If the NFL pulls this off, it will be a minor miracle.
And maybe not so minor.
With the country still in the deadly grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL will attempt to play an entire regular season and playoffs, culminating with Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7 in Tampa. It’s an unparalleled challenge, one that will stretch every organization’s ability to conduct a football season safely and one for which there is simply no guarantee of success.
To realize the astronomical degree of difficulty facing the NFL, all you need to do is look at the crisis Major League Baseball faces just one week into an abbreviated season. By Friday, six teams were idled because of postponements due to coronavirus cases. The Cardinals were just the latest team to announce positive results of players, and MLB’s already shortened schedule ultimately could be imperiled with more COVID-19 cases. There is even talk of potentially shutting down the season.
Now pro football will try to put together an entire season in the coming months.
“The NFL in 2020 will not look like other years,” commissioner Roger Goodell wrote this week in a letter to all fans. “Adaptability and flexibility will be needed for the foreseeable future. After all, even the best game plan changes as new challenges arise.”
The NFL has gone to great lengths to restructure its training facilities, introduce new rules of social distancing, limit the number of padded practices and provide a “ramp-up” period for players even before their first practice. It won’t be until Aug. 17 that most teams actually conduct a practice in the traditional sense (the Texans and Chiefs, who are scheduled to play on Thursday, Sept. 10, will begin practice on Aug. 14). But even with all the safety measures and coronavirus-related protocols, it will take a herculean effort to make it all the way through to the Super Bowl.
And we haven’t even mentioned the risks associated with the behavior of players, coaches and administrators away from their respective training sites. Because the league is not using the bubble arrangement that the NBA and NHL have adopted, in which players live and play in a centralized location, the risks go up for the NFL if its members don’t take proper precautions away from the facilities.
“There needs to be a collective buy-in,” Jets general manager Joe Douglas said. “We all need to do the right things when we leave this building.”
“Everyone has sacrificed to get here,” Giants coach Joe Judge said. “All of our decisions directly impact each other. Ultimately, as a league, we have to trust the plan in place, make sure we adhere to the protocols. We can operate aggressively if we just follow the plan in place. I have a lot of trust in the plan put forward by the league.”
Even so, dozens of players already have opted out, including Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley and Giants left tackle Nate Solder, himself a cancer survivor and the father of a young son who has battled cancer.
“We wanted Nate to play this year, but we fully support his decision not to because we absolutely understand what he is going through,” Judge said.
At least seven Patriots players, including receiver Marqise Lee, right tackle Marcus Cannon, linebacker Donte Hightower and safety Patrick Chung, have opted out. “I respect all of them, and I respect all the players on our team,” Bill Belichick said. “We all have to make decisions. I talked to those guys, and they explained their situation, and they had to make the decision that was best for them, and I totally respect and support it 100%.”
Goodell understands there might need to be adjustments, and some of those adjustments might involve the postponement — or potential cancellation — of some games. With coronavirus hot spots in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California and increasing virus transmission in the Midwest, there might have to be some major alterations in scheduling as time goes on.
“As we have developed our 2020 playbook for the return of football, safety continues to be our first priority,” Goodell said. “That commitment will remain paramount as players return to the field.”
But as safe as the NFL wants things to be, the bottom line is that football itself is a sport in which social distancing is simply impossible and the risks remain high.
“You can put up all the shields you want in the lockers,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “You can move the chairs six feet apart. When we go to eat, stand in our six-feet lines. But for two, two and a half hours every day [in practice], we’re playing tackle football. And so that’s the challenge we have this year.”
Combine that with the risks away from the facility, and things become even more complicated.
“We’re telling all the young guys to be smart,” Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. “It’s not about you. It’s about the team. If you go out and do something you’re not supposed to do, you can affect other people’s families.”
It is a challenge unlike any other, and one we should all hope the NFL can overcome. And if that happens, it will go down as one of the most remarkable feats in sports history.