After three weeks of open-field running, the NFL is being tackled by COVID-19 this weekend.
And there appears to be a household name and player of star significance who has tested positive in the latest wave of results that have rocked the league and sent schedule-makers scrambling. Patriots starting quarterback Cam Newton received a positive test on Saturday, ESPN reported.
The team did not identify its COVID-positive player but issued a statement saying he had entered self-quarantine and that players, coaches and staff who were in close contact with him were tested Saturday morning and all were negative.
Kansas City, which also had at least one positive test on Saturday, was scheduled to host the Patriots on Sunday afternoon in one of the weekend’s marquee matchups.
The only known Kansas City player to test positive is quarterback Jordan Ta'amu, a member of the practice squad who has not appeared in a game but would have spent time in meetings with Super Bowl MVP Pattrick Mahomes and the team's other quarterbacks, The Associated Press reported.
The NFL hoped to reschedule the New England-Kansas City game for Monday or Tuesday, a move that would be possible only if there is no wider spread of the disease on the two rosters.
That’s a plan that already has foiled the NFL once this week.
The league already had postponed Sunday’s scheduled game between the Titans and Steelers earlier in the week due to an outbreak among the Titans. That game originally was put off until Monday or Tuesday, but a string of more positive tests on the Titans roster forced the NFL to push that game to Oct. 25, moving the Steelers' game against Baltimore originally scheduled for that day to Nov. 1.
On Saturday, another Titans player and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19, raising the team's total to 18 since Sept. 24, according to The Associated Press. That continued spread — a fifth straight day with a new player or coach testing positive — not only affects this weekend’s scheduled contest against the Steelers but could imperil next week’s Titans game against the Bills. If the positive results don't stop, that Oct. 11 game could be at risk, forcing the NFL into even more rearranging of an already adjusted schedule.
Newton, who won two of his first three games since signing a one-year deal with New England, is the first quarterback to be diagnosed with the virus. He was immediately in quarantine until he tests negative. Brian Hoyer is expected to start in Newton’s place, with Jarret Stidham likely to serve as the backup.
The NFL hoped it could play its full slate of games in 2020, but since the summer it has been bracing for the possibility of cancelled games that can not be made up along with the potential for unbalanced schedules with not all teams playing the same number of games.
"We just have to accept the fact this is going to be an unusual year," Giants co-owner John Mara said last month. "It’s not necessarily going to be competitively fair 100% of the time and we’re just going to have to do the best we can."
The NBA and NHL have played their postseasons in a bubble in limited locations, and Major League Baseball will do the same for its playoff teams beginning now and through the World Series. Unlike those leagues, the NFL has been relying on teams and players to follow protocols without any hard boundaries between them and the general public. The NFL announced Friday that the league and its players' union agreed to extend daily testing for the foreseeable future. That includes teams during bye weeks, requiring players to stick around.
The Vikings have had no positive test results after facing the Titans last Sunday, and after spending several days shut out from their facility this week, they remain scheduled to face the Texans on Sunday.
Earlier this week, when the Titans’ positive tests were trickling in, Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said the league might have grown overconfident after making it through training camps and the first month of the season without a major outbreak.
"But at the end of the day, we are in a pandemic," he said. "So what happened in Tennessee, although it kind of shocks us, it's not really surprising. I think we all knew at some point we might get some positive tests.
"So it's like, ‘We got this,' " he added. "I think this is just a little shocker, but it's also a wakeup call, like ‘Hey, the virus is still here and it will affect any and everybody. It doesn't care that we're trying to play football.' "
With Bob Glauber and The Associated Press