As the NFL and its teams barrel down the homestretch of the regular season, COVID-19 has reared its ugly head once again, sidelining more than 60 players and several coaches over a three-day span.
Now, when teams hope to be at their best as they position themselves for postseason contention, multiple franchises face the real possibility that these COVID-19 surges could place them at a significant competitive disadvantage and dramatically alter the course of their seasons.
The Cleveland Browns, L.A. Rams, Washington Football Team, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings – many of them in the playoff hunt – have all placed numerous players on the COVID-19 reserve list in the last three days, and now appear likely to have to play this week’s games in a short-handed state.
Among Cleveland’s list of COVID-19 positives – 18 players, including the practice squad, are on its reserve list – rank their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, and starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield.
This isn’t at all what NFL officials had hoped for as they kicked off the season under relaxed protocols thanks to the optimism fueled by high vaccination numbers among the 32 teams. With coaches and football operations staffers required to receive the vaccine, and more than 94% of players (as of late October) having received at least one course of the shot, the league readied for an expected return to normal.
But now, after a relatively quiet first 12 weeks of regular-season play (there were only 110 player positives during that span, according to NFL figures), the league and its teams find themselves faced with a familiar challenge as the cases of the last two weeks skyrocket.
The NFL may not have an outright crisis on its hands. But it certainly has – or should have – received a wake-up call. Now league and team officials and players must make some difficult decisions to keep the season on track.
It would be in the best interest of all parties involved to return to the vigilance that helped produce a 2020 regular season and postseason in which no games had to be canceled. But it remains to be seen if the NFL world is willing to again sacrifice the freedoms regained this season.
As the NFL and NFL Players Association met this past offseason to agree to a new collection of COVID-19 protocols, the hope was that the availability of vaccinations could dramatically improve day-to-day business.
Although Tier 1 and 2 team employees (coaches, trainers, general managers, scouts and other football operations members) were required to get the vaccine, the players union negotiated for its membership to have the option to decide individually on whether to receive the shot.
The NFL did, however, heavily incentivize getting the vaccine, ruling that vaccinated players could go without masks, partake in meals with one another in the cafeteria, work out freely after a year of having to adhere to limited weight-room numbers, resume holding team meetings indoors and at team headquarters, attend social functions throughout the year and eat out while on the road. Vaccinated players and coaches also didn’t have to go through daily testing, instead needing only to pass a test once every 14 days.
Meanwhile, unvaccinated players are required to test for COVID-19 daily and face all the restrictions listed above. They also must travel to games separately rather than flying on the team charter.
Any vaccinated individual testing positive for COVID-19 must quarantine until they are symptom-free and can produce two negative tests within a 24-hour span, while unvaccinated players automatically must quarantine for 10 days. Unvaccinated players are also subject to a five-day quarantine if ruled a close contact of an infected individual, a rule that doesn't apply to vaccinated players.
The protocols largely worked for the first 12 weeks of the season as the league experienced only an average of eight positive players cases a week among its 32 teams.
But the league’s medical experts cautioned that the holiday season could bring with it a spike in cases. Sure enough, ever since Thanksgiving, the numbers have risen. As this latest surge featured 37 positives on Monday, the NFL advised its teams of a new mandate that required all Tier 1 and 2 employees receive their COVID-19 booster if six months had passed since getting a Pfizer and Moderna vaccine and two months since getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Players, meanwhile, are not required to adhere to that mandate, however, they are strongly encouraged by the union to do so.
But will that be enough to quell this spike in cases? The NFL shouldn’t wait to find out.
As is the case all across the country, the vaccines seemingly have given NFL players and coaches a false sense of security. Their bodies now have a better chance to fight off the virus and avoid hospitalization or death, but the vaccinated certainly are not immune. And so, if the NFL truly cares about health and safety, along with avoiding financial losses (which you know the owners certainly care about the latter), teams should take more drastic measures than they have previously this season.
With clusters of positives popping up in Cleveland, Washington, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota, those organizations have entered into elevated protocols, which include a shift from in-person meetings to virtual ones, along with an increase in testing frequency.
But it would make sense for all of the NFL’s teams to take such measures now before additional teams experience outbreaks.
Ever since it began negotiating toward this year’s protocols, the players union had preferred to return to more frequent – and even daily – testing, according to people with knowledge of the situation, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the talks. The league, for a variety of reasons, preferred not to return to daily testing.
Part of that decision stems from the goal of using a less rigid daily setup as an incentive for getting vaccinated. One of the fears was that players would see no benefit to getting the vaccine if they still had to adhere to the same rigid protocols as they did the previous season.
But now, with cases on the rise, it’s time to revert to what proved highly effective. Avoiding the risk of having infected players unknowingly walking around facilities and engaging with teammates, and thus subjecting their team to a potential outbreak, should outweigh the desire for comfort.
The players union leadership team would be in favor of such an approach, and the league could be coming around on the idea as well.
In a statement released Wednesday, the NFLPA said, "The NFL decided to take away a critical weapon in our fight against the transmission of COVID-19 despite our union's call for daily testing months ago. We're talking to our player leadership & to the NFL about potential changes to the protocols so that we can complete the season."
During this week’s owners meetings, which are being held in the Dallas area, NFL officials also announced that the league and players union are discussing a modification to COVID-19 protocol, which could include testing and other parameters, such as the timeline for a return to action for asymptomatic players.
The NFL’s medical experts have stressed that testing frequencies will not entirely guard against the spread of COVID-19. And because of that, additional measures, such as a league-wide shift to virtual meetings and mandated mask use, seems logical.
As New York Giants co-owner John Mara told reporters outside the league meetings Wednesday morning, “It seems like it’s never going away.”
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank told reporters, “At some point, you feel like you are fighting a ghost. You don’t know where to swing.”
But in terms of detection and minimizing the spread of the virus, the NFL does know where to swing.
We don’t know when or if COVID-19 will ever go away. But the NFL and its teams saw first-hand that strict administration of and adherence to heightened protocol significantly helped protect against full-on interruptions last season, and largely kept players and coaches healthy.
The NFL is now in the homestretch of its first 17-game season, with an expanded postseason on tap.
Now is not the time to take a relaxed approach to COVID prevention. Instead of clinging to a false sense of security, a return to vigilance is the league’s best hope to protect its players, coaches and to again deliver an uninterrupted season.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL COVID-19 cases: Answer is already evident for addressing spike