Minnesota Vikings.
Over 20 Titans players and personnel have tested positive since the Vikings game, resulting in the postponement of the team’s Week Four matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the closure of their practice facility since September 29.
Additional positive tests this week mean Tennessee’s clash with the Buffalo Bills, due to take place Sunday, has now been moved to Tuesday, the expected domino effect to that being the Bills’ Thursday Night Football game against Kansas City Chiefs moving to later in the weekend.
New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive on the Saturday before his side’s Week Five meeting with the Chiefs, which was subsequently rescheduled to Monday before practice squad player Bill Murray and star cornerback Stephon Gilmore both tested positive following the game.
As a result, the Patriots’ upcoming game against the Denver Broncos has been pushed back from Sunday to Monday.
2:57 A look back at the action and talking points from Week 4 of the NFL season
Again, it raises the question over how possible it would be for the NFL to match the bubble that has worked so effectively for the NBA and WNBA near Orlando.
But again, the holes are glaring. Accommodating teams in a single environment for months on end poses a logistical nightmare in regards to the size of travelling parties, which are numerically far superior to that of the NBA, WNBA or NHL.
“You’re talking about over 100 people per team, for us it’s 100 people,” said Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians.
“It’s not like basketball with 12 [players] and three coaches. It’s a totally different situation. I think guys have to make sure they stay with the commitment and be very careful of who’s visiting them for game weekends, things like that, untested.”
Another prominent obstacle is the fact that players just wouldn’t agree to it, not all of them.
The NFL doesn’t possess the NBA’s luxury of playing on consecutive nights and few players would be prepared to leave their families for up to four months.
5:57 Highlights of the New England Patriots at the Kansas City Chiefs from Week Four of the NFL
“You can pull that off for a month in training camp, but this would be another three or four months left,” said former NFL coach Rob Ryan on Sky Sports. “That would be a miracle if they could do that.
“That would be almost impossible to do because you’re taking your players away from their families for that long of a time. Hats off to what everybody was able to accomplish in training camp, that was amazing but that was one month of training camp. Now everybody gets back to their families.”
Hosting teams in a single hotel in the city of their upcoming game from Thursday to Sunday is another idea to arise, however size continues to be a factor, as does the cross-country travel and the difficulty it poses when attempting to adhere to social distancing.
“There are going to be challenges, because we have individuals cases to look at,” added former Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion Shaun Gayle. “We have the player that opted to play during the pandemic with a new child at home, one that lives with his grandparents or anything like that across the board you have to take into consideration.”
7:36 Peter King discusses the Titans COVID outbreak
Frankly, there are also things that teams and the NFL itself could do in order to boost their chances of success.
For one, non-compliance has been a clear issue. Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton were all recently fined $100,000 each, and their teams $250,000 each, for breaking rules on wearing face masks on the sidelines during games.
The NFL fined 10 Raiders players after they were seen without masks while attending a charity event, and the organisation was fined $50,000 for allowing an unauthorised employee into the locker room after their game against the Saints.
Investigations are still ongoing to determine whether the Titans violated rules that resulted in the team’s outbreak, with ESPN reporting that a group of players held a private workout at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.
It leaves the NFL to question the discipline of certain teams and individuals behind the scenes, which is unfair to those that are abiding by the rules.
4:41 NFL pundit Rob Ryan breaks down some of Cleveland’s running plays on Inside the Huddle as the Browns get set to take on the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
In truth, the Vikings coming away with zero negative tests since their game against the Titans is miraculous.
The same can be said about the Chiefs, so far, after the NFL’s head-scratching decision to go ahead with Monday’s game against the Patriots, just two days after Newton had tested positive, knowing full well how unpredictable the incubation period can be.
New England made the decision to fly to Kansas City on the morning of the game using two planes, including one for those in close contact with Newton. When you consider they were on the field together a matter of hours later, where is the logic?
It also seems bizarre that the league have only now decided to introduce game-day testing in light of the Titans outbreak. Why not from the start? Regardless of suggestions the results would not be back in time, the extra precaution was warranted.
Building on the hefty fines already seen, the league informed teams of stricter protocols earlier this week, including the threat of forfeiting games.
“Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline, including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game,” commissioner Roger Goodell stated in the memo.
If a bubble isn’t an option, extending the season may have to be.
The decision to stage the Patriots-Chiefs game, however, suggests it’s one the NFL would be reluctant to exercise unless left with no other choice.
Having already switched bye weeks in order to reschedule the Titans-Steelers game, further disruption would leave the plan to wrap up a 16-game regular season on January 3 looking unlikely.
Introducing a Week 18 and Week 19 and pushing back the playoffs as a means of fitting in 16 games apiece is a route the NFL could take. However, the dilemma that comes with that is top seeds potentially having to wait for close to a month from their final regular-season game on January 3 to play their Divisional Round matchup.
That brings it back to the question as to where the NFL lies when it comes to the balance between fairness and simply finishing the season in its entirety.
“The virus is still very much a threat not only to our season, but to the safety of everyone in our community,” added NFLPA Medical Director Dr. Thom Mayer.
With a regular season bubble deemed near impossible and the incubation period continuing to vary, the NFL hasn’t seen its last obstacle. Not even close.