Despite the NFL’s best efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, the league finally experienced its first outbreak as teams began to prepare for Week 4 of the 2020 season.
Due to numerous positive cases inside of the Tennessee Titans’ organization, the NFL was forced to postpone the team’s Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers to a later date, just three days before the two teams were scheduled to face off in Nashville.
“The Pittsburgh-Tennessee game scheduled for Week 4 will be rescheduled to later this season after one additional Titans player and one personnel member tested positive for COVID-19 [on October 1, 2020],” the league wrote in a statement. “The decision to postpone the game was made to ensure the health and safety of players, coaches and game day personnel. The Titans facility will remain closed and the team will continue to have no in-person activities until further notice.”
Initially, it appeared as if the later date could’ve been a day or two after the originally-scheduled Sunday. Then, the league was forced to postponed the game until some time later in the season, as cases continued to rise inside the Titans organization.
The issue isn’t anything new to sports fans, who witnessed plenty of outbreaks among MLB teams throughout the summer. However, it’s unchartered territory for the NFL, and no concrete blueprint for the league to follow as it looks for a solution.
NFL games are a lot more difficult to switch around than an MLB team’s schedule, given the amount of preparation and physicality that goes into a single football game compared to baseball. Don’t believe it? Just look at the amount of games played in each league’s season, with any NFL team competing in just 16 games compared to an MLB team’s 162 (under normal circumstances).
So, with such a strict schedule to work around and TV deals to factor in, what options are there for the NFL to consider to make things work in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?
For the Titans and Steelers, there is an easy solution already built into the league’s schedule.
The Titans’ initial bye week was scheduled for Week 7, with the Steelers’ scheduled for Week 8. As both teams get accustomed to the fact that they have a makeshift “bye week” in Week 4, a simple schedule switch for the Steelers may be the only piece needed to complete the puzzle.
The Steelers’ game against the Baltimore Ravens, originally scheduled for Week 7, could be moved back a week, shifting the Ravens’ bye week to Week 7. Then, the Steelers-Titans matchup could be moved from Week 4 to Week 7, officially shifting each team’s real “bye week” to Week 4.
It’s not ideal for the Steelers, who were forced to continue their preparations and practices as they awaited confirmation about the status of their Week 4 matchup against the Titans. The team would then have to play consecutive games from Week 5 through Week 17, after originally having a break in the schedule at the halfway point of the year.
But, it’s the most likely solution for the league, and a lucky one given the circumstances, as well.
However, the quick fix may be equal to putting duct tape on a major water leak, and doesn’t account for the potential for more postponements/cancellations across the league later on in the year.
It also doesn’t factor in the possibility for the Minnesota Vikings, the Titans’ opponent in Week 3, also having their Week 4 game impacted due to the outbreak in Tennessee.
While there is no perfect solution for the NFL if more games get pushed back, one other option for the league to consider actually comes inside of its postseason schedule.
For years, the league has had an extra week in between the Conference Championship games and the Super Bowl where the Pro Bowl gets played.
If the NFL was willing to move the Pro Bowl back to its original spot after the Super Bowl, or even cancel it all together, the league could implement a “Week 18” of sorts and create a slate of games using the matchups that were impacted by COVID-19.
It doesn’t account for teams that have multiple games postponed due to the pandemic, and could change the stakes of some highly-anticipated games if teams are already locked into playoff spots. But, something is better than nothing, and it is an option that the league has in their back pocket if they need it.
There isn’t any perfect scenario in a world impacted by a global pandemic, and the MLB found that out the hard way when it was forced to have some teams play more regular season games than others.
But, after all of the trouble the NFL went through to get a schedule created and protocols put in place, the league will likely do everything in their power to complete the 2020 season. So, don’t be surprised if the league is forced to exhaust all possible options if games get postponed due to COVID-19.