Here is a link to my rant from just over two weeks ago in case anyone wants to read it for context. I wrote this back on 14 September, just after the NFL had gone through Week 1 of the regular season, here are two excerpts from that rant:
“There were 13 NFL games yesterday – following the season opener last Thursday night – and there is some behind-the-scenes action going on today that is very important to the NFL.”
“… this week there will be testing and re-testing around the league to see if the NFL’s testing regimen to date has been sufficiently tight so as to keep the virus away from players and coaches who are involved in the games. Just as it is logical to look at an NFL game and identify it as a potential virus super spreader event, it is equally logical to look at an NFL game and assume that if no one involved has the virus to spread then there will be no spreading of the virus.”
The NFL teams/players made it through the first two weeks of the season with a minimal COVID-19 impact. Then came Week 3 and the testing after those games showed an outbreak of cases on the Tennessee Titans. According to reports, eight new positive tests came back on Tuesday (3 players and 5 staff members); the league and the players’ association are working with the testing folks to be sure these are not “false positives”. Remember, that happened earlier in the NFL ‘s testing history.
Last Sunday, the Titans played the Vikings and so it is possible that one or more of the newly detected infections might have been communicated to a member of the Vikings because epidemiologists have determined that an infected person may spread the virus before that infected person shows any symptoms of having the virus in his system. That has to be the nightmare scenario for the NFL, the players, their “broadcast partners”, fantasy team owners, Las Vegas casinos and just plain old ordinary football fans.
The NFL has responded at first by “shutting Tennessee (Titans) down until Saturday”. That directive from the league means that players, coaches and other “football people” cannot be in the Titans’ facilities. The league and the players’ union are working together on this; frankly, if there is to be any positive outcome from a 2020 football season affected by COVID-19, it could be that the league and the union learn how to work together on solving a problem without turning the process of resolution into a Texas Chain Saw/Loser Leaves Town/Death Match akin to something scripted by the WWE.
Most of the Las Vegas sportsbooks have taken the Titans/Steelers game and the Vikings/Texans game scheduled for this weekend off their boards. Many of the offshore Internet sportsbooks still have the game live on their boards, but at least one of them has taken it down. It seems to me that there are different considerations for those two games:
- Vikings/Texans: If the Vikings show no new infections after exposure to the Titans last week, you could make the case that this game might be played safely. As noted above, even though an NFL game might be seen as a potential “super-spreader event”, if there are no infected people involved in the game, there will be no spreading. Amid all the turmoil and testing, the Vikings may have lost a day or so of “normal preparation” for the game, but that is equivalent to playing a game on a “short week” so it is not an outrageous disadvantage to the team. In a so-called “abundance of caution”, the game could also be postponed; this decision is another area where the league and the union might work together to come to a joint resolution of the issue.
- Titans/Steelers: On the assumption that these 8 new infections are not “false positives”, I do not see how this game can be played this weekend. Even if all 8 of these folks are cleared to get back to football action by tomorrow, I think there would be a significant competitive disadvantage for the Titans in playing the game due to a loss of two days of preparation. There are reports that say the Titans’ coaches have alerted players that if need be, they will play on Sunday even if they have no practices for the week and only a walk-through on Saturday. I think that is a bad idea.
The NFL rules and schedules and protocols exist in large measure to assure that one team is not obviously at a disadvantage at the time of the kickoff for a game. That is an unspoken part of the league mantra that “On any given Sunday …” In the extreme scenario cited above where the Titans have no practices for the week, that would be a disadvantage at the time of kickoff that could not be “swept under the rug”. I understand that there are real reasons why the league wants to stay on schedule; the NFL is not like MLB in the sense that a postponed game can usually be made up without a lot of fanfare as a double-header – even a double-header with each game shorter than a normal game – later in the season. Consider:
- Both the Steelers and Titans are undefeated now and both could be in the mix for a playoff slot and playoff seeding come January. The NFL tiebreakers are sufficiently complex without having to add situations where two of the teams in the mix may have played one or two fewer games than the other potential playoff teams. [This assumes that the game canceled this weekend cannot be made up somewhere down the road.]
- If for some reason, both the Vikings/Texans game and the Titans/Steelers game must be postponed, that sets up a rescheduling situation that could ripple out over much of the league. I will not even try to figure out how that might be resolved; it might take “IBM Watson” to go through all the permutations and combinations of schedule options to come up with a reasonable solution here; that is well over my pay grade. Intuitively, rescheduling the Vikings/Texans game should be the more difficult task because the teams are in different conferences meaning schedule overlap becomes more complicated.
This is the sort of challenge scenario that the league and the union had hoped to avoid but one that someone had to have planned for. We will never know all of what is not taking place – and will take place over the next few days – inside whatever they are calling the COVID-19 Command Center. What we will be able to do is to judge how effective the actions taken yesterday and in the next several days are in the preservation of the 2020 NFL regular season.
Finally, let me attempt to get out of here on a lighter note. Bob Molinaro had this observation related to the NFL and television advertising in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot recently:
“TV timeout: What do you make of Bill Belichick in those Subway commercials? I think he’s remarkably lifelike.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………