The NFL Makes It Official: The 2020 Playoffs Won’t Be Played in a Bubble

While it seems like the 2020 NFL season started yesterday, we’re already in the home stretch of the campaign. Some teams have clinched playoff berths; others have already been eliminated from contention. Within a few more weeks, we’ll officially be entering the postseason. That postseason, it seems, will not take place in a bubble.

As we all know, the NBA restarted the 2019-20 season in a bubble, and, by and large, things went off without a hitch. Professional football, however, will be trying to finish the year without making any major changes.

The NFL made some changes due to COVID-19 but kept playing games

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When COVID-19 reached North America, the NFL had just wrapped up the 2019 season. While that timing gave the league a bit of an advantage, Roger Goodell and company were still forced to call a few audibles.

The first major concession came in April when the 2020 draft took place as a virtual affair. While seeing players and general managers calling in from home was a bit different, the event still went pretty smoothly. After that, though, the changes kept on coming.

As the start of the season inched closer, more and more dominoes started to fall.  Players were given a chance to opt-out of action without penalty; training camp rosters were reduced, and preseason games were canceled. Once the games began, coaches had to wear masks on the sidelines. 

While there have been plenty of issues along the way—just ask the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens about that—the league has more or less gotten what they wanted. Even if things completely collapsed in the coming days, the 2020 NFL season has featured 14 weeks of games, and things seem poised for the playoffs.

The NBA, of course, found great success by playing in a bubble

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In March, Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test and the subsequent suspension of NBA action sent shockwaves around the world. The league, however, didn’t give up on the season.

At the end of July, teams who had qualified or were close to qualifying for the playoffs all headed down to Walt Disney World; after quarantining, the resort became their home for the remainder of the season. While there were some bumps along the way—players initially complained about the food and there was at least one notable bubble violation—things went more or less according to plan.

Although the bubble cost a great deal of money and forced players to leave their families behind, it allowed the NBA to finish the season and crown a champion. Commissioner Adam Silver has since been hailed for saving countless lives and, in the context of the league, averting a complete financial disaster.

The NFL playoffs won’t take place in a bubble

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Due to logistical concerns like practice space and separating players from their families, it always seemed unlikely that the NFL would spend an entire season in the bubble. There was some thought, though, that the playoffs—with a shorter time frame and fewer teams—could take place in relative isolation. We now know, however, that won’t be the case.

On Tuesday night, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero tweeted that “the NFL informed clubs tonight they may NOT require players and staff to stay at a hotel during the postseason, except the night before games.” He also shared a league memo detailing an update in COVID-19 protocols.

As Mike Florio noted at ProFootballTalk, though, teams can provide hotel rooms for players who wish to “move into a hotel in order to avoid possible exposure to the virus from their cohabitant(s).” Without NFLPA approval, though, those hotel stays can’t be mandatory, creating the current situation.

It remains to be seen exactly how that voluntary bubble will play out. Will teams hope that their locker room leaders will head to a hotel and everyone else will follow suit, in the hopes of staying safe through the Super Bowl? Will other squads be wary of isolation, not wanting to disrupt the usual routine ahead of a must-win game? At this point, only time will tell.

The NFL playoffs, for better or worse, won’t take place in a bubble. Beyond that, everything else remains to be seen.