Reality setting in around the NFL after positive COVID-19 tests disrupt 2020 season

On Wednesday, as the COVID-19 outbreak in the Tennessee Titans organization was just starting to take shape, Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, offered a reminder that none of this — not the positive tests or the shuffled schedule — was a surprise. Not even Saturday’s news of a superstar player like Cam Newton testing positive, making him the first starting quarterback to be infected, was totally unexpected. Rather, that the coronavirus has injected itself fully into the NFL season, was something they’ve tried to plan for.

“This is why we have the protocols,” Sills said. “We expect to have positive cases. We’ve been unbelievably fortunate to this point to have very few. But given how endemic this disease is in the population and given how easy it is to transmit, we expect we are going to have positive cases.”

That Newton is now among those who have tested positive, and that the league has pushed back the Patriots’ game against the Chiefs to Monday or Tuesday, will certainly garner a great deal of attention, particularly coming on the heels of the outbreak in the Titans organization, which has now infected 16 people including eight players. Two games have already been moved around the calendar and, as of Saturday afternoon, nobody knows when the Patriots, Titans and Chiefs, whose practice squad quarterback Jordan Ta’amu also tested positive, will be able to get back into their facilities and on a normal schedule.

But the real headline is that it took so long for the pandemic to exert its control over the league. Once the league decided that playing in an enormous bubble was just not practical — too many people for too long a period of time, a much different scenario that existed for the NFL than the NBA — it accepted the fact that it would function at the mercy of the virus. The ability to start and complete the season would rely largely on the self-discipline of every player and coach, on the flexibility of the schedule makers, on the stringency of the voluminous and detailed protocols, and on a great deal of luck.

The NFL’s luck hasn’t necessarily run out with a week of high-profile cases. Rather, reality set in. It is going to be a tough slog to get through the season, and league officials have known that since they decided to have a season at all. Teams will probably be annoyed by the juggling, which the Steelers certainly were when their game against the Titans was pushed back and ultimately postponed. Others will be put at a disadvantage, like the Patriots, who now face the rest of the season not knowing when Newton will be allowed to play and how he’ll feel even after he has recovered. Owners were warned months ago that competitive inequities would have to be accepted.

And the NFL is going to continue playing as long as it possibly can. Want an example to look toward? Major League Baseball suffered an outbreak four days into its regular season. Multiple teams were sidelined for extended periods, forcing them into bizarre and burdensome makeup schedules. The end result: MLB is now in its postseason and the first team to suffer an outbreak — the Miami Marlins — are in the National League Division Series. When NFL training camps opened at the end of July, players were being told “Don’t be the Marlins.” Two months later, everybody would like to be in their spot.

In the immediate future, the NFL will have to determine the Patriots’ fate. Everything will depend on more test results and if the NFL determines that it is safe to allow the Patriots to get on a plane — the one place where true social distancing is most difficult. If Newton is the only person to test positive, it is not inconceivable that the Patriots and Chiefs could play Monday or Tuesday. Last weekend, the Atlanta Falcons put A.J. Terrell on the reserve/COVID list on Saturday and when all other testing came back negative, the Falcons were allowed to play the Chicago Bears on Sunday. The upshot: no other Bears or Falcons have been infected since then.

There is a significant difference for the Patriots — they have to fly to Kansas City, and that adds a layer of risk that could complicate the decision even if Newton is alone in testing positive. The Titans flew to Minnesota last week to play the Vikings and no Vikings have tested positive since — a bit of very promising news in an otherwise difficult week. But the Titans’ outbreak has grown each day this week and the NFL does not know when they will be allowed to return to their facility. The Titans have illustrated how long it can take for positive tests to show up — the facility has been closed since Monday, but players who were last tested on Friday are still coming up positive. If the NFL believes having players confined for several hours on a team plane is a critical factor in the spread, the NFL will face a time crunch — can it be certain the spread has ended so quickly that they can allow the Patriots to fly to Kansas City? Because of the incubation period, contact tracing and quarantine is critically important.

Sills has always emphasized that testing would not keep the NFL safe, and the last week has underscored that. Players and coaches are being tested every day, but rigid adherence to the protocol — wearing masks and social distancing, for example — is the only way to control spreading the virus when teams are gathered if there is an infection in their midst.

Sills has also emphasized that the NFL is learning from each situation, and what is happening now to the Titans, Patriots and Chiefs is instructive for the rest of the season. As there have already been, there could be more changes to the protocols. To get through the season may require dramatic workarounds. Perhaps so many games have to be pushed back that adding a week to the back end of the regular season, and altering the playoff schedule, becomes necessary. Perhaps teams consider voluntary local bubbles, in which players voluntarily isolate from their families at a hotel. Perhaps a postseason bubble becomes appealing.

Whatever comes next, get used to it. What has happened in the NFL this week won’t be the end of it. Rather, it’s the beginning of the season we always knew we’d have.

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