The 2020 NFL season has not yet reached the cliff, but it’s visible on the horizon.
Over the weekend, the league rescheduled eight AFC games – shaking up television schedules, practice routines and bye weeks through Week 11 – and 11 AFC teams have had at least one game moved off its original date because of coronavirus-induced chaos.
The problem for the NFL is it’s quite literally running out of time. There are only so many bye weeks to be sacrificed and so much wiggle room within a 17-week schedule.
The doubleheaders that helped save the Major League Baseball season are not a viable option. Neither are the bubbles employed by the NBA, WNBA and NHL.
There has been talk of creating 32 individual team bubbles by sequestering franchises in hotels within their home city. But that’s an option unlikely to win the approval of the NFL Players Association without some kind of concession from owners elsewhere.
It might not be a realistic fix anyway. The sheer number of personnel needing to be isolated even for a single team over the 12 remaining regular season weeks – and as many as five more for the teams that reach the Super Bowl – could prove to be untenable.
So where does that leave us?
For starters, with just the third Tuesday Night Football game played in NFL history – according to the Elias Sports Bureau – between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills to end Week 5.
In the not-too-distant future? Likely a Week 18 and the postponement of the postseason by one week.
That’s an option the league will try its best to avoid.
It could create a less than ideal scenario for the teams that earn their conference’s No. 1 seed. With an extra wild card team in each conference for the first time this year, only the team with the best record will receive a first-round bye.
That could be a terrific advantage if the season remains on schedule. If a Week 18 is needed and the top teams don’t play? Two weeks off before the most important game of the season to that point sounds like a significantly less appealing option.
But this is 2020, and fairness is extinct. So all options remain on the table.
There are two primary ways to avoid a Week 18.
More point of care testing can be used in conjunction with the existing testing practices. The rapid results test is not favored by the league because its accuracy remains in question. But the 15-minute turnaround could help teams quarantine a player before he gets on a plane to travel or takes the field for practice or a game.
If that result is later confirmed to be negative, there will be howls of disapproval – particularly if a big-name player misses a big game because of it. But that’s still a better outcome than another outbreak like the one that affected the Titans for nearly three weeks.
The other option? Draconian punishment.
Commissioner Roger Goodell sent out a memo earlier this month detailing new health-and-safety protocols. Along with the updated guidelines came a warning. Teams that do not adhere to best practices and cause the rescheduling of games could face fines (as has already been enforced repeatedly), loss of draft picks or even forfeits.
The latter measure will cause the biggest ripple. If one team is deemed to have breached protocol severely enough to forfeit a game, teams might bubble up without being asked.
That’s why the next big event on the NFL schedule could be the punishment handed out to Tennessee as a result of its outbreak. The team maintains it followed protocols, and the outbreak was unavoidable. The league has been investigating.
There are reports of lax mask enforcement and a confirmed report of at least one group of players gathering to practice away from the team facility after the outbreak began. How severely will the league view these alleged transgressions?
The answer undoubtedly will have a significant impact on the behavior of 31 other franchises for the immediate future.
MLB overcame a rough start and played a credible regular season. It’s now in the late stages of the playoffs, using a postseason-only bubble concept pro football might emulate.
The NFL’s ability to replicate baseball’s success in overcoming the virus in other areas ultimately will determine the fate of its 2020 campaign.