It’s safe to say that 2020 has been an unconventional year for professional sports. In March, virtually every league and competition suspended play; when games returned, things were quite a bit different. The NBA, WNBA, and NHL played in bubbles. Months after the pandemic began, even the NFL, which is usually free to play by its own rules, is still trying to make things work in a world altered by COVID-19.
While professional football is still being played in 32 stadiums around the country, that might finally change. Faced with an increasing amount of positive COVID-19 tests and other challenges, the NFL might finish the 2020 campaign inside of a bubble.
The NFL has made changes to keep playing through a pandemic
When the coronavirus pandemic spread to the United States, the NFL had the good fortune of being in the offseason. Despite that reality, the league still had to make some changes.
The first shoe dropped in April, as the 2020 NFL draft approached. While this year’s event was supposed to take over the Las Vegas strip, in honor of the Raiders’ first season in their new home, the league decided that holding a massive party wasn’t the best idea. The draft headed online, with all the relevant parties communicating over video.
As the season approached, more changes had to be made. Players were given a chance to opt-out of the campaign without penalty; training camp rosters were reduced, and preseason games were canceled. Once the games began, coaches had to wear masks on the sidelines. As of Week 5, some teams are still playing in empty stadiums.
Without a bubble, though, there will always be some problems
Despite making those changes, the NFL never moved operations inside a bubble; instead, they hoped their protective measures, plus everyone’s collective responsibility, would keep all 32 teams safe. While that sounds good in concept, there have already been a few issues.
Through five weeks of the 2020 NFL season, we’ve already seen some COVID-19 complications begin to crop up. The Tennessee Titans, for example, have been at the center of their own internal outbreak. The team’s Week 4 game was postponed until later in the season; their Week 5 game, barring any last-minute issues, will be played on Tuesday, rather than Sunday.
COVID-19 hasn’t only affected the Titans, though. The New England Patriots were forced to play their Week 4 game without quarterback Cam Newton; their Week 5 game against the Denver Broncos was rescheduled, then postponed until later in the season.
While things are still holding together, some cracks are beginning to emerge. The Patriots and Broncos, for example, had Week 5 become their bye at the last minute, as they were unable to play. In reality, though, they still had to prepare for a game as usual; having a bye is as much about having a week to rest and recharge as it is about not taking the field on Sunday. Especially for the Broncos, who, as far as we know, did nothing wrong, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
The NFL might move into a bubble, but only for the postseason
Before the 2020 season began, the NFL and the NFLPA decided against playing the season in a bubble. While that makes sense from both a logistical and personal perspective, it seems like the league could still get there eventually.
According to Lindsay Jones of The Athletic, the league “is discussing options for a postseason bubble following weeks of rescheduled games due to positive COVID-19 tests.” Dallas and Los Angeles are reportedly potential options, “based on their facilities, hotel space and climates.”
Even with that option on the table, though, nothing is being discussed for the remainder of the regular season.
“An in-season bubble is not in consideration, sources said, but the postseason makes more sense because of a shorter timeline for players and staff to be in isolation,” Jones continued. “The idea would align with the NBA and NHL’s execution of a bubble where only teams in playoff contention would be included.”
On paper, a postseason bubble works for those exact reasons: it keeps the biggest games of the year safe without forcing the entire league to isolate for months on end. At this point, though, one question remains: can the NFL finish the 2020 season and make it to the point when a playoff bubble is feasible? We’ll just have to wait and see.