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The NFL Is Determined to Finish the Season No Matter What the Games Look Like

Denver used a practice-squad receiver at QB against the Saints. Baltimore will be without 11 starters against the Steelers. With COVID-19 cases spiking, the league faces key questions—and the season is starting to look unrecognizable.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

COVID-19 has crept into every aspect of watching the NFL. Even a slate that featured Tom Brady facing off against Patrick Mahomes was overshadowed by news of coronavirus outbreaks around the league. The NFL has long made clear that it is determined to finish the season at almost any cost. Week 12 showed how committed the league is to that stance—and what it’s willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

The amount of NFL coronavirus updates over the last six days has been staggering. On Wednesday, the league announced that the Steelers-Ravens matchup originally scheduled for prime time on Thanksgiving would be postponed to Sunday after the Ravens registered double-digit positive coronavirus tests, reportedly because a strength and conditioning coach broke rules by not wearing a mask in the facility. A few days later, the game was moved from Sunday to Tuesday after reigning MVP Lamar Jackson and three of his Baltimore teammates also tested positive. On Monday, news broke that the game would shift to Wednesday with 23 Ravens players, including 11 starters, still on the COVID-19 list (which includes positives and their close contacts). But Baltimore’s situation wasn’t even the strangest of the week.

The Broncos’ three remaining eligible quarterbacks were ruled out of this weekend’s game against the Saints one day before kickoff. Jeff Driskel was placed on the COVID-19 list on Thursday, making him ineligible to play, and a video sent to the league office revealed that Denver’s three other quarterbacks—Drew Lock, Blake Bortles, and Brett Rypien—had been in a Tuesday meeting with Driskel without wearing masks. As a result, Denver pushed to sign their offensive quality control coach, Rob Calabrese—who last started at quarterback at Central Florida in 2010—but the league did not allow it. So Denver turned to practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton, who had not played quarterback regularly since he was a freshman at Wake Forest in 2015. Hinton went 1-of-9 passing for 13 yards with two interceptions in a 31-3 loss.

And on Saturday, the 49ers learned that they will be stadiumless for the immediate future after Santa Clara County officials issued a public health order barring all contact sports and mandating a 14-day quarantine period for anyone traveling into the county from at least 150 miles away. The team will play its next two home games in the Cardinals’ stadium in Glendale, Arizona. But that could prevent the 49ers players from seeing their families for five to six weeks.

Even the NFL studio shows were affected by the coronavirus. ESPN’s NFL Sunday Countdown had Matt Hasselbeck video-chat in from his house after he was in close contact with someone who had tested positive. Terry Bradshaw was not on Fox NFL Sunday, and Jimmy Johnson video-called in a week after the cast was removed from the studio due to possible exposure. When the TV shows devoted to hyping the NFL spend their opening minutes discussing coronavirus updates and don’t preview Brady vs. Mahomes until after the first commercial break, the virus has officially been elevated to the league’s top story.

Week 12 wasn’t the NFL’s first time navigating an outbreak this season. The Titans had one in October that led the league to alter the schedules of a half-dozen teams and put a Buffalo-Tennessee game on a Tuesday. Patriots quarterback Cam Newton and cornerback Stephon Gilmore both missed time after they tested positive for the coronavirus. The Raiders’ entire starting offensive line could not practice heading into a Week 7 game against the Buccaneers after being classified as close contacts, and the Raiders’ defense couldn’t practice for the same reason in the run-up to their Week 11 game against the Chiefs.The 49ers played on Thursday Night Football a few weeks ago despite putting four key players—including three wide receivers—on the COVID-19 list the day before the game.

But the league has never had this many COVID issues at once, and time is no longer on the NFL’s side. The bye weeks on the schedule are over, making it that much more complicated to move games around. And as cases around the country spike—the United States recorded 1 million new coronavirus infections over the past week, according to The New York Times—the NFL has inevitably seen increases in positive tests too. The NFL is determined to finish the season at almost any cost, but what will it give up along the way?

The NFL will not give up money. Lost games equal lost revenue, so the league will explore every avenue to make sure that the games happen: all 256 regular-season ones, the playoff games, plus the Super Bowl. A Team Marketing Report study from earlier this month found that the NFL will lose $2.7 billion from the pandemic-adjusted hit to attendance figures, and there is no interest among owners or the league office in also losing TV revenue. You know that Amazon commercial where the young ballerina dances in the spotlight for her canceled Swan Lake recital? It’s not just a cute ad. It’s also the ethos of this NFL season: “The show must go on.”

But this show comes with a cost, and charging full speed ahead with the season during the pandemic brings complications. Week 12 laid those out, both from a competitive standpoint and a human one.

From a football perspective, this weekend reinforced that this season has not and will not be fair. That may sound jarring because fairness is usually put on a pedestal in competitive sports, but this year fairness is being sacrificed at the altar of completionism. In October, the league sent a memo to its teams with the following message: “In light of the substantial additional roster flexibility in place for this season, absent medical considerations, games will not be postponed or rescheduled simply to avoid roster issues caused by injury or illness affecting multiple players, even within a position group.” It has stuck to that policy even in extreme circumstances.

If the NFL were prioritizing competitive balance, the Broncos’ having no eligible quarterbacks would have prompted a postponement of their game against the Saints. For instance, the game could have been shifted to Tuesday; if Lock, Bortles, and Rypien had kept testing negative for the virus, they would’ve been available by then, as they would have tested negative for five straight days since being in close contact with the positive player. But the league opted to move forward as originally scheduled, placing the blame for Denver’s predicament on the quarterbacks who broke league rules by not following proper mask protocols in the team facility. Even Broncos head coach Vic Fangio criticized his quarterbacks after the game. “I was disappointed on several levels, that our quarterbacks put us in that position, that our quarterbacks put the league in that position,” Fangio said. Broncos safety Kareem Jackson put it more bluntly: “Maybe the league is making an example of us.”

Given how many players and position groups are affected, the league’s handling of the Ravens situation is more complicated. Outside of moving forward with the game against Pittsburgh this week, it seemingly had a few options. It could have created a Week 18 on January 10, during what is currently set to be wild-card weekend; although this has been floated as a possibility, the league has been incredibly reluctant to change its playoff schedule so far. It also could have forced the Ravens to forfeit, since their coach violated COVID protocols. But from a financial perspective, this option wouldn’t be preferable to anyone. Neither the owners nor the league wants to lose any more money. And per the agreement made by the NFL and the players association before the season, the players for both teams wouldn’t get paid if a game is called off for COVID-19 reasons. Taking everything into account, the likely outcome is what now seems bound to happen: Baltimore taking the field against the unbeaten Steelers on Wednesday and asking Robert Griffin III and a squad of backups to salvage its playoff hopes despite not practicing.

These developments call the season’s legitimacy into question. When the NFL is willing to sacrifice competitive balance—or in Denver’s case, even the illusion of competitive balance—it’s worth wondering if there is any competitive development that could cause the league to change course. The NFL reportedly views the installation of a potential Week 18 as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. And while the league has discussed implementing local bubbles for the playoffs, it doesn’t appear to be preparing for them at the moment. On Monday, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported that “regional bubbles or a national bubble are not being considered right now.” The Pro Bowl has already been canceled, so the two-week gap between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl could be truncated to one week. But the league seems more likely to proceed with its current plan than to exercise any sort of contingency.

It is one thing for the league to force Denver to Amazon Prime in a quarterback for a random Broncos-Saints game in November. But what would the league do if Mahomes were placed on the COVID list the Saturday before the Super Bowl? How would it handle the Ravens situation if Baltimore-Pittsburgh were the AFC championship game and not merely a Week 12 clash? Is it ready for a COVID outbreak to become the biggest story of the playoffs? Such questions have a human toll. Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead has missed the entire season after he was twice hospitalized by the virus; reports indicate that he is suffering from “significant respiratory issues.” Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney has also been placed on injured reserve after being diagnosed with myocarditis, a heart condition stemming from COVID-19. Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was hospitalized earlier this month from COVID complications. And the long-term health implications of the virus are still unclear.

As a precaution, many players have taken serious steps to isolate themselves from their families. 49ers running back Raheem Mostert got emotional during his press conference on Sunday while describing how he had been away from his family for months.

“I just want people to understand that it’s not just football players, it’s the whole organization, it’s everybody,” Mostert said. “People have to make sacrifices out here. I sacrificed to leave my family behind so that way I can make a living for them.”

The pandemic was always going to be the season’s biggest obstacle. The country is in a bad place, but this was predictable. The NFL made the conscious decision to avoid using a bubble like the NBA or NHL did. It made the conscious decision to push forward with games even when whole position groups were unavailable. The league made it 12 weeks into the season in surprisingly smooth fashion. Now the show will go on, even if it’s unrecognizable.

This story was updated after news broke that the Steelers-Ravens game would be postponed from Tuesday to Wednesday of this week.