The NFL’s COVID odyssey

The NFL was the only major sports league in North America to start a season in 2019 and finish it in 2020 without delays or postponements. When the coronavirus pandemic rocked the sports world back in March, the NFL was just beginning its usual six-month offseason.

Unbelievably, this very same league sat back and watched every other pro sports league experiment with transportation limitations and even “bubbles” where all teams stay in one place. And guess what? It worked!

The NBA and NHL successfully completed their restarts and crowned their champions earlier this month with ZERO positive COVID-19 tests. That’s about 10,000 people combined from those two leagues. Not a single player, coach, trainer, referee or staff member got infected by the virus while the NBA operated at Disney World near Orlando and the NHL had two separate bubbles in Canadian cities. (Edmonton and Toronto)

Sure, the MLB had their hiccups early in the season, most notably with the Marlins and the Cardinals, but they saw the bubble was a tremendous success in the other leagues, so after the Wild Card games, they decided to play out the rest of the postseason in what I like to call “mini-bubbles” in San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston and Arlington. The MLB will even allow fans to attend the NLCS and World Series games in Arlington at about 25 percent capacity.

So the NFL sees all of this success with the bubble ideas across multiple sports, and they didn’t do much with it outside of the obvious testing protocols, which took a while to get straightened out. All they did was cancel the preseason and the Hall of Fame Game.

Now look, I don’t expect a football bubble to be successful like other sports bubbles because football teams are the largest teams in all of sports. With the NFL, we’re talking 32 teams with 53 players each, plus coaches and other staff members. You don’t need a bachelor’s degree in mathematics to know that that’s a lot of people you would have to keep in check during a pandemic in order to play football. They’d probably have to occupy an entire state for a bubble to realistically work.

However, the individual NFL teams and players definitely could’ve done a better job of enforcing these new rules. The league issued a list of game-day safety protocols a week before the season even started. There’s no excuse as to why three head coaches decided not to follow the protocol and consistently be unmasked on the sidelines. Not only do you put your players in harm, you cost your organization $250K and you get fined $100K.

That was week two though. The coaches got their memos, and they’re masked up now. Everything was fine… until one of the coaches for the Tennessee Titans busted out a positive test the day before their game in Minnesota. The news didn’t break about that particular test until the day after the game. Next thing you know, the Titans have 24 total positive tests within their organization in the next two and a half weeks.

That was the moment the chaos began for the NFL. They took the risk of not implementing travel restrictions for games or shortening the season, and now there are huge question marks about how teams impacted by the virus will finish a 16-game season on time.

The first big schedule change the NFL made was pushing the Titans’ game against the Steelers from week four to week seven. That was a fairly convenient move. Just push a couple games back, pull a couple games forward, give a few teams unexpected bye weeks and there you go.

If only it was that simple. After the Titans had their outbreak, the Patriots had a couple of positive tests that made the convenient schedule change short-lived. The NFL has to postpone games if a team keeps getting positive tests within their organizations. We are only five weeks into the season, and ten teams already have had modifications to their schedules because they or their upcoming opponent has an outbreak.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee’s next opponent prior to their outbreak, were given an unexpected week four bye. Their original bye week was four weeks later in week eight. That goes to show that there will be some unfair things happening with the scheduling if teams don’t keep themselves in check during this pandemic. The Steelers were practicing for the Titans game in the middle of the week, and half of their week off was wasted by now-meaningless practices.

As a fan, I think it’s kind of fun to have Monday night doubleheaders and football games on Tuesday nights, but seriously, how much more schedule flexing can the NFL afford before things get really ugly? Who knows? All the league can do is double down on the protocols and pray that the players and coaches listen.

They can’t say they didn’t know about anything because they had months to take notes from other sports leagues. Just like the MLB, hopefully this early-season mayhem serves as a wake-up call for everybody in the NFL to stay on top of their protocols and stay as safe as possible. Going into November, they seem to be more efficient.

The outbreaks have been somewhat kept to a minimum. Teams that hadn’t had COVID-19 issues like the Packers, Cardinals and Ravens are starting to have players test positive, but instead of a full-blown outbreak, those teams have only had about a few people infected.

That’s a good sign for the NFL. If someone tests positive, get them out immediately so it doesn’t spread to others. Going into week nine, they seem to be on the right track, but only time will tell how long they can keep this up.