The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As NFL playoffs approach, growing coronavirus issues threaten competitive balance

A covid-19 advisory is displayed on a screen at a recent Ravens game in Baltimore. (Julio Cortez/AP)
7 min

It isn’t often that an NFL coach awards a game ball to his team’s general manager after a big victory. But unusual times call for unusual measures, and after the Indianapolis Colts had to place three players on their covid-19 reserve list on game day and promote six players to their roster as replacements, Coach Frank Reich recognized Chris Ballard following Saturday’s triumph at the Arizona Cardinals.

“When you get a day like this and you need everybody on the roster,” Reich said that night, “you thank the man that put it together.”

The finish line to the NFL’s regular season is clearly in sight, with two weeks left. But the task to complete that regular season, not to mention the postseason that is to follow, has become daunting in recent weeks as the league deals with a major surge in coronavirus cases attributable to the growing prevalence of the omicron variant.

More than 500 NFL players have tested positive for the virus this month, or roughly one-quarter of the players in the league. On Monday alone, 96 players — 74 from teams’ active rosters and another 22 from practice squads — were placed on covid-19 reserve lists because of positive tests.

How pro sports leagues are handling the latest coronavirus surge

On Tuesday, Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, who reportedly is unvaccinated, was placed on the team’s covid-19 list, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced that Coach Bruce Arians was isolating at home after testing positive for the coronavirus.

At a time when many hoped that the pandemic would be essentially over or at least rapidly receding, NFL teams — like the world around them — are dealing with more disruptions than ever. The NFL postponed three games by two days each in Week 15. Several teams have taken the field recently with their lineups ravaged. Competitive unfairness has returned, just as teams play their most important games of the season and try to position themselves for a potential Super Bowl run.

“It’s tough, especially with … the NFC and AFC playoff races close,” Colts defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said Saturday night. “I just feel like the teams that can handle the covid-19 situation are going to be the ones that are going to be able to pull out and get into the playoffs, to be honest.”

The spread of the virus has caused disruptions throughout the sports world, with Tuesday’s Holiday Bowl becoming the fifth college football bowl game to be canceled this month because of covid-related issues. The NHL, which resumed its schedule Tuesday after shutting down last week, postponed Wednesday’s game between the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders and announced nine additional postponements of upcoming games because of attendance restrictions in Canadian cities.

The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed Tuesday to change their protocols to reduce the standard isolation period following a positive test to five days, based on a recommendation Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The NFL’s new five-day isolation period applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated personnel as long as they are 24 hours removed from having a fever while other symptoms “have resolved or improved,” the NFL told teams in a memo Tuesday. Vaccinated players still can test out of isolation sooner.

Should healthy, vaccinated pro athletes who test positive play on? Not yet, experts say.

So Wentz could play Sunday. If he doesn’t, the Colts would become the latest NFL team to have a virus-induced competitive disadvantage at quarterback. Nick Mullens started a game for the Cleveland Browns last week with both Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum out, while Garrett Gilbert started at quarterback for the Washington Football Team with both Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen out.

Rookie Ian Book made his first NFL start for the New Orleans Saints on Monday night with both Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian sidelined. On his second pass of the game, he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown — part of a two-interception, eight-sack outing in a loss to the Miami Dolphins that hurt the Saints’ playoff chances.

“I think it’s kind of where we’re at, to some degree, a little bit as a league,” New Orleans Coach Sean Payton said afterward. “… Hopefully we can get a little healthier, get some guys back and be ready to go next week.”

Payton, who had rejoined the Saints on Friday after missing one game following his own positive test, was asked whether he’d spoken to the league about a possible postponement of Monday’s game.

“I’m not involved in that. … Our job is to really focus and prepare, get the players ready to go,” Payton said. “That’s something that pretty soon your energy gets wasted. And obviously we didn’t do a good enough job tonight. It’s frustrating. And I’m sure it was frustrating to watch.”

The NFL has continued to say that, as with last season, games will be postponed only for medical reasons, not over competitive considerations.

“We will make every effort, consistent with underlying health and safety principles, to play our full schedule within the current 18 weeks,” Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a Dec. 17 memo to NFL teams regarding the three games that were postponed in Week 15.

The NFL appears intent upon playing all remaining games as scheduled, as it did in Week 16. But even if that cannot happen, the league does not appear particularly receptive to adding a Week 19 to the regular season to accommodate any postponed games. Instead, it appears that the NFL is prepared to cancel games — and allow teams to play uneven numbers of games — if any must be postponed during the remainder of the regular season and cannot be rescheduled during that week’s play.

“The seeding and tiebreaking procedures approved by the membership for the 2020 season remain in place and will be used if necessary for the 2021 season,” Goodell wrote in the Dec. 17 memo.

Brewer: The NFL’s new covid approach is smart for making money — and bad for public health

Those procedures included having playoff spots determined by winning percentage if teams had played different numbers of regular season games. The NFL never had to utilize that provision last season, and it hopes to not have to this season.

“I think that falls right back under the umbrella of last year: You need to be flexible, and you need to be willing to make changes,” JC Tretter, the Browns center who serves as president of the NFLPA, said during a recent interview, before the latest surge in cases and his own positive test for the virus. “… Again, we still have the same goal as last year, and that’s to keep guys healthy, get through all the games and crown a Super Bowl champion.”

The NFL and NFLPA made two significant changes to their coronavirus protocols recently, even before Tuesday’s modification. Vaccinated players and team staffers no longer are subject to regular testing for the virus unless they have symptoms of covid-19 illness. Meanwhile, a vaccinated, asymptomatic player or staffer can be cleared to return to team activities following a positive test for the virus in as little as one day, with two negative tests taken concurrently.

The changes, NFL leaders said, were based on their early experiences with the omicron variant. Their data showed that the variant was more contagious but resulted mostly in mild illness; about two-thirds of those infected within the NFL had no symptoms, and the others had mild symptoms.

“I think this is a new phase of the pandemic,” Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said recently. “We’ve got an evolving virus and a landscape that’s changing. And therefore we’re going to need to evolve our solutions.”

In the meantime, players and coaches can only do their best to deal with the trying circumstances — knowing that teams across the NFL are having to face similar issues.

“We’ll be ready for whatever we have to do,” Reich said Saturday. “We’ll hope for the best. But every team’s going through it. Every team has the same thing. … Just look around the league. It’s going all over the place. So we’re just going to have to deal with whatever hand we’re dealt and still find ways to win games.”

What to read about the NFL

Scores | Stats | Standings | Teams | Transactions | Washington Commanders

The latest: Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced that the committee intends to issue a subpoena to compel the testimony of Commanders owner Daniel Snyder.

Exclusive: An employee of Washington’s NFL team accused Snyder of asking for sex, groping her and attempting to remove her clothes, according to legal correspondence obtained by The Post. A team investigation concluded the woman was lying in an attempt to extort Snyder.

Civil suits settled: Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has reached settlement agreements in 20 of the 24 active civil lawsuits filed against him by women who accused him of sexual misconduct, the attorney for the women announced.

Jerry Brewer: “The Browns were prepared for initial turbulence, but they assumed they were getting Watson at the end of his troubles. Now his disgrace is their disaster.”

Watch football smarter: Gaps | QB protection | Pass routes | Route concepts | Pass coverage