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From the moment the NFL announced its let’s-just-do-it-and-be-legends plan for bull-rushing right through the pandemic, you knew there was at least one team that was going to get screwed. One team that would, through no fault of its own, be forced to change its schedules, play on short notice, and generally make up for the sins of other teams … the NFL equivalent of the one kid who actually did the work on the group project, in other words.
So the only real surprise here is that the NFL’s scheduling punching bag isn’t a perennial doormat like the Jaguars or Jets, but instead is one of the league’s top-shelf franchises. Not only that, the Pittsburgh Steelers have somehow managed to remain undefeated through a season that is, quite literally, unlike any other.
Let’s run down the gauntlet Pittsburgh has had to run this year:
Lost their Week 8 bye after a Tennessee outbreak forced the Steelers into an unexpected Week 4 bye, meaning Pittsburgh will play 13 weeks without a break;
Saw their Thanksgiving Day game against Baltimore postponed three times, finally taking the field this past Wednesday afternoon for one of the uglier games in recent memory;
Will have to wait an extra day to play Washington, a game that’s now kicking off Monday afternoon;
And as a result, the Steelers will play division-leading Buffalo on a shorter rest in Week 14, meaning they’ll play three games in 12 days.
“They're trying to see us fail, bro,” Steelers tight end Eric Ebron said on Uninterrupted’s 17 Weeks podcast on SiriusXM/Pandora, via Pro Football Talk. “Welcome to the National Football League."
That’s overselling it a touch — the last thing the league wants is one of its most popular teams to fail — but yeah, the breaks are definitely not falling Pittsburgh’s way this season. If ever there was a time a team could legitimately play the disrespect card, it’s now.
Thing is, the Steelers are only the most visible victim in what’s become the NFL’s new mantra: complete the games. The league is so hellbent on bringing home a complete 256-game schedule that it’ll steamroll any opposition, no matter how legitimate. No quarterbacks in uniform, like the Broncos? Team decimated by outbreaks, like the Ravens? Weekly rhythm annihilated, like the Steelers? Too bad; strap on those pads, lads.
“The league isn’t stopping for almost anything,” Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson wrote earlier this week, “leaving others to make a decision about taking the health and safety situation into their own hands.”
The “others” in this case could be state or local governments. Pennsylvania recently laid down new restrictions on gatherings, which will prevent fans from attending future Steelers games this year. So far Pennsylvania has not yet enacted the kind of California lockdown measures that would prevent the Steelers from playing at home at all, but it’s a long way to the AFC championship.
The “others” who have power here also include the players themselves, which brings us back to Ebron and his understandable frustration. “We put all of these stipulations in place,” he said. “Everybody signed up and said, ‘Ok, this is gonna be cool.’ Nobody thought you would play three games in 12 days.”
Ebron echoed the thoughts of JuJu Smith-Schuster from last week:
First the NFL takes away our bye week because another team can’t get their Covid situation together, now they take away our Thanksgiving primetime game for the same reason. Smh.
— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) November 25, 2020
Granted, they’re focused on their own team’s challenges, which is fine, but there’s a larger point: Why keep playing the games when it’s clear the league’s running with one tire over the edge of the cliff? Why didn’t the league just force the Ravens to forfeit last week’s game? What will be the break point where the league decides to cancel a game? How many chances does a team get before the NFL has to bow before the reality of a pandemic?
One quirk at play in the discussion of game cancellation: If a team forfeits a game, nobody gets paid on either side of the ball. That’s unfortunate and completely unfair for the team that had nothing to do with the outbreak, but Ebron, at least, said he’s willing to take that hit.
“I don’t care about a game check,” Ebron said. “I’m sorry, I know there are people who don’t make the amount of money I do. I know that. So what? I’m sure they don’t want to play three games in 12 days either. They’d much rather, you know, lose a game check than risk them not making a check the next year because they’re hurt.” Ebron’s weekly game checks amount to $58,823.53, per PFT.
Pittsburgh deserves plenty of credit for managing to remain undefeated through this strange season. Per BetMGM, the Steelers (+550) aren’t the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl, because, you know … Kansas City (+275). But they do have the power to hold onto home-field advantage and, more importantly, that one single first-round bye.
Ebron is already anticipating a trip to Tampa for the Super Bowl. While that won’t sit well with the famously focused Mike Tomlin, Ebron nonetheless has an idea in mind for how the league can make good on what it’s asked of Pittsburgh this season.
“They just better give us the biggest plane, the best hotel, the top of everything,” he said. “Whatever they did for Kansas City last year, we need to be 30 times better than that when we go to the Super Bowl, because that’ll be their makeup to us. They gotta roll out the red carpet for our ass now.”
You can’t say Pittsburgh won’t have earned it.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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