In the weeks and months preceding the 2020 season, the NFL created the impression that the reaction to players testing positive for COVID-19 would be to utter the mantra, “Next man up.” With the games now being played and issues arising (including an outbreak in Tennessee), the “next man up” shrug has yielded to teams holding their breath for the next man down.
The disconnect has become obvious. The league created maximum roster flexibility this year, with unlimited return from injured reserve after only three weeks and the ability to elevate up to 16 members of the practice squad to the 53-man roster as little as 90 minutes before kickoff.
So, in theory, a cluster of players could test positive on Saturday, the team could get the news on Sunday morning, and the team could then replace them and move on.
This perception definitely doesn’t mesh with reality. Even one positive test can cause a team to slam the brakes on everything, especially after the Titans outbreak. The situation in Nashville showed that the incubation period can keep a team and the league from realizing that there’s an outbreak until it’s too late.
That’s why teams now shut down even if there’s a presumed positive that has yet to be confirmed. That’s why the daily crop report, as leaked by Clarence Beeks to a small army of national media members between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. ET, has so much importance — but also limited relevance.
For example, the news that the Patriots haven’t had a positive in the three days since cornerback Stephon Gilmore landed on the COVID-19 reserve list doesn’t mean the Patriots are out of the woods. The incubation period takes several days; someone who was exposed to Gilmore on Monday (including Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes) could flip from negative to positive on Saturday or Sunday.
Ditto for the Jets, if the presumptive positive becomes a confirmed positive. The Raiders remain in the incubation-period window, given the placement earlier this week of defensive lineman Maurice Hurst on the COVID-19 list. The Chiefs are there. The Titans have been there for nearly two weeks.
That’s why the league continues to keep schedules tentative pending further testing in New England and Tennessee. That’s why “next man up” doesn’t work with this disease. That’s why the NFL’s confounding willingness to accept that there will be positives that can be contained must become determination to eliminate all positive tests via 32 home-market bubbles.