The NBA and NHL are seemingly finalizing plans to hold their playoffs in "bubble cities" this summer. Major League Baseball and its players union are trying to bridge their financial gap to begin their season in early July. Golf, auto racing, soccer and other sports are back, or on their way.
So what about the NFL?
"There will be a season," said one local team official. "We have plenty of time to figure out the details."
That wasn't a declaration. It was just representative about the optimism everyone around the NFL seems to have that the league will play this fall, one way or another, the COVID-19 pandemic be damned. The league has been operating as if it's full steam ahead, business (mostly) as usual, though contingencies are being quietly planned.
Yes, of course there are a lot of unknowns. Offseason programs are still "virtual." Team facilities are just beginning to reopen. Coaches aren't even allowed back in their buildings yet. And the coronavirus itself adds in a lot of unknowns. But the NFL has one thing on its side that the other sports don't: Time. As of Tuesday, there are still 100 days to go before the scheduled regular season opener.
That's a lot of time to answer the many questions about how all this is going to work. I'll try to answer a few now to get you caught up on where the return of football stands.
So will there be an NFL season?
Well, you heard the source above, right? I said that was representative of the "optimism." Honestly, as I talk to league and team officials, agents, players, etc., I think it's more like certainty. Almost everyone seems to think the NFL is going to play, some way, somehow, no matter what.
Will it start on time?
That's the plan and they're sticking to it. But they're not stupid. There's a lot that has to happen between now and Game 1 on Sept. 10. The first preseason game is scheduled for Aug. 6. Training camps can open in late July -- just seven weeks from now.
Camps could be shortened and preseason games could be canceled or turned into joint scrimmages and really, nobody outside the NFL would care. It's the regular season that matters, and the schedule the league released did include some clever ways to possibly alter it.
There are no division games in Weeks 3 and 4 where every team has one home and one away game, so those weeks could be cut. All teams share a bye week with their Week 2 opponent, meaning the league could cancel Week 2 and reschedule those games for the scheduled bye weeks.
And yes, the Super Bowl -- LV, scheduled for Feb. 7 in Tampa -- could be pushed back, if necessary. Reportedly the NFL has contingency plans in place to hold it as late as Feb. 28, if needed.
Are there issues that could derail the NFL's plans?
Sure. The coronavirus. This is where the other sports come in. It seems now that sports teams in almost every region will be allowed to train and play, and that some sort of regular COVID-19 testing procedure will be in place. What's unknown is what happens if someone on a team or in an organization tests positive. If it's a player, will he have to be quarantined for two weeks? Will everyone who has been near him in the locker room, meeting rooms, or on the field have to be quarantined, too?
It's unclear if the NFL has a plan for that, though they surely are watching to see how the NHL, NBA and MLB handle that. In many ways, those sports are the canaries in the coal mine for the NFL. Also, if there is a second wave of COVID-19 and states begin restricting activities again, who knows what that will mean?
The idea of moving games and organizations midseason is a massive undertaking that, quite frankly, seems like an impossible task.
What about money? Are you sure the NFL and NFLPA will be able to agree on anything and not devolve into a fight like MLB and MLBPA?
Oh no, money will be an issue. A big one. One NFL agent told me teams are already signaling that they'll have to ask for concessions if -- and this is still an "if" -- games are played without fans. The loss of revenue for the NFL could be massive -- possibly $5.5 billion, according to Forbes. The catch phrase is "share the pain," the agent said.
And the pain is complicated because the NFL salary cap is tied to revenue, which means the cap in 2021 could technically go down -- a nightmare for free agents and teams just trying to keep their roster intact. There has already been some discussion around the league about "borrowing" from future caps just to keep the cap level next March.
Still, while it might be rhetorically ugly, it's hard to imagine the season could end up in jeopardy because of money (which sometimes seems to be the case with baseball). The NFLPA has never been as powerful as the MLBPA because so many of its members not only make near the league minimum, but also would be lucky to have careers of 1-3 years. Stars may complain -- as many did before the union approved the most recent Collective Bargaining in March -- but most players simply will not want to give up a year of their short career.
"For some of my guys, this might be the only year they ever play in the NFL," another agent said. "You want me to tell them to sit it out because they'll only make $400,000 instead of $610,000 (the new NFL rookie minimum). How am I supposed to do that?"
OK, so they'll play. But will there be fans in the stands?
That's hard to imagine, though the NFL insists it is preparing to have full stadiums in the fall. Even in New Jersey, one of the hardest-hit states in the nation, the governor said it's possible.
Notably, the Dolphins released a plan a few weeks ago showing how they could have a reduced amount of fans in the stands during the season -- possibly as few as 15,000 in a stadium built for 65,000, so social distancing guidelines could be followed. It even involved assigning specific times for fans in specific sections to enter the stadium, and a church-like, row-by-row exit plan.
It seemed a little unrealistic, to be honest. Also, if teams are only going to allow 20 percent of their season-ticket holders in, good luck deciding which ones.
What about training camp? That's less than two months away
They do plan to start on time (Are you sensing a theme here yet?). The NFL believes that all states will allow sports teams to begin training by July 22 when the first camps can open (July 29 is the first date the Giants and Jets can open). But yes, it's possible camps will have to be delayed or condensed.
It probably won't look the same, either. One local team official told me that to operate a camp properly there's a need for about 300 people -- 90 players, plus coaches, trainers, medical staff, equipment staff, the video team, not to mention the people who work in the cafeteria and clean the building. No one is sure if that many people will be allowed in one building, especially in New Jersey. And players who live locally might not be allowed to go home at all.
Will fans be able to watch training camp?
I wouldn't hold your breath on that. Some teams in some parts of the country might hold open practices, but I'd bet on Giants and Jets camps being closed to everyone outside of the organization.
Are in-person offseason programs and minicamps just lost?
Probably. The NFL has left open the possibility of players returning to facilities (and the field) this spring, but they also extended the "virtual" offseason programs through June 12. And the NFLPA says there's a "hard stop" for offseason programs that has already been negotiated for June 26.
Could players return during the two weeks between June 12 and 26? Theoretically, yes. But practically it might be impossible.
Isn't the lost offseason going to hurt the quality of play?
No. Don't believe anyone who tells you that, including players and coaches. We learned a good lesson in 2011 when the NFL owners imposed an offseason lockout that lasted until July 25. The Giants reported to camp four days later and the Jets reported three days after that. And remember, in that short week, teams had to conduct all their offseason business, including free agency, before rushing players to the field.
The Giants, by the way, won the Super Bowl in the 2011 season. The quality of their play seemed fine.
What about media coverage? Will we still get the usual stellar reports from you?
Thanks for asking. And of course you will. Media access is likely going to be a lot different, though. Those plans seem to only be in the talking stages, and the league is surely watching to see what other sports do. But I assume there will be limits on the number of media, probably no access to the locker rooms, and a lot of Zoom-like interviews, with reporters in one room and players in another.
I'd imagine, though, after months without sports, we'll all take whatever we can get.