Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The NFL and Covid: Don’t Panic … Yet

By Anthony Brancato

Positive COVID-19 tests for 16 Tennessee Titans players resulted in their scheduled game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday to be moved to Week 7 — which in turn will lead to the Baltimore Ravens, who were originally supposed to host the Steelers in that week, doing so the following week instead.

A similar scenario arose in 2008, when Hurricane Ike forced the Houston Texans to postpone their Week 2 home game against Baltimore to Week 10, with the Bengals having their bye week moved from Week 8 to Week 10, and Cincinnati playing at Houston in Week 8.

And in 1992, Hurricane Andrew (an unusually calm year in the Atlantic as the first named storm did not hit until September) forced the postponement of the Miami Dolphins' would-be season opener against the New England Patriots to Week 7 — but since, under the format the NFL observed in those days, the top four finishers from the four five-team divisions the year before, and all four teams from the two four-team divisions the league still had until Jacksonville and Carolina were admitted as expansion teams in 1995, had their byes in the same week (with the four fifth-place teams from the previous season getting the same week off, usually late in the season), so that move caused no real disruption (the same thing happened again in 2017, when a Week 1 Miami at Tampa Bay game was postponed due to Hurricane Irma to Week 11, when both teams conveniently had a bye).

The NFL of course dodged a bullet as regards the New England at Kansas City game, which was merely moved from Sunday to Monday night — although the Patriots didn't do any dodging, in that they were forced to play without Cam Newton, who tested positive for the virus.

But what happens if a three-way switch is not possible — or the next COVID outbreak doesn't happen until after all 32 teams have already had their bye week?

Then there are several possibilities, as Dan Wetzel pointed out in a column he wrote on Saturday.

One possibility is to create a Week 18 of the regular season — there was such a week in 1993, to avoid a concurrence between the NFL wild card playoffs and the major college bowl games (which can no longer exist due to the NFL having moved Week 1 from the Labor Day weekend to the following weekend starting in 2001), resulting in each team getting two byes that year), during which any postponed games will be made up, and the idle week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl is eliminated.

The latter happened before — in 1982 because of a strike, and again in 2001 because of 9/11, when the original Week 2 games, postponed by the attacks, were made up after the originally-scheduled end of the regular season (the week off before the Super Bowl was omitted intentionally the following year, because the owners were having second thoughts about holding the Super Bowl in February; however, those doubts quickly evaporated, and every Super Bowl from Super Bowl XXXVIII onward has been played in February).

And while doubleheaders are impossible, as in baseball, teams missing games can have make-up games played on a Thursday night, with their Sunday games the following week moved to Monday night, as Mike Shanahan proposed how the games missed due to 9/11 could be made up. That will be very hard on the players, however — which is why "The Shanahan Plan," as the media dubbed it, was not actually proceeded with.

Still another alternative is to do what baseball has always done: don't make up the games at all, unless necessary to determine who makes the playoffs and who doesn't (and they didn't even do that in 1972, when the Detroit Tigers were allowed to win the American League East by having played, and won, one more game than the Boston Red Sox, due to a brief strike at the beginning of the season that caused teams to miss unequal numbers of games) — and there is actually a precedent for doing this in football: a 1935 game between the Eagles and the then-Boston Redskins (they're no longer either of those things now) was canceled due to an ice storm and never made up, so the two teams finished the season a half game apart in the standings — and that "no contest," as they say in mixed martial arts, allowed the Eagles to make the first pick in NFL draft history: Jay Berwanger, even though he never ended up playing the game professionally (he held out for more money — even back then, athletes apparently did that).

What if a canceled game could affect the seeding, but not what teams actually make the playoffs? As Ralph Kramden said in an episode of "The Honeymooners," that's the way the cookie crumbles. And to quote Hillary Clinton, what difference does it make if a 5-10 team gets to draft ahead of a 6-10 team?

In a league that doesn't allow a team to get the ball in overtime if their opponents win the coin toss to start overtime and they score a touchdown, the above injustices pale by comparison.

Just like in the days of Phil/Pitt and Card/Pitt, this is no ordinary time in the NFL.

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