NFL COVID-19 outbreak: The latest on the NFL's coronavirus problem, from extra byes to bubbles to the Titans' troubles

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Friday, October 9, 2020

Already the most exhausting season in history, the 2020 NFL campaignnow peeks its head around the corner into Week 5 amid cacophonous calamity.

Every morning brings fresh news of positive COVID-19 tests, schedule delays, amended protocols, questions that spawn more questions. Two games were postponed last week, and two more already have been postponed this week. The Tennessee Titans are under investigation and have been banned from their own facility for 10 days so far. The New England Patriots' two best players have tested positive for the coronavirus, and they haven't practiced yet this week after playing on Monday night. Both teams' Week 5 opponents wait for final word on whether and when they might play. No one knows where the next COVID-19-related issue will start, only that it will, and bring with it even more questions and complications.

It feels like a lot. It is.

But we're all in this together, so I thought this week I'd try to help put some things into perspective. The vast majority of the reporting I'm doing on the NFL these days is COVID-19-related, so let's apply some of what I've learned to some of the bigger questions you might have:

No, the NFL season is not on the brink of collapse -- yet

There have been positive tests on several teams, but so far only the Titans have experienced a full-fledged outbreak. There were only 58 positive tests (20 players, 38 other team personnel) among more than 330,000 NFL tests administered between Aug. 1 and Sept. 26. There were 26 positives (11 players, 15 personnel) between Sept. 27 and Oct. 3, and the bulk of those came from Tennessee.

"We have said all along that we expect positive cases," NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills said in a statement Wednesday. "As long as the virus is endemic in our communities, we will see new cases among our teams. Risk mitigation, not elimination, is the key. Our protocols are designed to quickly identify new cases, get individuals the care they need and prevent further spread of the virus."

The overall testing numbers support the NFL/NFL Players Association (NFLPA) belief that the protocols will work if they're followed. The Tennessee outbreak merits investigation into whether the Titans were following them. If they weren't, the league must make public the manner of the violations and the scope of the resulting discipline so that other teams know what can't be tolerated in an effort to play this season to its completion.

More outbreaks would mean more concern, and the potential for the season to shut down either temporarily or permanently. So they'll keep watching the Patriots, who've had three player positives in the past week. And they'll keep testing the Chiefs, who played the Patriots on Monday and so far have returned no positive tests. And they'll take at least some degree of instructive comfort from the fact that the Vikings, who played the Titans in Week 3, didn't have any positives after that game. And they'll apply all of this to the protocols as they continue to amend and enforce them where necessary.

An outbreak on one team isn't enough to force cancellation of the season. The past two weeks have tested the league's nerve, and its ability to pass that test as it continues over the coming months will be key to the season's survival and success.

Yes, the schedule can be amended, even if it's not easy

As we wrote before the season began, flexibility is key. The Steelers-Titans Week 4 game was easy to move. It slides back to Week 7, when the Titans would have had their bye, while the Week 7 Steelers-Ravens game slides back to Week 8, when those two teams would have had their byes. The Patriots and Chiefs were able to move their Week 4 game back one day, from Sunday to Monday, in the wake of Cam Newton's positive test last Friday.The league is juggling Week 5 and Week 6 schedules but so far believes it can get away with changing dates, and not weeks, for Bills-Titans, Broncos-Patriots and Chiefs-Bills.

It won't always be this easy. After this week, four teams -- the Packers, Lions, Titans and Steelers -- will already have had their bye weeks. After next week, four more will have, and so on. As the bye weeks disappear, so do the easiest ways to reschedule games.

That means every team is going to have to stay loose and be prepared for imperfect solutions. Example: Bills-Titans this week couldn't move back from Sunday to Monday because the Bills' Week 6 game against the Chiefs was supposed to be on Thursday night three days later. So they moved Bills-Titans to Tuesday and Chiefs-Bills to the following Sunday. It's not necessarily fair to the teams, but everyone involved has to accept that some degree of unfairness will invade this season. It's either an imperfect, unfair season or no season at all.

The league could push back the start of the playoffs and dump all of the rescheduled games into a suddenly vacant "Week 18." It might end up having no choice. But the NFL isn't in love with that idea, mainly because it could create a situation in which the top-seeded playoff team in each conference -- which gets a first-round bye -- would go three weeks between its final regular-season game and its first playoff game. To which I say, OK, then let's play with the schedule some more. Move the current Week 17 schedule back to Week 18 and then dump the rescheduled games into what used to be Week 17. Then the 1-seeds would still get their byes but wouldn't have such a gap between the regular season and the start of their postseason. And any team that didn't have to reschedule would effectively get an extra bye week right at the end of the season.

Or, here's my suggestion: For this year only, go to eight playoff teams per conference, with no team getting a bye week. Let's March Madness this thing. The TV networks that have to rearrange things in-season would get bonus playoff games, and more paths to the playoffs might be nice in a year in which teams have endured so much disruption. Look, baseball cut to a 60-game season with seven-inning doubleheaders. The NBA went to Disney World to finish its season and didn't even invite every team. It's 2020. Things are weird. Lean into it. The goofiest solution might turn out to be the best.

No, the NFL isn't going to individual team 'bubbles'

The notion of sequestering every team in a hotel for the remainder of the season, allowing players and staff to leave only for practice, games and travel to road games, has been floated in multiple places. As of Thursday, it was not under consideration by the NFL. Players don't want to be away from their families that long, and there's some belief among NFL and NFLPA leadership that the number of people that would have to be in each "bubble" could raise, rather than lower, the likelihood of quick spread within a team. Argue with the logic all you want, but this is the way the league and the players are thinking on this, and again, they believe the protocols as established will work if they are followed.

"It is critically important that we do not grow complacent in our rigorous application of measures proven to be impactful: always wearing face coverings, maintaining physical distancing and practicing healthy hand hygiene," Sills' statement on Wednesday continued. "This 2020 season, our common opponent is COVID -- it's all of us together versus the virus."

As for the idea of an NBA-style bubble with every team in it in one location? Where, exactly? Mars? When the NBA went to Orlando, Florida, each team was allowed to bring 37 people, including 17 players. Of the league's 30 teams, only 22 went. So that's a total of 814 people, plus officials, league personnel, media, etc. An NFL team has 53 players, plus 16 on the practice squad, and upward of 20 coaches. So that's 89 people per team before you even factor in executives or equipment staff. There are 32 NFL teams. Multiply 32 by 89 and you get 2,848 people, just counting players and coaches.

The situations are simply not comparable. There's no conceivable location that could have housed it, and the cost would have been enough to stagger even the mighty NFL. Never a possibility. No, this is going to have to work the way it's set up or not at all.

Yes, the Titans are in trouble

Something clearly went wrong in Tennessee, which has had 23 positive tests for COVID-19 since Sept. 24, and league and union investigators are working on finding out what it was. They're looking at video footage from around the facility to see whether mask guidelines were being obeyed. They're contact tracing to try to figure out how much of the spread was the result of the team flight to Minnesota. They want to find out whether rules were broken, which ones and by whom. We already know that players gathered for an in-person workout on Sept. 30 after the league informed the Titans (and the Vikings) on Sept. 29 that they weren't permitted to do so. But assessing blame and assigning punishment for that one piece of the situation isn't as important as figuring out how the outbreak started and blossomed in the first place.

If the Titans violated league protocols, and the resulting outbreak created all of this disruption to an already-fragile season, they will and should be subject to discipline. That could mean fines for players and/or coaches. It could mean suspensions for players and/or coaches. It could mean loss or alteration of draft picks. A league memo earlier this week even said teams could have to forfeit games if their bad behavior results in significant disruption to the schedule and to other teams.

The league doesn't want to have to impose forfeits. They see that as a last-resort measure in the event that rescheduling becomes impossible and a team's behavior is egregious. Per the agreement between the NFL and NFLPA, players don't get paid for games that aren't played because of COVID-19, which means they'd be penalizing the opposing team as well. So forfeiting is a long shot. But the word is right there in the official league memo, so the threat of it is real. If that doesn't get the attention of coaches and players, I'm not sure what will.

The bottom line

This was never going to be easy. It wasn't easy for the NBA, and it's at the finish line of its season. It wasn't easy for MLB, where multiple teams endured outbreaks once the season began and games had to be rescheduled all over the place, but the league has made it to its postseason. The NFL and the NFLPA spent six months, from March to August, negotiating the conditions under which a season could be played amid a pandemic, and they entered the season as prepared as possible but still knowing they couldn't possibly be prepared for everything. What they're trying to do can be done. It's going to require patience and sacrifice and flexibility on the part of everyone involved -- from the coaches to the players to the fans. Anyone who thinks they have a simple solution -- Make the Titans forfeit! Put the teams in bubbles! Add an extra bye week! Shut the whole thing down! -- is wrong.

This has already been an exhausting season, and we're only a month into it. It's going to continue to be exhausting, because constant vigilance can't help but be so. The premise under which we're all operating is that it will be worth it, because we love football and want to be able to watch it (or play it, or coach it, whatever the case is). The past couple of weeks have been worrisome, but they haven't been devastating. Sixty-four of the sixty-five games that were supposed to be played by now have been played. Players who have tested positive for COVID-19 have recovered and returned to practices and games. Most everybody seems to have grasped the message and decided that forgoing some parts of their personal lives is the necessary cost if they want to keep working.

And so the NFL presses on, well aware that this might not work but determined to try. We won't know for sure whether the 2020 season can be completed until it has. The evidence we have so far shows us that it won't be easy but that it's not impossible.

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