NFL's logistical nightmares come into focus as COVID-19 threatens games, paychecks

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·4 mins read

So, does the NFL regular season really have to be 16 games long? Does every team have to play the same number of them? Does the Super Bowl have to be played on Feb. 7, 2021, in Tampa, Florida?

Just asking for a friend named Roger from New York.

Positive coronavirus tests have popped up around the league, but there is, as of now, absolutely no reason for the NFL to panic or pack it in for the year.

Some players were always going to catch COVID-19. Coaches and executives too. It was inevitable. This is a pandemic and this is America. This is the risk everyone willingly took to pursue a livelihood (the league even paid players who opted out of the 2020 season).

That it took this long into the NFL season for those positives to emerge – lengthy training camps and three full weeks of the regular season – is a sign that the protocols the league enacted are pretty good (and presumably getting better).

Nothing is perfect though ... other than a full, NBA/NHL-style bubble, which is virtually impossible for the NFL.

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 20:  Players of the Tennessee Titans huddle together before a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Nissan Stadium on September 20, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Titans defeated the Jaguars 33-30.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
The Titans' game on Sunday against the Bills is in limbo due to a coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

That said, the league is on rocky terrain now. Not philosophically, but logistically. The outbreak in Tennessee hasn’t subsided as everyone hoped. That has left Sunday’s game with Buffalo in doubt.

Maybe that Week 5 game could be moved to Monday or Tuesday, but the Bills are scheduled to play Kansas City on Oct. 15, a Thursday night, to start Week 6.

Maybe that could be moved to Saturday or even Sunday, but …

This is the Jenga tower of the NFL schedule. There are only so many games that can be moved around before the structure collapses. There are just so many places to move games, hide games, stage games. And that’s without knowing what might be coming next. No one can predict what Week 6 could bring, or even other games this weekend.

Already Pittsburgh-Tennessee had to be postponed to later in the season, causing Pittsburgh-Baltimore to be shuffled. New England-K.C. got moved back a day. New Orleans-Detroit went off as planned last Sunday, but it was in flux until hours before kickoff.

The idea that this is going to shuffle out perfectly where all 32 teams can play 16 games over 17 weeks seems unlikely, especially as scheduled bye weeks start getting burned up. (Detroit and Green Bay have this week off; Las Vegas, New England, New Orleans and Seattle the following).

The NFL has smartly kept contingency plans vague. No need to get boxed into something. But it’s fair to wonder how the season will play out, and how many games of it will be played or can be played.

The NFL could add a Week 18 to the regular season, and push the playoffs back. It could then eliminate the traditional week off between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. That would maintain the date for its biggest game, even if losing a week of rest isn't ideal.

Would that be enough?

The league could stop postponing games and instead issue forfeitures to teams that can’t field a full roster. That would put enormous pressure on each franchise to do everything possible to avoid positive tests. It could also, if this gets dicey, cut a couple games out of the regular season and just try to play, say 14 games, over the 17-week time frame, thus providing more flexibility.

However, in the current CBA, a forfeited game costs players on both teams their game checks, which is a tough deal for the guys although that’s the fault of their union. If that’s the case, then would cutting two games work? And is this a time for an NFL vs. NFLPA fight?

And what happens if a team has an outbreak during the playoffs? Does it forfeit one of those?

There is always moving the Super Bowl back, but the league is loath to do that. Only once before has a Super Bowl been pushed back, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that caused a week of the season to be canceled.

The Super Bowl is more than just a game for the league. There are massive corporate, fan and entertainment interests that go with it. It’s not easy to move. That said, you’d expect the event to be scaled down this season anyway, so maybe it isn’t such a big deal.

If the NFL is willing to flex the Super Bowl, then the season becomes easier to stage. If the big game is the last Sunday of February, rather than the first, then so be it.

We’ll see. The league has benefitted so far by barreling ahead with its business, running almost everything (free agency, draft, regular season) on schedule. That’s the NFL way, blunt force in the face of challenges.

Maybe this time, it needed to schedule in some contingency time, because the postponements have just begun, and the solution to dealing with them isn’t all that apparent.

Roger Goodell is going to earn that salary this year.

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