COVID-19 outbreak puts Titans in unfair spot. But this is what they signed up for, along with rest of NFL

When the NFL’s lead executives, medical advisers and lawyers were formulating a fluid plan of attack for a response to COVID-19 in 2020, there was always a palpable concern over what the infection radius would look like in the event of a blindside outbreak.

What if the infection jumped over late-week protocol barriers — when point-of-care tests become less reliable largely because of an incubation period that can mask an outbreak?

What if a game kicks off with multiple COVID-positive players and operations staffers?

What if the NFL runs into a super-spreader moment, with a franchise’s traveling party unknowingly boarding an hours-long flight with COVID-positive individuals?

If the league operated a color-coded advisory system, these questions would be deep in red territory. This is as real as it gets, representing a threat that could swallow months of positive strides. The NFL always knew this was possible, but wished it away with tens of millions of dollars in preventative measures and months of hopeful finger-crossing speeches about staying vigilant.

And it all worked until in one instance with the Tennessee Titans, it suddenly didn’t.

Head coach Tennessee Titans Mike Vrabel speaks to his team on the sidelines during the second quarter of the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 27, 2020.

NFL’s best-case scenario: Only Titans, Vikings are inconvenienced

That’s all it takes for the coronavirus to knock a non-bubbling professional sports league on its ass. Particularly if that mistake isn’t remedied as quickly as possible. This isn’t new. We’ve been here with MLB. We’ve seen how one bad mistake can be compounded by a series of slightly smaller missteps.

How much worse it gets from here is on everyone’s mind in the NFL.

For the league office and 32 ownership groups, how this happened is immediately less consequential than how it will be contained. And once it can be contained, the question is how the league can avoid cascading scheduling failures that could make this much more complicated.

The simple answer, of course, is that the Titans are going to have to take some kind of hit that is completely inequitable in normal times but totally justifiable in a pandemic. And the Minnesota Vikings, through no fault of their own, are going to have to take a smaller hit, but one the franchise signed up for, just like every other NFL team that green-lit operations this season.

This is how it is. Something bad was bound to happen. And in the midst of the fallout, someone was going to have to suck it up and deal with the consequences. The Titans are at the top of that list. The Vikings are next. And if the NFL can triage the damage there, that’s an outcome the league can live with. Even if it means a competitive disadvantage for a week and tinkering with a Sunday game that might have to get moved to Monday.

That’s the discussion that is taking place now. The Titans have closed down their facilities and will shift into virtual practices through at least Friday. That’s the incubation and testing period that doctors say is necessary to fully suss out whether other players and personnel might have been infected since Saturday’s spate of tests. The Vikings will completely close their facilities through at least Wednesday, which is evidence of the modest break the team has caught so far with testing that has yet to produce one new positive result.

This puts the Titans in a significantly wonky practice situation. One that is even worse than if the team was going to play a Thursday night game, which usually leads to a series of walkthroughs rather than a normal practice schedule. Instead, Tennessee could be staring at no practices during the week, a walkthrough on Saturday and a game on Sunday. And even if the league moves the Sunday tilt against the Pittsburgh Steelers to Monday, that translates to one light practice on Saturday, a walkthrough on Sunday and then the game the following day. The Vikings, on the other hand, could still get in a normal practice on Thursday, a light practice on Friday and a routine walkthrough on Saturday.

How much advantage will Steelers have?

Regardless of how you chop it up, the Titans are getting the sharp end of a stick in this whole affair — none of which quantifies the mental toll of the outbreak, which when you talk to people inside the building, has brought some considerable anxiety. The kind where some employees are already griping about who in the building doesn’t take COVID-19 protocols as seriously as they should and whether that will change.

This is the kind of thing that front offices and coaching staffs hate to deal with because it’s a total disruption of focus. The normal becomes completely abnormal, and there is a cloud over the franchise that isn’t football. Suddenly, at a time when the Titans should be talking about being 3-0 and drilling into a significantly tougher portion of their schedule, they are instead thinking about COVID-19 and a week of preparations for a game that will pale in comparison to anything experienced in the franchise’s history. You don’t see a franchise spend a week out of its building doing “mental reps” and then walk into a game without any real prep on a field.

Again, this is what the NFL and its teams signed up for. A season of unfairness where teams do the best they can from one week to the next and hope their feet touch the floor the next day, all while praying they aren’t the franchise that somehow tripped into the testing abyss. That’s where the Titans are in the NFL’s sunken place, trying to deduce what just happened while simultaneously attempting to prepare for the reality of a game that is likely going to happen.

The league’s virtual bubble has finally been penetrated. Threat level red is here. The football inequity that is about to follow for the Titans is as real as it gets. This was a possibility the NFL entertained with open eyes and open pockets a few months ago. Now, the worst-case scenario is here and league is left testing, isolating and hoping that it doesn’t get any worse.

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