The NFL has handled the pandemic incredibly well through training camp. Now, the challenge changes, as half the league leaves their mini-bubbles for the first time, taking teams to other cities and hotels and stadiums.
“Based on the single-digit positive COVID-19 cases among NFL players and other personnel over the past month of testing, we are cautiously optimistic,” Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills write in a Washington Post op-ed.
The optimism is warranted. The caution is warranted, too. Over the next five months, one or more curveballs will be inevitable.
And the curveballs can come in various shapes and sizes. As it relates to the pandemic, the biggest challenge comes from the behavior of young players who may not make it five months without giving in to the various temptations that will enhance the possibility of an infection, which then could be brought to the facility or the field. As the season unfolds and teams fall out of contention, all players (specifically the younger ones) may become less vigilant.
Beyond the reality that the teams that lose the fewest players to the COVID-19 reserve list will be the teams most likely to win is the fact that a full-blown outbreak could cause games to be suspended or postponed or canceled and in theory could shut the season down.
The curveballs also can come from other places. Wildfires could force postponements or relocations of West Coast games. Social justice issues could spark a wildcat strike. The election and its aftermath could spark the kind of widespread unrest that will make it difficult if not impossible for any sporting events to happen.
Whatever the circumstances, the NFL needs to be ready to adapt on the fly. From the moment the pandemic began, the NFL has benefited from the fact that none of the various issues that could have impacted the playing of games happened during football season. That changes today, because football season is finally here, with Game No. 1 of 256 being played tonight.
How many of the next 255 are played remains to be seen. Here’s hoping that, however things play out, the league will find a way to get all games in.