The NFL is rapidly approaching the point of needing to cancel regular-season games.
Add that sentence to the list of things football fans likely never expected to hear when 2020 began. As positive coronavirus cases spike across the country, the NFL — which has gone about business as usual for months — is no exception.
NBC had to move its highly-anticipated Thanksgiving night matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers back a few days after a COVID outbreak in the Ravens’ building.
The NFL had not canceled any games this season at publication. When was the last time the league had to remove a football game from the schedule outright?
The NFL might need to cancel games soon
To anyone who suggests the NFL didn’t have a plan on handling the coronavirus pandemic, that isn’t entirely true.
The NFL had a plan: play on! Instead of beginning the season in a bubble, adding an 18th week, or coming up with a fully in-depth strategy, the league adopted a wait-and-see approach.
Now, one has to wonder if the 2020 NFL season is in danger of ending prematurely. Teams are reporting more positive COVID-19 cases each day, and the Baltimore Ravens are in the midst of a serious outbreak.
Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson are among the players who tested positive this week. They are also two of the most high-profile active players who tested positive and will miss a game as a result — assuming the Ravens’ Week 12 showdown with the Steelers isn’t canceled.
There haven’t been many canceled games in league history
The NFL, as a matter of principle, does not cancel games unless there is truly no chance that the teams can play.
The bottom line speaks loudest, even in the preseason. There are never rainouts or snowouts — and if poor weather mandates a game be rescheduled, the league will make it work.
If a hypothetical monsoon hit Jacksonville or Miami in Week 17 and the two teams playing that day were both 5-10, they’d still play.
The preseason is a different story, but only slightly. Outside of the 2011 lockout and the pandemic this year, the NFL usually only canceled a preseason game over field issues.
If the teams could not safely play on a suitable surface, it would be canceled. This happened at the 2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, for example.
Major League Baseball takes a far different approach. As recently as 2018, two teams — the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates — didn’t play a full 162-game season because there was no sense making up a game when both teams missed the postseason.
Not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Marlins have had four seasons since 2000 where they played 161 games, not 162, according to SB Nation.
When did the NFL last cancel a regular-season game?
The NFL has gotten incredibly lucky with not needing to cancel regular-season games.
As of Nov. 27, 2020, the last canceled NFL game that mattered was in September 1987. Older football fans will remember the lockout that year.
NFL players collectively sat out Week 3 in 1987. Although teams returned in Week 4 with replacement players, the league never made up the 14 scheduled Week 3 games.
Teams played three weeks with replacement players before business resumed as usual in Week 7. 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and Cowboys defensive lineman Randy White headlined the players who crossed the picket line.
The NFL counted all games from Weeks 4-6, which featured replacement players, in the final standings.
The last traditional cancelation came on Nov. 17, 1935. A matchup between the Boston Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles was canceled because of snow and bad weather.