As of Friday morning, the Ravens are scheduled to play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon. That might not be the case for long.
With quarterback Lamar Jackson testing positive for COVID-19 and the team’s outbreak spreading, Ravens players were told in a call Thursday night that Sunday’s game was increasingly unlikely to be held, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. The NFL has already postponed the AFC North rivals’ matchup once this week, bumping back their Thanksgiving Day meeting to Sunday.
All of which has left the league in a tough spot. Two days from kickoff, commissioner Roger Goodell seemingly has three options, none of them ideal. Here’s how the Ravens and Steelers could proceed.
1. Play on
The NFL postponed the Ravens’ game from Thursday to Sunday because, according to Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, NFL officials felt that they were still in a “window of vulnerability.” They were confident that, by the time the Ravens had to travel to Pittsburgh, the league would have a better understanding of the outbreak.
The NFL has been reluctant to move around games this season. Sills said in an early-November conference call that postponement is considered only when the league “can’t find a common thread, can’t find a linkage and [is] having difficulty or an unusually large number of high-risk contacts.” Even with the Ravens’ growing caseload, the NFL could determine from contact tracing and other measures that the outbreak has been contained.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the median incubation period for the coronavirus is about four to five days. Quarterback Trace McSorley first was added to the reserve/COVID-19 list last Friday, and running backs Mark Ingram II and J.K. Dobbins had positive tests taken Sunday.
In an interview Wednesday, Sills told the NFL Network that the league was reviewing genome sequencing among infected individuals to better understand the virus’ spread.
“We feel like we have a really good handle on exactly when transmission occurred and how it occurred,” Sills said. “And I think that we feel like we’re just a couple days away from being out of that window of vulnerability for that transmission event. So obviously, you have to take each day as it comes and look for any new data that may emerge.”
The Ravens have closed the team’s facility through at least the weekend, making a road game in Pittsburgh a logistical nightmare. But if the NFL deems the outbreak contained, the Ravens could play on, depleted roster and all.
2. Postpone the game
If the Ravens can’t play Sunday, the NFL could consider pushing the game back to Monday or Tuesday. Or it could consider pushing the game back into an unprecedented Week 18.
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A short-term solution is difficult. The Ravens are scheduled to play Thursday against the Dallas Cowboys, and a two- or three-day turnaround would be punishing on players. Bumping the Ravens-Steelers game to Monday or Tuesday and the Ravens-Cowboys game to next weekend has its own challenges. The Thursday night game is a prime-time slot, and teams expecting to play three days later would be reluctant to embrace a compressed work week on short notice.
Because the Ravens and Steelers have already had their bye weeks, their game cannot be rescheduled for later in the regular season, as their initial Week 7 meeting was. If the NFL deems their rematch essential — as it likely would, given the teams’ place in the playoff race — it could postpone the game to the week after the regular-season-capping Week 17.
Adding a Week 18 would delay the start of the playoffs and potentially push back the Super Bowl. But with the passage of more bye weeks and COVID-19 cases continuing to pop up, a Week 18 would give the NFL important flexibility for scheduling around unmanageable outbreaks.
3. Declare a forfeit
Because the Ravens have not been punished for previous protocol violations, this measure is considered unlikely. Only after NFL and NFL Player Association investigations, which could take weeks to complete, would a forfeiture even be considered.
But the NFL has repeatedly warned teams about the consequences of serious transgressions. On Monday, a leaguewide memo announced that players who fail to wear masks on the sideline would be subject to discipline, and that teams were required to enforce the league’s updated rules.
In a conference call with owners, general managers and coaches last month, Goodell and NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent reportedly made it clear that “the burden” of postponing or canceling a game would fall on the team dealing with an outbreak.
“It was very clear that Roger is not taking this lightly at all,” one team executive who took part in the call told CBS Sports. “You don’t hear language like that [about forfeiture] very often. Hopefully, it got people’s attention, because some of these teams don’t seem to be taking it seriously enough at all.”