On Saturday, the San Francisco 49ers learned that they were barred from practicing or playing in their home county for several weeks.
On Sunday, the Denver Broncos started a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback.
On Wednesday, after a third postponement, the Ravens could play the Pittsburgh Steelers with up to 20 players unavailable because of the coronavirus. They activated four from the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday.
Almost three months into the strangest season in NFL history, the league has made clear what it is willing to sacrifice: Competitive balance doesn’t matter amid a pandemic. Health and safety do, according to league officials.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said in early November that the league considers postponement only when it “can’t find a common thread” in ongoing transmission. The quality of the roster doesn’t factor into the NFL’s decision; only the possibility of more infections.
In a memo sent to all 32 teams at the conclusion of its fall meetings, the league said, “absent medical considerations, games will not be postponed or rescheduled simply to avoid roster issues caused by injury or illness affecting multiple players, even within a position group.” It cited increased roster flexibility, which includes expanded practice squads and the creation of the reserve/COVID-19 list, which allows teams to add players to its 53-man roster in place of anyone who has tested positive or been exposed to an infected person.
It’s why the Ravens’ Week 12 game against the Steelers was pushed back from Thanksgiving Day to Sunday afternoon, and then from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday night, and then from Tuesday night to Wednesday. And it’s why as of Monday, even as a massive outbreak among the Ravens has led to nine straight days of reported positive tests, they’re set to head to Heinz Field with just 35 players from their 53-man active roster.
Before the season, players and coaches acknowledged that the coronavirus would disrupt rosters and alter game plans. From Aug. 1 to Nov. 14, the latest date for which leaguewide data is available, 95 players and 175 other team personnel tested positive. But over 11-plus weeks of the NFL’s regular season, no games have been canceled.
“I think there’s definitely possibilities that you’re going to need a lot of guys to play in the course of the year; that could happen, so we’ll see,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said in early August. “It’s definitely something that we are trying to build for, to be as adaptable as possible. It just goes back to: Every player in that locker room is important.”
To the NFL, every game is important. The reported value of the league’s broadcast rights is over $5 billion annually. When the NFL and ESPN agreed in 2011 to keep “Monday Night Football” on the cable sports network through 2021, the cost of the eight-year extension was reportedly $15.2 billion, or $1.9 billion annually. Nineteen of the 50 most watched prime-time telecasts last year, and four of the top five overall, were NFL games.
Because of the challenges inherent in canceling or forfeiting games — there’s uncertainty about whether the league would owe players a game check in such an event — the NFL has preferred to reschedule games threatened by an outbreak. It’s also reportedly considered adding a Week 18 to the 17-week regular season, another contingency plan to safeguard against lost games.
To deliver on its promised inventory in 2020, the league has had to tolerate certain irregularities. As the start of the season neared, the league decided it would allow teams, in consultation with city and state officials, to determine their own attendance policies.
Without a uniform approach, teams entered Week 1 on an uneven playing field in terms of home-field advantage. The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs opened the 2020 season with about 16,000 fans in attendance at Arrowhead Stadium. The Ravens, seen as a top challenger in the AFC, played a few days later in Baltimore with no fans.
Before long, the pandemic was changing on-field plans, too. Over the first two weeks of the regular season, no players tested positive for COVID-19. In Week 3, there were two players with confirmed positives. In Week 4, with 11 confirmed positives, four games were rescheduled: Two were pushed back later in the day; one was postponed a day; another was postponed three weeks.
But as the NFL tightened its testing protocols and safety guidelines, and as the pandemic continued to rage across the country, the league started to run out of room. Bye weeks had given league officials the flexibility to rearrange schedules if testing and contact tracing could not contain outbreaks by kickoff; the Ravens had their Week 7 game against Steelers pushed back a week because of a Titans outbreak that persisted for two weeks.
Now, even in the face of potentially crippling COVID-related losses, the league is pressing on. The 49ers found a temporary new home at the Cardinals’ stadium in Arizona after Santa Clara County, home of San Francisco’s stadium and practice facility, on Saturday announced a three-week ban on contact sports.
That wasn’t even the day’s strangest development. The Broncos had the three quarterbacks remaining on their roster placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list after the NFL deemed them “high-risk” close contacts to backup Jeff Driskel, who’d tested positive. The three were reportedly discovered to have not worn masks at one point during contact with Driskel.
Denver turned to practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton, who’d played the position at Wake Forest. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Hinton was the first nonquarterback to start under center for an NFL team in 55 years. The Broncos lost to the New Orleans Saints, 31-3.
The Ravens-Steelers game was thrice bumped back for the same reason Denver had to play: containment. Contact tracing had determined that the Broncos’ outbreak was limited to one position; that the position was the most important in football didn’t matter.
The Ravens, meanwhile, had their game first postponed Wednesday because, according to the NFL’s Sills, the team’s growing outbreak left the Thanksgiving Day matchup in a “window of vulnerability.” He explained that by the game’s scheduled kickoff Thursday night, “we would not have confidence in going forward. But I think we feel we’re very close to the end of that transmission event.”
On Friday, with even more Ravens players testing positive but league officials confident that containment was possible in the short term, the Sunday night showdown was delayed another two days. In a statement, the NFL said the decision was made “out of an abundance of caution to ensure the health and safety of players, coaches and game day personnel and in consultation with medical experts.”
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Now, even after three more players tested positive Sunday, the Ravens are scheduled to travel to Pittsburgh with few of the stars who played in the teams’ Week 8 meeting, a 28-24 Steelers win. Every phase of their game has been affected: All-Pro quarterback Lamar Jackson, Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell and Pro Bowl long snapper Morgan Cox are all out, among many others.
The coronavirus has touched Pittsburgh, too, with four players ruled out in recent days because of positive tests or high-risk exposure. But the game, for now, will go on. What’s concerning for the Ravens — having just four defensive linemen, two quarterbacks and no active-roster tight ends available — is not the NFL’s worry.
If the outbreak is over, the game can begin.