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The NFL’s COVID-19 Tightrope Act Is Facing Another Stress Test

Rigidity—some might call it stubbornness—and luck have helped the league stay on course to finish its season. However, nothing is certain from now until the Super Bowl. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here’s some good news before the bad: According to Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, there is no evidence that COVID-19 has spread during football games. Or any games he’s studied. “We have seen zero evidence of transmission player to player on the field, either during games or practices, which I think is an important and powerful statement,” Sills told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer this week. “And it also confirms what other sports leagues have found around the world. We regularly communicate with World Rugby, Australian rules football, European soccer leagues. To date, no one has documented a case of player-to-player transmission in a field sporting environment.”

This, of course, is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding the virus as the NFL simultaneously tries to play a full season and keep its players and staff safe. But even if COVID-19 doesn’t spread during games, the NFL still has a COVID-19 problem, because it exists in a world with a COVID-19 problem. The numbers of positive cases are rising across the country at faster rates than at any point during the pandemic. At one point last week, about half of the league had a player or coach unavailable because of a positive test or close contact with someone who tested positive. The league has tried to reinforce its safety protocols by punishing teams and individuals who are found to be in violation of them. The Raiders organization and head coach Jon Gruden were fined and docked a draft pick last week; Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was fined as well. Stars like Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, which indicates close contact or a positive test, although neither player is expected to miss games. Many other notable players are missing games: The 49ers ran out a bare-bones squad in their last game against Green Bay, playing without contributors Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Williams, and Deebo Samuel. Ravens star cornerback Marlon Humphrey was out last week after a positive test. No games have been canceled, but at this point, there have been virtually zero games unaffected. Players are ruled out, practices are canceled, games are played on a Tuesday. The virus has changed every corner of the league because it’s changing everything in 2020.

We’re at the halfway point of what was supposed to be the weirdest season ever, and it’s time to take stock of what it looks like. The verdict is in: Yep, it’s weird. The most important thing, by far, is the health and safety of players, personnel, and their families. Next comes the football part. The NFL has not canceled a game, which has been, strangely, the result of the right mix of flexibility and rigidity. But it has had to shuffle enough furniture around to make this possible. Last month, the Titans’ outbreak led to multiple games being rescheduled; positive cases in the Patriots’ organization shortly after had the same effect. The Steelers lost a full bye week, which is a competitive disadvantage in football terms. In some cases—last week’s 49ers-Packers game being a good example—there’s probably a good argument to be made that games should have been pushed back. Games played in which lots of players are missing can create other health risks, such as if a replacement offensive lineman, for instance, who shouldn’t be in the game, is called into action to block stars. Stacking too many games close together with postponements also potentially creates injury concerns. As Yahoo Sports’s Dan Wetzel put it last month, the league has generally benefited from sticking to the schedule on all matters—the draft, free agency and the regular season—because “that’s the NFL way, blunt force in the face of challenges.”

This week, the NFL expanded its flexibility, approving a measure that allows it to add two playoff teams—one in each conference—if games that impact the playoff race have to be canceled. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the plan is a contingency—the league remains committed to finishing the season as scheduled. “This is hard, and everyone is making sacrifices to keep the season on track,” Goodell told reporters this week.

Finishing the season is the story in the NFL the rest of the way—failure to do so means there are no other stories. Several college football teams are currently dealing with positive COVID-19 tests leading to the cancellation of Ohio State–Maryland and four SEC games this weekend. Wisconsin’s last two games were canceled after an outbreak within the program.

There are countless differences between the pro and college ranks, from testing protocols to the daily life of the athletes. There is no way to compare the two, except in one regard: If your team isn’t in a bubble, it needs a lot of discipline and luck to remain COVID-19-free. The NFL has said it will not play games in a bubble. Sills said last month it was unlikely, citing mental health reasons and potential isolation from family as a factor in the NFL’s reluctance to go that route. The NFL’s approach to the virus has not been perfect, but the league has played its cards right and created a system that has, so far, allowed it to utilize its own good luck and play the season with limited interruptions.

The NFL is going to finish the season—the playoffs and Super Bowl will happen. It’s how the league is wired. It should, however, investigate a playoff bubble. A player missing a week of practice before playing in the regular season is deemed acceptable. In Roethlisberger’s case, he won’t practice while self-isolating before possibly playing this Sunday. Tomlin said he’s “not overly concerned about it. This guy has been doing his job for 17 years.” I do not believe this Super Bowl will or should have an imaginary asterisk when we talk about it in the future: On the field, it’s basically been a normal season. It would head to asterisk territory if a star quarterback can’t play in a conference championship game, which is why a short-term bubble scenario for the playoffs might be necessary. Sills said last month that bubbles are not foolproof, as we saw in MLB playoffs. We will probably know more about this virus in a month than we do now. According to The Wall Street Journal, players eating together has been the cause of a handful of football COVID-19 outbreaks.

In the past two months, I’ve asked nearly every person I’ve spoken to in the league what is different on the field this year. The answers are varied—a lot about special teams, or tackling, or the lack of holding penalties, or increase in pass interference penalties—but mostly, people say the games haven’t been all that much different. The scoring boom that’s peaking this season started in 2011. Great quarterbacks in silent stadiums can carve up defenses, but great quarterbacks are a pretty big advantage any year. Most people I talk to say that everything that’s happening now is an exaggerated or accelerated version of what was already happening. It’s what’s happening off the field and in facilities on a weekly basis that is making this the weirdest and most precarious football season in history. It has eight more weeks to go, and the NFL needs everything to break right to keep it intact.