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The NFL’s COVID-19 Contingency Plans Face Their First Test

The Titans’ Week 4 game against the Steelers was postponed after 11 players and personnel tested positive for the coronavirus this week. The league anticipated it would face a situation such as this. We’ll see how it responds.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Here is the only thought that matters about the Titans-Steelers postponement due to COVID-19: It had to be done. Any notion otherwise misunderstands either the virus or the NFL’s thought process or both. The Titans have had 11 positive tests this week, five players and six other team employees, including two additional positive tests Thursday morning, which led the NFL to postpone the game until a later date. Initially, the league wanted to play the game on Monday or Tuesday, but Thursday’s results made that impossible.

The decision to postpone is logical. It was almost inevitable that at least some games would be postponed this season. The Titans are the first site of an outbreak for the NFL, which, unlike the NBA or NHL, did not enter a bubble. Over 20 college football games have been scrapped or postponed so far, and countless others have been affected by player absences due to COVID-19. When NFL training camps began in July, executives and coaches around the league talked a lot about MLB, which, at the time, was canceling dozens of games. In fact, during the first week of camp, NFL coaches had to spend time addressing the Miami Marlins’ outbreak, which looked like an existential threat to the MLB season. It is hard now to remember or describe the pessimism about playing a full season that existed in NFL facilities then. That quickly gave way to cautious optimism, as training camps went smoothly for weeks, uninterrupted by any outbreaks. At one point, the NFL’s COVID list, which accounts for players who have tested positive or come into contact with someone who has tested positive, was down to just one name. The numbers throughout August and September were trending well. But this week’s events were a reminder that the virus still poses a very real threat not only to football, but to everyone. The Vikings, who played the Titans last week, reported zero positive tests on Thursday and reopened their training facility.

The competitive aspect to all of this is far down the list of concerns right now, but it matters from a football standpoint. The Titans and Steelers are both 3-0, and their schedules will dramatically change as they compete for their respective divisions. The NFL has made it clear this will be a season of adaptability, and teams are going to need it. Roger Goodell provided the guidepost for the league’s response to these matters when NBC’s Peter King asked him whether there was a possibility that every team would not play 16 games: “We’re prepared if we have to do that,” Goodell told King. “We’ve obviously gone through work on that basis with teams. There will be potential competitive inequities that will be required this season because of the virus and because of the circumstances that we wouldn’t do in other years. That’s going to be a reality of 2020. If we feel like we have an outbreak, that’s going to be driven by medical decisions—not competitive decisions.” This is not to say the Titans and Steelers will not play—they almost certainly will—but the NFL has said it prioritizes medical decisions over competitive ones, meaning the circumstances in which they do play might not be fair to one, two, or more teams.

Any game being postponed would have a massive impact on the competitive balance of the league, but it’s worth noting that this was supposed to be a matchup of undefeated teams and that next week the Titans are scheduled to play the undefeated Buffalo Bills. If the Titans-Steelers game would be played on Tuesday, for instance, the Titans would have done so without having access to their practice facility. They also would’ve entered Week 5 on significantly shorter rest. It’s impossible to reschedule games at any time without it having a competitive impact on the season. What happens if a division winner plays only 15 regular-season games? What happens if a team has two games impacted by the virus? Football has a rigidity other sports do not. You cannot play double-headers. You cannot play back-to-backs. The toll the game takes on the human body is unlike anything else in sports, so changing the schedule to prioritize health and safety as it relates to the virus creates new health and safety concerns because players will not be getting enough rest.

It remains to be seen what the NFL will do in this instance, and if others like it arise: If multiple games need to be rescheduled, the league may be forced to add another week to the regular season and push playoff games back, or truncate the season and find a new playoff formula like baseball did. Will there be an NFL proposal to conduct the playoffs in a bubble now? The league has asked itself these questions many times over—it seemed prepared for the season it has in front of it—but we don’t know any other answers yet. No one thought this would be a normal season, and, surprise, it’s not.

All competitive inequities rank far lower in importance than the health and safety of players and coaches. But the NFL spends a lot of time working on, and talking about working on, competitive balance, and this year, for the first time in recent memory, that simply isn’t possible. Some teams have barred fans, while others are allowing a small number into the stadium. (Goodell denies it’s an advantage, but having different rules for different stadiums obviously leaves the door open for a team getting a boost from even limited attendance). Aaron Rodgers said this week that a lack of fans in New Orleans helped the Packers beat the Saints since the stunningly loud Mercedes-Benz Superdome is such an integral part of that franchise.

A Week 4 bye is not unheard of—plenty of teams have had one in the past decade. But Thursday’s postponement puts the Steelers in the unique position of finding out they have a bye in the middle of the week. In a league where coaches try to plan every minute of the season, this creates some logistical problems. The Steelers spent this week practicing as though they were playing the Titans. Head coach Mike Tomlin will give his players a few days off this weekend, but they did not have the benefit of a true bye week, and their originally scheduled bye week will likely be used to accommodate a make-up date or other changes to their schedule.

When asked Thursday what he thought about the decision to postpone his team’s game against the Titans, Tomlin said, “My opinion does not matter. We take marching orders from the National Football League. We understand that they’re acting in our collective best interest. I have a great deal of comfort in that.”

When Tomlin was asked about possibly playing 13 straight games, he said bluntly, “We do not care.” He’s correct in that the Steelers’ season will not be completely derailed if they have to play 13 straight weeks. But losing a week of recovery matters. Late in the 2017 season, I talked to players from the Buccaneers and Dolphins who had to have a Week 1 bye because of Hurricane Irma. They said that the early bye was taxing on them for the rest of the season. The Steelers having a Week 4 bye is manageable but is certainly not great from a football standpoint. This season is about adaptability and flexibility, and some teams have to be better at those things than others. The Steelers are one of those teams now.

This was already going to be the weirdest season in NFL history, and now with the schedule being uprooted, things will start changing dramatically. When I talked to Titans general manager Jon Robinson a few weeks ago, he explained that the team needed to make social distancing a requirement in its meeting rooms, and since there was limited personnel in the building due to COVID restrictions, those tasks fell to him. “Our typical team meeting room, the chairs aren’t socially distanced, we had to move our team meeting room into our bubble. Our defensive meeting room [had] chairs bolted to the floor and it didn’t maximize the square footage of the room. So, one day, in late July, I’ve got these bolt-cutters and I cut these bolts out to get these seats out and put chairs in there to maximize the square footage and create distance,” Robinson said. “I have read more protocols and put up more plexiglass and dividers and spaced-out chairs. Things you’d never think of.”

Robinson and Titans head coach Mike Vrabel must now plan for the rest of the season that might be, from a competitive standpoint, chaotic. The Titans facility is currently closed, but Vrabel thinks the team can return early next week. Vrabel, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, said it’s “no one’s fault” that the team had an outbreak. Rapoport also reported that the team could fine players for violating COVID-19 protocols, but it doesn’t believe any such violations occurred. In a press conference Thursday, Vrabel said the team started contact tracing on Saturday morning after defensive play caller Shane Bowen entered COVID-19 protocols. The team now has a bye week, and Vrabel said he told players and coaches to stay apart from one another until they can figure out how to gather back at the team facility safely.

The Titans remote work this week has gone smoothly, according to players, and that is a testament to how well the team has adapted to the changing circumstances since offseason activities began. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill said it felt normal to hop on Zoom this week for meetings to prepare when the team was barred from the facility but the game still looked like it had a chance of happening. Instead, the league will have to find another date for the Titans to play the Steelers. There was no other choice. The NFL has spent months trying to build flexibility into a rigid sport, and now we’ll see whether they can pull it off.