NFL owners unanimously approved a measure Tuesday that would expand the playoff field from 14 to 16 teams in the event all regular-season games cannot be played because of positive COVID-19 cases.
Commissioner Roger Goodell emphasized that the league is intent on completing the 256-game regular season without interruption and staging the Super Bowl as scheduled on Feb. 7 in Tampa.
"We are committed to completing the season as scheduled," he said.
But Tuesday’s resolution offered a fallback option if rising coronavirus cases cause cancellations of regular-season games. The plan must be approved by the NFL Players' Association.
"This is hard, and everyone is making sacrifices to keep the season on track," Goodell said. "The resolution established criteria in the event all clubs can’t play the same number of regular-season games."
Under a measure discussed before the meeting, playoff seedings might have left some division winners without a home game. But under the playoff plan that was approved, all division winners will get at least one home game.
Owners also approved a plan put forth by the league’s workplace diversity committee to reward teams that develop assistant coaches and executives who go on to take over as head coaches or lead football executives with other teams. The clubs that develop those coaches would receive two third-round picks if one of its staff members leaves for a head coaching or general manager position with another club. The NFLPA must also approve that measure.
NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills briefed the owners as part of Tuesday’s two-hour virtual meeting about the progress of COVID-19 protocols and said that several teams that have introduced intensive protocol measures saw as much as a 50% reduction in positive cases. Last week, there were 16 cases among players across nine different teams.
The Steelers announced Tuesday that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was required to remain away from the team’s practice facility because he was deemed to be a close contact with someone who had been infected with COVID-19.
Sills also said that there have been no documented cases of transmission of the virus during games.
"It’s a very important observation," he said. "There was no way to predict it. We’ve been monitoring that carefully. I think it’s premature to say that it can’t occur, but we’re pleased to see that it has not yet occurred. That’s something that we’ll continue to monitor."
Sills and Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said players would continue to be reminded to wear masks while on the sidelines and both before and after games, especially when speaking with players from opposing teams.
"Change is always hard, and we know it’s a time-honored routine that people greet each other and extend sportsmanship [after games]," Sills said. "What we’re trying to do is show everyone the vulnerability. Putting a mask on is a change in routine, but it’s a much safer conversation."
Said Vincent: "We’re working with the players to show them the why. We’re trying to reduce that unnecessary risk and exposure. It’s going to be constant education from here to [the Super Bowl in] Tampa."