NFL plans for playoff bubble must start now, even if league's COVID-19 numbers look good

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·8 min read

It feels like a lifetime ago, but there was a point in the Major League Baseball season when combatting the COVID-19 pandemic was off to a fantastic start.

MLB announced its initial wave of testing in early July produced a manageable 1.2 percent rate of positives, while the turnaround time for results was smoothing out and players appeared to be buying into safety protocols. All in all, it was a start to be celebrated and an encouraging sign that perhaps a pro sports league didn’t need a bubble to keep its act together.

Now we know that it was right about then that some hubris was kicking in and the bottom was about to fall out. From a swath of player positives on multiple teams, postponement of games, players caught breaking protocols, a frightening COVID-related heart condition sidelining a Boston Red Sox pitcher, and even brief consideration of potentially halting the entire season. As worst-case scenarios go, baseball went from optimistic to nearly catastrophic quickly.

Now less than seven weeks later, there’s an increasing debate about the viability of pulling off a vast postseason bubble for baseball in hopes of keeping the situation in hand down the stretch.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - AUGUST 17: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots talks with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels during training camp at Gillette Stadium on August 17, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steven Senne-Pool/Getty Images)
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (left) talks with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels during training camp at Gillette Stadium on Monday. (Photo by Steven Senne-Pool/Getty Images)

Every bit of this is reverberating inside the NFL ownership and Park Avenue executive ranks — not to mention the coaching staffs and players who are striving for normalcy. While the start has been one of optimism and pleasant vibes for the NFL, the league most closely representing the bubble-less environment of pro football is slamming headlong into brick walls.

While the NFL is happy about a COVID-19 reserve list that is amazingly nearing single digits, it is just one bad decision away from the tide turning. And that mistake could be anything, from a simple testing error that allows the virus into a building, to something more mind-numbing. We’ve already seen testing errors, albeit in the more harmless realm of false positives rather than a false negative that allows COVID to breach the walls of a team facility. And we’ve seen the stupidity of immaturity, thanks to a Seattle Seahawks rookie who reportedly tried to sneak a woman into the team hotel in a team hoodie.

What it tells the NFL is that the short and long play is worth considering. And while the league is planning for everything that can happen right now, baseball is suggesting a parallel track that pro football should be laying down right now. Specifically: postseason bubble plans.

NFL playoff bubble is ‘on the table’

If MLB is in the midst of looking at a postseason bubble to mitigate a critical failure at the most important juncture of the schedule, the NFL should use its advantage of time and start that planning right now. After all, there’s no use in ignoring the canary in the coal mine when it’s foreshadowing every problem that could be coming in the pipeline. And this whole postseason quandary in baseball is immense, particularly for an NFL that is cognizant of what a full season (and postseason) could mean for the league.

As I’ve said several times before, if the NFL can pull off an entire 16-game schedule and an uninterrupted postseason inside this pandemic, it will go down in history as one of the single greatest achievements of everyone involved. That includes the league office, team owners, players, the union and every single support staffer or personnel employee in between. There’s simply no overstating how remarkable it would be.

Yet even with that knowledge, there’s little argument that an asteroid strike in the postseason could wipe out all of the immense efforts that have taken place since March. Particularly if that asteroid were to hit before one of the conference championship games or Super Bowl. Even a medium-level disruption in January — like a playoff team losing a handful of backups on the doorstep of a conference title game — would create the question of whether COVID warped the legitimacy of the NFL’s biggest stage at the last moment.

That reality has to be weighing on some NFL franchise corners, even in mid-August when things are going well. That might explain why New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton suggested creating a postseason bubble in the NFL’s last conference call for the league’s competition committee. That piece of news was revealed by NFL vice president of operations Troy Vincent on Wednesday, when he said the league has not ruled out the use of a bubble in the playoffs. Vincent added that all options will be considered, although the league would also require an agreement with the players union as well.

“The concept was discussed on our last competition committee call,” Vincent told reporters on a conference call. “Is it something that we are considering? All things are on the table, frankly, at this juncture during this fluid environment.”

How would postseason bubbles play out in postseason?

Interestingly, Vincent referred to the conceptual idea as more of a “secure environment” than a “bubble”. While he didn’t reveal details, it was terminology that hints at what the NBA has done, essentially constructing a hardened zone where players are living and being monitored in hopes of maintaining protocols. How that would look for the NFL is another matter, although the league has plenty of experience to lean on considering how teams maintain themselves during a Super Bowl week.

Effectively, the NFL could create its own “living zones” for players that are similar to the Super Bowl setup — but also subtracting the social engagements and some of the personal freedoms that were doable in past years.

Among the options?

In the early rounds of the playoffs, have NFL teams move into a predetermined local hotel for the duration of their postseason, constructing a campus around the hotel and limiting travel to and from the facility and stadium. For visiting teams in playoff games, it would be a matter of maintaining that “campus” and then extending it to their travel destinations. If the visiting team wins, it returns home and goes directly back into its home campus.

That aspect could also be continued into the conference championship games — although given the stakes of the latter rounds, the NFL could also consider a more traditional “away from home” bubble that would take all four conference title teams and place them into a centralized practice location that could be even more controllable than a home bubble. The idea of this late-round bubble would be similar to what the NBA has in Orlando, which is arguably the most painstakingly planned sports campus environment we’ve seen in the pandemic. In a scenario like this, the NFL could host AFC/NFC practices in a pair of centralized Southern locales, which would give teams the ability to either practice in a bubble or outside.

The most ideal of those two locations might be Dallas and Houston, which could each offer facilities for use to the league and have team owners who would likely be open to it. As an added wrinkle, if either Dallas or Houston (or both) made the title games in their respective conferences, they could simply swap cities — putting Dallas practices in Houston and vice versa — thereby maintaining a road bubble environment for all four teams and maintaining an element of fairness.

While it sounds like a lot of hassle late in a season, the tradeoff for protecting teams at a vital phase of the season would show how serious the NFL is about getting a full 2020 slate into the books. In a way, the idea of bubbling teams at the end of the season would be similar to how some teams have historically opened their seasons with training camps far away from their home base. Those franchises that have “away” locales for training camps often do it to hone the focus and control the environment at a time when they want players solely focused on the job ahead. That sounds precisely like what teams will be looking for if they can make it to January without a COVID-related catastrophe.

None of this will make sense if it’s something the NFL is trying to iron out in November or December. The advantage pro football has now is one of illustration and time. The NFL has the luxury of letting baseball illustrate problems, and the bonus of a timeline to keep the same mistakes from taking root.

If the league doesn’t use that advantage to lock down the most important games on its schedule in one of the most defining seasons in NFL history, then it’s asking to have the rug pulled out from underneath it. The NFL can’t afford to have that happen. And right now it has the opportunity to make sure it doesn’t.

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