NFL holding its breath as Super Bowl LV has first brush with COVID

Andy Reid didn’t look or sound overly concerned.

That has to be the most reassuring development after two of his Kansas City Chiefs players, center Daniel Kilgore and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, were placed on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list.

“It will all work out,” the Kansas City coach said, sounding if not confident, then at least hopeful. “It’s all work out for them when it’s all said and done.”

Neither has tested positive for the virus. Instead they are considered “high-risk” due to “close contacts.” As long as they don’t test positive on ensuing tests this week, then they should be cleared in time for Sunday’s Super Bowl.

This is as much about the NFL’s protocols being incredibly stringent – and potentially curbing further trouble – as much as anything else.

“The NFL has done a great job with it, presenting different safety things for the players to stay as safe as possible,” Reid said Monday. “We've been hammering this point home forever. The problem is you're fighting the invisible man ...

“These guys were being as safe as they could be,” Reid added. “It just gets you when least expected, and we're seeing that in everything. It's an unfortunate thing.”

So no need to panic. We think. At least not yet. Which doesn’t mean the NFL isn’t.

The NFL is dealing with the challenges of staging a season amid the pandemic right up until Super Bowl LV. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
The NFL is dealing with the challenges of staging a season amid the pandemic right up until Super Bowl LV. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

This is one of the scenarios that has led to sleepless nights inside league headquarters.

The NFL never flinched at the idea of playing during the pandemic. It has never drastically altered its calendar. It changed up what it could change up – distancing, masks, no preseason games – but it has been as full-speed-ahead as possible.

It powered through summer training camps, then an entire 17-week season, and finally a month of playoff games. Games were postponed, stars were missed, no doubt some results were impacted. It was what it was, however. The season has gone off with a fairly limited amount of trouble.

It has been a success.

Yet there is still one game to go, and to have the biggest game of the year impacted by the virus would be a disaster. There’s about 100 people, and who knows much revenue, counting on the Super Bowl being super on Sunday afternoon.

That’s why when COVID enters even the periphery of the periphery, there is cause for concern.

The NFL has ramped up its safety standards in the lead-up to Super Bowl LV between the Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Essentially everything is about getting the key players on the field.

That means the Chiefs aren’t even traveling to Florida until Friday or even Saturday. The Bucs are already there, but they are treating it like a normal game week.

The traditional “Media Day” was canceled and replaced by Zoom sessions. There were no “arrival ceremonies” since no one has arrived. There will be no shared media conferences, or media conferences at all. There are no buses to practice sessions or anything else like it.

“This is very different than the other nine experiences,” Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady said Monday of his previous trips to the Super Bowl.

If the league could put Brady and Patrick Mahomes in isolation bubbles, it would.

That’s essentially what it is doing by putting Kilgore and Robinson on the COVID list, isolating them just in case there is a reason to isolate them.

“The league has built-in rules and regulations, so we follow those,” Reid said.

While the great fear is an outbreak that takes a star player, or multiple players, out of the game, even losing Kilgore or Robinson matters. In a matchup expected to be close, everything counts.

The Chiefs’ offensive line is already without two of its best tackles, providing an opportunity for the Buccaneers’ vicious pass rush to get to Mahomes after recording five sacks in the NFC championship game. Kilgore played only on special teams in the AFC championship, but he started four games this season. Depth always matters.

Meanwhile, Robinson may not be Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce, but he’s an integral part of the Kansas City passing attack. He caught 45 passes and three touchdowns this season.

This is life inside a pandemic. The NFL took on the challenge of operating as close to business as usual as possible. Now, just six days from finishing the task, it’ll hold its breath.

Not just for this, but anything else.

“You’re fighting germs,” Reid said. “And they are hard to see.”

The NFL’s collective nervousness is a bit more obvious.

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