If a COVID-19 pause in NFL is necessary, it's now clear someone else is going to have to force it

·NFL columnist
·7 min read

From the start of the 2020 season, the prevailing assumption was that the NFL would do the right thing in the face of a pandemic. Everything would be handled safely and responsibly and with the health of players and personnel in mind. There would be daily testing, weekly COVID-19 updates with the league’s chief medical officer, and a heavy-handed system of checks and balances for protocol violations. And in the face of real danger, if there was any question about the league’s flexibility to hit the pause button and take a breath, Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy squashed any doubts back in October during a virtual meeting with fans.

“We could move the Super Bowl back as far as four weeks,” Murphy said. “Obviously, we’d prefer not to do that, but you do have that flexibility if we run into a number of outbreaks with different teams or if we have to kind of move the schedule back.”

At the time, it was a soothing message that the NFL was prepared to stop in the face of significant problems. But there’s a gap in the context of Murphy’s statement that was never filled: What, specifically, would be the threshold for the NFL to see a scheduling pause as a necessary step?

At the time, the league wasn’t answering that question. And to date, it still hasn’t, which is starting to form a significant gap in the NFL’s own standards considering the league has spent the past several weeks slamming past one ridiculous situation after another — apparently without any significant thought to a schedule pause.

The NFL has already bent over backward to keep Ravens-Steelers on the schedule, and reigning MVP Lamar Jackson (8) won't even play. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
The NFL has already bent over backward to keep Ravens-Steelers on the schedule, and reigning MVP Lamar Jackson (8) won't even play. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

What the NFL is saying with its COVID approach

More than a month after Murphy’s declaration, three things have become apparent.

The NFL is willing to push through significant COVID outbreaks inside a team to avoid a pause.

The NFL still won’t specify a precise standard for a pause because it would then be accountable for that standard.

Any pause is now more likely to be forced by a state or local government, or a player walkout.

That’s where we’re at with the league’s seemingly absolute — and now arguably dangerous — resolve to keep the 2020 season on track.

You’ve gotten robbed of a bye week and a long weekend break because of another team’s infections? Too bad.

You don’t have a single quarterback for this week’s game? Figure it out.

You can’t get in anything more than a few walkthrough practices and one day of conditioning? Lace them up.

Your team has new COVID infections every morning for eight straight days? We’ll push your game a few days.

All four of those things have happened inside of the past week. The Pittsburgh Steelers have now been robbed of two regularly scheduled breaks (a bye week and a long weekend) because of an opponent’s COVID outbreak. The Denver Broncos were so thoroughly wiped out at quarterback on Sunday, they were forced to gift the New Orleans Saints a win by starting a practice squad wide receiver behind center. And the Baltimore Ravens ran into a buzzsaw of infection, establishing the season’s longest sustained outbreak inside a team, with more than one third of the roster rolled onto the infection reserve list in the past 10 days. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Ravens will now take the field Wednesday against Pittsburgh, both shorthanded and having logged one workout and zero normal practices.

All of this is happening inside an infection spike that is sweeping throughout the country and the NFL at large. If that isn’t a message being sent by the NFL, I don’t know what is. Something like, “Someone else is going to have to put this thing on hold, because we won’t.”

The conversation surrounding NFL’s COVID season has changed

That’s how you get ProFootballTalk.com reporting fears of a wildcat strike, in which Ravens players could refuse to take the field Wednesday because they don’t think it’s safe to play with only a portion of the team, not to mention no practice and a significant ongoing COVID outbreak inside the roster.

It’s also how you get Santa Clara County shutting down the San Francisco 49ers in the midst of the community’s rising infection rate — with a clear message that local medical officials don’t care if the shuttering upsets the franchise or the NFL at large. The local government is going to do what it thinks is right and America’s biggest and most powerful sports league can kick rocks if it doesn’t like it.

“Historically, sportsmanship has been about building a team and protecting that team,” Santa Clara County executive Dr. Jeff Smith said in the wake of closing down the 49ers. “Coaches, managers and owners used to want to protect their players from harm. Those values seem to have been placed on hold during the COVID pandemic. … If leaders want to protect their teams and communities, they should not play anywhere until it is safe. One might envision a reemergence of team-building if the teams spent their time building a COVID relief fund for the community rather than trying to put the community at more risk.”

Frankly, this should all provide some valuable perspective on what’s happening right now.

Kyle Shanahan (right) and the San Francisco 49ers will play their next two home games in Arizona after Santa Clara shut down their ability to do so at Levi's Stadium. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Kyle Shanahan (right) and the San Francisco 49ers will play their next two home games in Arizona after Santa Clara shut down their ability to do so at Levi's Stadium. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

It should tell everyone that the league isn’t stopping for almost anything — leaving others to make a decision about taking the health and safety situation into their own hands.

This is no longer a talk about competitive disadvantage in the NFL. That went out the window long ago. This is a conversation about riding along the very edge of pandemic conditions with the Ravens. It’s a conversation about why the NFL thinks it’s still reasonably safe for an NFL team to go an entire season without any of its scheduled breaks, like the Steelers will. It’s a talk about whether or not it’s really safe to force an NFL team to go into a game without an actual quarterback. And while we’re at it, it’s also a conversation about why nobody in the league office is batting an eyelash at the Dallas Cowboys putting up stunning November home attendance numbers right in the middle of the worst spate of COVID infections that Texas has seen.

Eventually, all of those conversations intersect at one place: What in the living hell is the NFL’s standard for stopping the season for a week? And moreover, what’s the point of having an extra four weeks of breathing room for the Super Bowl if the league refuses to use even one of those weeks to take a reset when it so badly appears to be needed?

Does half a team need to be infected, since apparently one third isn’t enough? Does COVID need to wipe out an entire offense or defense, rather than just an entire quarterbacks room? Does someone in a franchise need to die? Does there need to be a massive cluster of infected fans traced back to AT&T Stadium?

If you’re waiting for some clarity on those points, don’t hold your breath. The NFL isn’t into publicly establishing thresholds. As we’ve seen, limits are going to have to be established by someone else. Aside from those occurrences, the NFL will continue to trot out the ideology that this nonstop momentum through the worst of conditions is all just a matter of analyzing the situation as it happens in real time.

Well, November was the worst month the league has seen, by far. If the NFL is weighing a pause on a “know it when we see it” standard, then it's time to take the blindfold off.

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