In a Historic Holiday Week, the NFL Looks to Wrest Stability From Chaos

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The NFL managed to get through the first 14 weeks of the season before the coronavirus reasserted itself by way of the hyper-contagious omicron variant, and while some doomsayers are already breaking out the plague doctor get-ups, nothing about how the league is handling this outbreak suggests that more significant disruptions are in the works. And this week’s COVID-induced reshuffle may even boost TV viewership—an outcome that seems all the more likely, given the anything-goes state of the playoff picture.

While the near-vertical spike in positive tests illustrates how quickly the virus is spreading through the well-protected ranks of the NFL—as of Dec. 15, 95% of all players had been vaccinated—the vast majority of those who’ve been diagnosed are said to be wholly asymptomatic or experiencing only mild complaints. Thus far, runaway outbreaks have been concentrated in a few teams; of the 216 players who’ve been placed in the COVID protocol in the past seven days, 25 are Rams, 21 call Cleveland home, 17 play for Washington and 15 suit up for the Bears. All told, eight clubs have accounted for more than half (115) of the reported cases.

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In response to the sudden deluge of COVID diagnoses, the NFL and NFLPA on Saturday agreed to new protocols for the remainder of the season, a strategy designed to help keep more vaccinated, asymptomatic players from getting sidelined. Under the revised guidelines, unvaccinated players will continue to be tested on a daily basis, while their less at-risk teammates will be screened if they develop symptoms or come in contact with someone diagnosed with the virus.

In a weekend briefing, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills told reporters that the new policies are a reflection of the particular omicron variant, which is at once far more contagious than previous strains but produces a “milder form of illness.” Dr. Sills went on to add that the goal is to “test smarter and test in a more strategic fashion.” Meanwhile, in a bid to halt the spread, the NFL has mandated a return to indoor masking, a resumption of virtual meetings, and the reduction (if not outright elimination) of COVID-friendly gatherings/assemblies.

The day before the medical briefing, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told team owners, general managers and head coaches that every effort will be made to safely “play our full schedule within the current 18 weeks.” In the same memo, in which Goodell characterized the variant as “the kind of change that warrants a flexible response,” it was made clear that the league would “make every effort to minimize the competitive and economic burden on the participating teams” in the event of further postponements between now and the end of the season.

As much as the protean nature of the coronavirus has made for what amounts to a whole lot of provisional solutions to a series of problems that refuse to be pinned down, the NFL’s practical approach to monitoring the health of its players would seem to present the best shot at getting through the second pandemic season. And while the vicissitudes of infection, the dumb luck that separates the well from the sick, can make an already unfriendly universe seem all the more unfair—in losing to the Raiders yesterday on a 48-yard field goal as time expired, the Browns fell from what would have been the fourth berth in the AFC playoff pecking order to 12th place—the timing may actually work in the NFL’s favor.

It’s Christmas week, and the league is slated to appear on your TV no fewer than five times in the next seven days. Following Monday’s impromptu doubleheader, two games originally scheduled for Fox’s Sunday regional windows (Washington at Philadelphia, Seattle at Los Angeles Rams) will kick off on the network’s affiliate stations today at 7 p.m. ET. Not only does this provide fans with a rare Tuesday night NFL showcase, but the twin displacements allowed Fox to beam Sunday’s early Cowboys-Giants game to 85% of U.S. households, while transforming the late Packers-Ravens broadcast into a true national offering, with 99% coverage.

As was made evident last year, when COVID forced the NFL to reschedule 15 games, football can flourish in even the most unconventional time slots. After an outbreak left Fox having to push its Dec. 3 Cowboys-Ravens broadcast from its Thursday primetime perch to 5 p.m. the following Tuesday, the network went on to scare up 13.6 million viewers—on par with what Thursday Night Football averaged across its entire 11-game run. (For what it’s worth, Fox’s Tuesday primetime lineup last fall eked out just 1.29 million viewers per week.)

The Fox makeup games won’t have much in the way of national competition, as the season finale of ABC’s The Bachelorette is the only first-run program scheduled opposite the special NFL presentation. ESPN’s college football coverage is unlikely to siphon off a significant chunk of the Fox audience; per Nielsen, the three previous installments of what is now known as the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl averaged 1.32 million viewers. Perhaps inevitably, the early half of TNT’s Tuesday NBA doubleheader (Wizards-Nets) was postponed after a COVID surge took out a huge chunk of Brooklyn’s lineup. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving are among the 10 Nets now in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

In lieu of the Wizards-Nets game, TNT will counter Fox’s regional NFL action with Pacers-Heat at 7:30 p.m.

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