As of Tuesday morning, it appeared that the NFL had cracked the code on COVID-19. By Tuesday night, the vibe became much different and darker, with the league’s ability to stage 48 regular-season games seeming to be the product of luck as much as anything else.
That luck ran out with the news of a shutdown of the Titans’ facility, eventually culminating in the postponement of Sunday’s game between Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Even if the game is played later in the year (and there’s currently no reason to think it won’t be), the situation underscores the reality that the challenges and inequities of the 2020 season will entail circumstances far more meaningful than whether fans attend games.
Throw in the stupidity exhibited by Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and multiple teammates on Monday night at a crowded indoor event with no masks in sight, and it’s somewhat amazing that only one game has been derailed as the first quarter of the season concludes.
The developments of the last two days bring certain facts into clear focus. Setting aside anyone’s beliefs regarding whether masks work or whether COVID-19 is a disease that kills only the elderly and the infirm, the NFL’s procedures are clear: If enough players and non-players on a given team test positive, games won’t be played as scheduled. Eventually, some games won’t be played at all.
This will mean, for the players, lost game checks. (As recently noted, Carr loses more than $1.1 million for each game the Raiders play, making his Monday night foolishness even more foolish.) For the league, it will mean having to determine playoff positioning based on teams that played a different number of games. A team that goes 9-6 and misses a game due to an outbreak, for example, likely will qualify for the playoffs over a 9-7 team. And a bye week could go to a team that finishes 12-3 over a team that played all 16 games and finished 12-4.
While there’s no way to ensure with certainty that outbreaks won’t happen, recent events underscore the importance of following all protocols when in the facility, when traveling to road games, and when standing on the sidelines. Too many games have featured too many images of coaches and other sideline personnel wearing masks in haphazard fashion; that must end, with or without threatened suspensions or forfeited draft picks by the league office.
And when the workday ends, all team employees should go straight home and stay there. No exceptions. No excuses. No whining, as Carr did on Wednesday, about his wife wanting to go out to dinner.
Is it a sacrifice? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely, especially when the only other alternative becomes establishing mini-bubbles for each team, with players staying at a hotel and not going home until the season is over.
Frankly, the NFL and NFL Players Association would be wise to begin talking about the possibility of shifting to a bubble approach in every city. As this week has proven, things can go haywire quickly. Given the money that’s at stake for the owners and the players if games aren’t played, it could be the only way to keep the season on track, to ensure that all games are played, and to guarantee that the playoff tree will be based on teams that played a full 16-game season.