Think of the remainder of the NFL’s regular season like a massive Jenga game, the thick wooden blocks representing each of the 179 games still to be played over the next 12 weeks.
Any time a game is postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak, its block gets removed. Pull one out, and the structure will hold. Pull two or three out, one right after the other, and it will probably be fine so long as there’s a clear, deliberate plan for how to do it.
But pulling out four or five? Or, as November becomes December, having to pull out two or three blocks each week? That’s when it gets dicey, with the whole thing likely to come crumbling down.
“If there is one consistent theme to our season, it is flexibility and adapting,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday. “Flexibility is going to be critical. We evaluate, obviously, as many different areas that we think will be at least helpful. Fortunately, we haven’t had to use many of the things that we have discussed and thought about.
“But we will have flexibility to be able to be able to complete our season for the Super Bowl,” Goodell continued. “That’s the goal. We are all focused on that.”
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Successful as bubbles were for the NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLS and NWSL in this age of COVID-19, that was never going to work for the NFL. Not when there are 32 teams, each of which would bring almost 100 people when including players, the practice squad, coaches and other personnel.
That hasn’t changed, and it won’t until the playoffs. If then.
Which means the NFL has no choice but to live with COVID-19, and trust that its protocols will prevent further outbreaks like the one that scrambled schedules the past two weekends. Or, more than likely, at least limit them.
The NFL announced this week that, in addition to rapid tests on game days, it will do PCR tests. While the results take longer, roughly a day, they are more accurate, and the NFL hopes this will enable it to identify infected players sooner. When someone does test positive, anyone determined through tracing to be a “high-risk” close contact must isolate for a minimum of five days.
That should eliminate the scenarios that happened in both Tennessee and New England, where games were postponed after close-contact players were allowed to stay with the team because they had tested negative. Until they didn’t. By which point, it was too late.
“We continue to expect to have some positive cases,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. “But our goal is to really mitigate those. To make sure a campfire does not turn into a forest fire.”
And if it does?
The NFL has already forced the Titans, Steelers, Patriots and Broncos to burn their byes earlier than the schedule initially called for. The Packers and Lions had their byes last week, and the Raiders, Seahawks, Chargers and Saints will have theirs this week. That’s almost a third of the league’s teams, which removes a lot of the wiggle room in the schedule.
Here’s where COVID-19 actually helps. Unlike the Patriots with their two AirKrafts, most teams don’t have their own planes. Instead, they rely on charters, which are normal planes an airline has pulled out of its rotation for a day or two.
“If those dates change, you need to contact the airline. Because the airline has to pull that plane out of its rotation,” said Amy Trask, who spent 30 years with the Raiders, the last 16 as their CEO. “That’s going to be a lot easier right now when not many people are flying. At a time when planes are packed, it’s tough to pull a plane out of rotation.”
Same for having to cancel and rebook hotel rooms.
“It’s just work that needs to be done. But, perspective,” Trask said. “I don’t want to overstate how hard it is because people are trying to feed their families when they don’t have money to do so, and that’s a real problem. I don’t mean to minimize the extent of these business problems. But that’s what they are, business problems.”
Should the NFL find itself at a point where it can no longer move games, there is still the option of a Week 18.
The NFL has a week off between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 7 in Tampa. That bye week hasn’t always existed, and there’s no reason the NFL can’t scrap it, push the playoffs back by a week and use that now-open week – Week 18 – to make up games.
If more than one make-up week is needed, maybe the NFL pushes the Super Bowl back. It’s not as if there will be conflicts with concerts and conventions, as there possibly would be other years.
In the absolute worst-case scenario, the NFL could conceivably scrap irrelevant games down the stretch. Major League Baseball did this with a handful of games, and Goodell warned teams before the season began that competitive imbalances might be unavoidable because of the pandemic.
Even if the NFL is forced to cancel some games, it shouldn’t cause problems with broadcast partners, said Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports. While Pilson, who now has his own consulting firm, hasn’t seen the current contracts, he said networks consider “exposures,” rather than games.
Fox might broadcast four games in the early time slot Sunday, for example, but different parts of the country see different games. So long as Fox still has a game or two to put in that window, Pilson said it likely will be satisfied.
Plus, the relationships the NFL has with its broadcast partners go back decades – and will continue for the foreseeable future. No one is going to put that at risk, especially during a pandemic.
“There are long relationships, a lot of money involved, and ongoing discussions about the future,” Pilson said. “They all induce the parties to accommodate each other. And they will.”
But the NFL insists the goal is still to play its full schedule, with the regular season wrapping up Jan. 3. And if not, Trask said she has no doubt there are whiteboards in the league offices with contingency plans – and options for all of them.
For those who doubt that the NFL can pull it off, Trask laughed. The same was said about a virtual draft, and it wound up being a huge hit.
“I thought the league pulled the draft off magnificently because they were adaptive,” she said. “And right now, the league has to keep an open mind to everything.”
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