During the first three weeks of the 2020 NFL season, things ran fairly smoothly. Beyond some extra injuries, empty stadiums, and coaches wearing—or, in some cases, not wearing—face masks, you’d almost be able to pretend that things are back to normal. Week 4, however, has shattered that illusion.
While the NFL didn’t start the 2020 football season inside a bubble, it seems like the league is going to do whatever it can to keep the games rolling. According to reports, at least one extreme measure in potentially on the table.
The NFL made COVID-inspired changes but didn’t create a bubble
Unlike other sports leagues, the NFL was in the midst of its offseason when the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States. Even that added time, however, couldn’t prevent the league from making some changes.
The first major change affected the league’s annual entry draft; rather than being an in-person event in Las Vegas, the entire selection process headed online. The NFL also ended up canceling preseason games, expanding practice squads, and allowing players to opt-out of the season.
One change that never took place, however, was creating a bubble. “As the NFL was finalizing its plans for the 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic last month, epidemiologist Zachary Binney advocated a severe strategy to anyone who would listen,” ESPN’s Kevin Siefert wrote in July. “The league, Binney said, would need 32 self-contained “market bubbles” to keep its essential staff healthy during COVID-19 spikes this fall and winter. The NFL and NFL Players Association chose differently, of course.”
Staring down a potential COVID-19 crisis
On both a logistical and a human level, it’s easy to understand why the NFL didn’t want to play an entire 16-game regular season, plus playoffs, in a bubble. That consequences of that decision, however, are already becoming clear.
During Week 4 of the campaign, the Tennessee Titans suffered an internal COVID-19 outbreak. As we saw when the Miami Marlins had a similar situation, that kicked off a domino effect. The club’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was pushed to Week 7; the Steelers’ regularly scheduled game for that week will be bumped back to Week 8, when they were supposed to have a bye.
On Saturday, the league took another body blow as both the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs had positive COVID tests within their ranks. Their game was supposed to be a marquee match-up; now, the scheduling is up in the air and, if the teams manage to take the field this week, the Patriots will be without Cam Newton.
It goes without saying that health and safety come first. In the grand scheme of things, canceling some football games is a small price to pay. The NFL, however, can’t be happy with what’s unfolded this week. After betting on themselves to successfully navigate the season, the league hasn’t even made it to the quarter-pole without incident.
Bubble or not, the NFL could have some drastic measures up its sleeve
In Kevin Siefert’s July ESPN story, NFL medical officer Allen Sills said that “all options remain on the table.” While it’s not clear if that’s still the case, it does seem like the league could take some extreme measures to save the football season.
According to a ProFootballTalk report, the NFL would be willing to put every team in a hotel for the rest of the season. Once again, there would be some hurdles—among other requirements, the NFLPA would have to agree to the matter—but, according to Mike Florio, “multiple sources” say that “the NFL gladly would do that.”
It seems like trimming some games from the season could also be on the table. “Multiple coaches have suggested to PFT the possibility of reconfiguring the schedule to consist of 12 total games,” Florio reported in another ProFootballTalk post. While it’s not clear if the NFL itself has floated the idea, or some coaches are simply suggesting it as a legitimate option, you’d have to assume that Roger Goodell and company would rather lose four games than have the entire season collapse.
At this point, it’s not clear what will even happen with the Chiefs-Patriots game, let alone the season. It does seem, however, like the NFL is willing to go to some extreme lengths to finish the campaign. Only time will tell us what those are.