It’s fascinating, and a bit frightening, to monitor football during the pandemic. Every week, we keep count of how many college games have been postponed/canceled, and that number lately has reached double figures. By way of contrast, the NFL hasn’t yet canceled a game. Indeed, we’ve just seen the lengths to which the NFL will go not to scratch anything.
The Steelers and Ravens were supposed to meet in prime time on Thanksgiving. Owing to a spiraling outbreak in the Baltimore camp, the game was pushed to Sunday. Then it was shunted to Tuesday, then to Wednesday at 3:40 p.m. EST. Why the afternoon slot? Because NBC, which held the game’s rights, had booked prime time for the Christmas-tree lighting at Rockefeller Center. Ho, ho, ho.
Roger Goodell, the league’s often-erring commissioner, has claimed his life’s mission is “to protect the shield,” meaning the NFL’s logo. In 2020, his means of protection include browbeating and sheer bullheadedness. Colleges have built contingencies into their COVID-19 plans. If a team falls below a certain number of scholarship players, or below a quorum for quarterbacks and linemen, it doesn’t have to play, and the only person who gets to throw a fit is Dabo Swinney. As we saw Sunday, the NFL makes no such concessions.
Sometimes Goodell’s way of protecting his shield is to beat it within an inch of its eye. The Broncos were made to play the least competitive game in NFL annals because they ran out of quarterbacks, a development that prompted the NFL to shed nary a tear. The NFL’s response to the virus has been to test three times a week and, should some team suffer a rash of positives, to blame that team for not hewing to protocol.
Counting players and staff, the Ravens have had 22 positives. The team disciplined — what sort of discipline wasn’t made public — their strength coach for not wearing his NFL-mandated COVID tracker with unwavering diligence. The league’s response to Denver’s loss of all salaried quarterbacks because of one positive test and the absence of three others because of tracing concerns was to say, “Tough — you’re playing anyway.” The league believed that had protocol (that word again) been followed and masks in place, there would have been no QB contagion. Or, to borrow a line from Jimmy Buffett, it was their own damn fault.
The poor Broncos didn’t get even a day’s postponement. They played New Orleans, with a redeployed receiver throwing more interceptions (two) than completions (one), on Sunday. The Broncos lost 31-3. They gained 112 yards. Yes, it was a farce, but to the NFL, a farce beats a cancellation or a forfeit. If nothing else — and this really wasn’t much else — the league provided three hours of television that presumably somebody watched.
The same applied to Steelers-Ravens. Better to push a game into the middle of next week, literally, than to have no game. The greatest lesson sports have learned over the past nine months is that bubbling up works. Adam Silver and the NBA taught us that. The second lesson is that, in lieu of bubbling, bullying might suffice. Seattle’s Pete Carroll was fined $100,00 for not wearing his mask often enough. The Patriots were fined $350K not for letting the air out of their masks – sorry; couldn’t resist – but for mask lapses that led to an outbreak around Cam Newton.
The Saints, who’ve never met a rule they couldn’t flout, were fined $500K and docked a Round 7 draft pick for dispensing with masks during their celebration of a victory over Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay, although those are becoming rather common. The NFL is sending the loudest possible message: If you don’t do as we say, you’re going to pay, also literally. Oh, and the NFL is watching you via in-facility cameras.
(Personal aside: We AJC writers are charged with attaching photos to our posts. Since Raheem Morris took over as the Falcons’ interim coach, there exists no photo — unless it’s from a Zoom screenshot, and those aren’t of the highest quality — of a mask-less Morris. He may or may not keep his job, but darned if he’s getting fined.)
To be fair, NFL players are professionals, not collegians. They’re getting paid, and not a prorated percentage the way MLB players did during their shortened season. The NFL plans to play every game. NFL players have a union, which agreed to these protocols. And this much must be said: The longer this pandemic has gone, leagues appear to be worrying more about keeping players healthy enough to play, as opposed to keeping them healthy for health’s sake.
The San Francisco 49ers have moved to Glendale, Ariz., for two weeks because Santa Clara County mandated a ban on contact sports. On Wednesday, as NFL facilities were reopening, the Browns closed theirs for the sixth time in 19 days. After beating the Raiders on Sunday, Matt Ryan noted his Falcons were unbeaten after weeks during which they’d been forced to lock the gates at 4400 Falcon Parkway.
In sum, a lot of people are jumping through a slew of hoops to keep football going. We say again: So far as we know, no football player or coach, college or pro, has been hospitalized with the virus. Through it all, there’s one thing we on the outside — and by this I definitely mean me — miscalculated. We thought the hard part would be starting a sports season with the virus unchecked. Turns out the hard part is stopping once you’ve gotten going.
MLB didn’t pull the plug when Marlins and Cardinals got sick. (Heck, both made the playoffs.) The NBA and NHL finished what they restarted. MLS is nearing its Cup semifinals. We’re 17 days from selection Sunday in college football. And we can say with greater confidence than we’ve said anything in a while: The NFL absolutely is going to stage its Super Bowl.
It might be with Jake Fromm, of whom you’ve heard, starting for the Bills against Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers – don’t laugh; Fromm’s designated role this season is “quarantine quarterback” —but it’ll happen.
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