The NFL likes to harp from time to time about its desire to protect and preserve the integrity of the game. Meanwhile, the ongoing pandemic is undermining the integrity of the game.
It’s a problem that continues to hide in plain sight for the NFL, which has opted for the “bad pizza is better than no pizza” approach to getting the games in. Especially since the NFL still gets paid full price for bad pizza.
But the pizza has been pretty bad lately, no worse than it was last night in New Orleans as the Saints, with more than 20 players on COVID reserve, were overpowered by the Dolphins. That said, what could the NFL have done? Postponing the game by a day wouldn’t have done much, and postponing it by two days would have dramatically reduced the ability of both teams to prepare for their Week 17 games.
The only viable alternative would be to cancel certain games, and then to determine playoff spots based on winning percentages. While far from ideal, that would be better than having contenders like the Saints add an L under circumstances where there’s no way in hell they would have won.
The Omicron variant has thrown an unexpected late-season wrench into the NFL’s gears, and the league and the union made a joint decision 10 days ago to tweak protocols with a goal toward getting the games played. But some of the games aren’t great. And some of the teams don’t really have a fair chance to win.
It’s one thing for these issues to mar the musical chairs in advance of the postseason. Once the playoffs begin, the possibility that one or more teams could be down by 10 or 15 or 20 or more players would invite the application of an asterisk to the entire season.
Still, the teams are fully aware of the situation. The ability of the contenders to keep COVID out of their buildings, and to ensure that players don’t put themselves in position to catch it away from work, will be a potentially major factor in determining which teams get to the Super Bowl. Whether it’s by keeping quarterbacks separate or persuading players to go straight home and remain in a hermetically-sealed room or nudging them to stay at a hotel for the balance of the postseason, the teams that navigate this issue will have a huge advantage — especially if facing a team that is dealing with an outbreak.