Last month, Matt Light, one of the tentpole players of the early Patriots dynasty, theorized that Bill Belichick wasn’t taking this year seriously and was instead focused on the future because the 2020 football season is, in Light’s words, “a joke.” “No one is going to look back on the 2020 season and compare it to anything other than, it was a joke. It was ridiculous,” Light said. He is probably half-right: Belichick might think this year is a joke, but he’d also probably enjoy it more if he still had his all-time great quarterback and was winning his usual allotment of games. But the point still stands: A lot of people are ready for 2020 to end, many NFL teams included. Teams like the Patriots, which derive great value from consistency and practice, can’t find enough of either. This is not an excuse, exactly—lord knows, the 2020 Patriots have their problems—but it is the state of play. There are things about this season that feel real—the best players in the sport are playing at a high level—bookended by things that do not, such as players being put in impossible situations like last-second position changes or schedule tweaks. The Saints-Broncos game was not legitimate. The Saints’ talent level, though, is. Playing a game on a Wednesday afternoon is a farce, but the Steelers’ defense is not.
The Steelers escaped with a 19-14 win against Baltimore in a game that was postponed three times to accommodate the Ravens’ COVID-19 outbreak and was ultimately played on Wednesday afternoon to accommodate a Christmas tree lighting ceremony on NBC. Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster summed the game up well: “They came out with a JV squad, and we were playing JV [football].” We already knew this season would be weird, but the next eight weeks will decide if it should have an asterisk. This season was never going to be fair, not with 67 players opting out of the season, many more missing time during it, and teams practicing less, but it doesn’t need to be fair. It’s one of the weirdest years in modern history. Fairness wasn’t the bar the NFL needed to clear; it needed not to become farcical. There’s a fine line.
The competitive balance of the NFL is extremely low on the list of society’s concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. But if the league will complete a full season, it should strive for legitimacy; in most weeks, it’s achieved that. No game has been canceled thus far, but nearly every game has been impacted in some way, whether that’s because of a canceled practice or a player on the COVID-19 reserve/list missing the game. There are obvious examples: Denver’s Kendall Hinton taking his first NFL quarterback snaps in a game against the Saints, one of the best teams in football, is a lowlight of the season and maybe of the decade. It should be rock bottom for the league, and you should be very concerned it’s not—rock bottom could still be to come. Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur told reporters on Thursday that he was informed late Saturday afternoon the team would have no quarterbacks available for the game; backup Jeff Driskel tested positive for COVID-19 after he had attended a position group meeting without wearing a mask, so Shurmur took Hinton, a wide receiver on the Broncos’ scout team, and taught him some wildcat plays. This league makes $16 billion a year.
However, just as important as the farcical games are those where the competitive balance shifts because of something less obvious than a non-quarterback being called up to start on a day’s notice. For instance, Colts star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner missed Sunday’s game against Tennessee due to a positive test. When he’s out this season, the Colts give up almost 2 yards more per rush than their season average. Not surprisingly, Derrick Henry and the Titans dunked on the Colts for 60 minutes and won by three scores. Keeping Buckner out obviously makes sense, as do the NFL’s COVID-19 safety protocols. He needs to get healthy, and his absence helps prevent the spread of the disease. The point is that massive, game-changing, season-changing events keep happening, and the NFL has to find a way to keep its season on the rails. The NFL will have a COVID-19 problem so long as it exists in a world with COVID-19, and the pandemic will not relent because it’s playoff time. That is why Roger Goodell needs to commit to a playoff bubble.
The strange thing about talking to people in the league is how often conventional wisdom shifts between optimism and pessimism about whether the season can progress in a vaguely normal way. After the last two weeks, that arrow is pointing slightly down. Sean Payton proposed a playoff bubble in August. He also created a bubble for the Saints during training camp, which came on the heels of him canceling all offseason activities, even virtual ones, due to COVID-19. (Payton was one of the first NFL coaches or players to contract the virus when he tested positive in March.) Training camp bubbles are a useful model since those lasted for multiple weeks, a similar span as would be needed for a playoff bubble. The NFL’s stance of doing nothing and forging ahead as if circumstances remain unchanged from the summer is no longer a tenable position. The Broncos-Saints game is a hint of the future, not a one-off oddity. Isolating NFL teams obviously presents an enormous logistical challenge compared to leagues like the NBA and MLB, but the alternative—a playoffs ravaged by COVID-19-positive tests—would be harder to overcome.
The good news is that the league seems more open to some version of this scenario than it was a few months ago. Last month, the league agreed to expand the playoffs from 14 to 16 teams if any meaningful regular-season games are canceled. This, too, is a good sign—it’s the right mix of flexibility baked into an otherwise rigid structure. I would argue the league should have simply tacked on an 18th week to the regular season and moved the playoffs back a week to find a home for games like Baltimore-Pittsburgh without having a schedule crunch.
On Sunday, the NFL Network reported the NFL is looking at “local bubbles,” isolating every playoff teams’ personnel in hotels except to go to facilities and games. The report states that these mini-bubbles are more feasible than one big bubble because of how many people are involved in the NFL and that a 14- or 16-team bubble would include thousands of people. Why the NFL can’t gather thousands of people in one place in a major city while hotels are mostly empty is beyond me. But a bubble has to be created, even if it’s only for when we get deeper in the playoffs, during championship game weekend at the latest. When asked this week about the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak during the playoffs, Goodell said: “We’ll be prepared for that, considering a number of alternatives to deal with that.” This, obviously, is left up to interpretation, but a divisional round game or conference championship game without a star quarterback, or three star defenders, would become, yes, a joke. The NFL can’t risk it. “When we all take a step back and look at this and we’re all gonna say ‘Are you freaking kidding me? This is what we did in 2020? Holy cow,’” Washington Football coach Ron Rivera said on Thursday. He’s right. We’ve already seen 2019’s best regular-season team morph into a team of backups on national television because of COVID-19, and we might see more examples like the Ravens in the near future. By implementing an 18th week and a playoff bubble as soon as possible, the NFL can ensure that the only remaining joke in the NFL playoffs is which NFC East team makes it.