The complications were absurd, the stuff of satire. But everything is dark humor in the context of a pandemic that has killed more than 266,000 Americans. On a November afternoon programmed for football, it’s understandable to get lost in tradition and consider the NFL’s difficulty containing the virus to be inevitable follies. It’s understandable to keep finding reason to support plowing ahead, because the sport has made it to Week 12 with no cancellations and a surprisingly manageable number of schedule adjustments. However, all is neither well nor under control in the NFL.
While it is unlikely that Commissioner Roger Goodell will publicly acknowledge any danger, he needs to make sure the league has several firm contingency plans in place. The coronavirus is in charge, and it is raging once again. So let’s keep saying it: It’s impossible to play football out in the open, without a bubble environment, and not be significantly affected. Some teams have been negligent and sloppy about health protocols, and the NFL has grown less compassionate and more forceful in disciplining them. But the reality is that the league can’t mandate its way out of trouble, not entirely.
It can’t entertain its way out of trouble, either. It needs a better plan, even though the original one was well conceived and helped the sport make it through three quarters of the regular season. The NFL can’t afford to be bullheaded, rigid and overconfident. It should be leery of sticking to a script when the opponent is so viciously adaptable.
In ordinary times, the NFL doesn’t have to be flexible. It is so inflexible that people marvel over some of the bending it has done so far. But it’s going to have to be more limber. The next two months will test the league more than anything it has experienced in 2020. At stake is the most important part of the season.
The struggles of Week 12 could stand as a watershed moment for this season. The message should be clear: The coronavirus is laughing at the NFL’s attempt at resistance. The coronavirus is the stout defensive line that the league can’t move. Every future attempt at a direct attack will prove futile. It’s time for some clever strategy.
Hub cities and bubbles must be under consideration, especially during the playoffs. After the fiasco in the Broncos’ quarterback room, fresh strategies on how to distance position groups must be encouraged. The NFL needs to ensure that every team has a plan in case other municipalities decide to ban contact sports for a time.
And perhaps most important is being willing to adjust the schedule and revisit the league’s strong desire to finish on time. I hate predictions, but I’m going to give you one: Without a bubble, the Super Bowl will not be played Feb. 7. If for some reason it is, the roster circumstances surrounding it will de-legitimize the outcome. The winner will be the most asterisk-worthy champion of this wretched period.
If the NFL is willing to be flexible, it has enough wiggle room to prevent that from happening. It doesn’t matter if the playoffs start later than planned. It doesn’t matter if the Super Bowl is on Feb. 7, 14, 21, 28 or even March 7. With the limits on fans, it doesn’t even matter if it is held in Tampa (the league can always give the city a future one) or any other available city. It just matters that it happens without compromising the integrity of the result.
Other pro sports leagues have concluded in bubbles to control some of the unknowns, to make sure their championships aren’t influenced by coronavirus attrition. LeBron James was healthy and on his game. So were Corey Seager, Breanna Stewart and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. The last thing the NFL needs is for the Super Bowl, or any key playoff game, to be decided because Patrick Mahomes or Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers tested positive.
This is different from a random knee injury ruining a team’s hopes. The NFL knows the coronavirus is a problem and has spent the entire year planning to circumvent it. If it factors into the playoffs, it would be an embarrassment for the entire league.
On the playground of sports, absurdity can be entertaining. Sometimes, absurdity is the best part, to be honest, because it allows authentic human reaction to mix with a sort of inconsequential ridiculousness that provides complication only in the moment and matters only on the field of play. Drama couldn’t pick a more ideal setting.
But sports aren’t safely in their playful vacuum right now. Pandemic absurdity is dangerous. Maybe well-conditioned athletes who are tested daily are less at risk of dying from covid-19 complications. But there’s still much to learn about the long-term effects of this virus. And as the Ravens have reminded us, the threat of a widespread outbreak within a team is a havoc-wreaking experience for the whole league. There are many ways the virus can create competitive disadvantages, and watching the Broncos try to complete a pass with Kendall Hinton, a practice squad wide receiver, at quarterback is only a small window into such chaos.
The NFL can be accused of many things. It is known as a cold and callous business. On Sunday, it felt like we should add another word to the alliteration, one that offers a stern warning: clownish.
And there’s nothing funny about that.
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