NFL

As NFL camps open amid COVID-19 chaos, the biggest long shot is seeing a 16-game season

This isn't doom and gloom, it's reality; some GMs think 10 or 12 games will be the max

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If we did things right as a country and if we let science rule and we were good teammates to one another out in the community and if our leaders avoided silly, avoidable pratfalls like not wearing masks and not adhering to critical health standards, then maybe, just maybe, come late summer there would be joy in Mudville and Green Bay, and, well, you get the picture.

If the numbers were decreasing and the curve was flat, and if testing was readily available across the country with results produced in hours and not days, then we could allow ourselves to concoct a scenario in which September was filled with a daily cornucopia of pro sports on tap, almost around the clock, from the NBA to NHL to MLB to NFL.

But, alas, we are nowhere close to the purported standards that were set back in March and COVID-19 is raging in hotspots across the country. Fears are already confirmed as Major League Baseball — which, like football, is having teams travel all over the U.S. and does not have a strict bubble of any sort — was unable to get through its first weekend of regular season play without the virus running rampant among the Miami Marlins. It got to the point where a game has already been cancelled and their season seems already compromised.

Folks, this is not doom and gloom. This is not rooting against sports. This is our reality. As a country. For sports leagues. And for sports fans. As someone who feeds his family reporting and writing and talking about the NFL 12 months a year, and who spends four hours a day on the radio commenting on sports, this is the last thing I would ever want. No one wants games to analyze and roster moves and transactions to obsess about more than me. But I also watch the news and read the paper, and sports is anything but immune to what it happening in Texas and Arizona and Florida and Georgia and so many other states where pro football is played.

It’s not rooting against sports — it’s stating what has long been obvious, it’s shooting people straight. It’s venting a frustration about the lackluster national response to the worst pandemic in over 100 years, which was always going to make the enterprise of trying to play these sports a miracle, or something close to it. This is wishing we had responded differently. This is wishing that this hadn’t seemed inevitable all along, given the lack of any collective response outside of states and cities grappling with it individually on their own.

“If they have an eight-game schedule somewhere over there on Park Ave. (at the NFL league office), now might be a good time to let us know,” said one AFC team executive this morning as word of MLB’s first major COVID-19 outbreak spread.

“I never understood the race to get people back in our buildings with the season not starting until September,” said another high-ranking team official. “And we’re playing 16 games in this? Really?”

This is why some GMs I’ve talked to believed 10 or 12 games would be the max. This is why another GM recently caught himself talking about “when” the season starts, and quickly changed it to “if.”

Even a sport in a bubble, like MLS in Orlando, had to send teams home before the tournament actually started, if you recall. Things are going well now, but chaos reigned early with matches being scratched at the last moment. And the NFL, titan of all sports, is nowhere near a bubble scenario and the scale of its operation is exponentially greater than anything MLB is even trying. No truncated season. No travel only within certain divisions. A full, 16-week schedule, at least so far.

The prospect of getting through a five-month campaign never seemed realistic to the football people I spoke to regularly throughout the offseason. And it feels beyond ambitious right now. Naive? Misguided? Fool hearted?

Pick whichever adjective you think feels most apropos. To this point the NFL has not been willing to entertain anything other than the norm, at least publicly. But within the nine-page memo the NFLPA sent to players and agents on Sunday includes one subsection that belies the fact that the executives from labor and ownership realize even the enterprise of reworked training camps may make more sense in theory than in practice.

From the NFLPA memo:

“Item 7b: Stipend For Cancellation Prior to Roster Cutdown. Item i. — For players on 90-man roster at time of cancellation and who earned a 2019 Credited Season or 2020 Draft picks: $250,000 stipend, NFL player health insurance. Item ii. — For players without 2019 Credited Season and 2020 undrafted: $50,000 stipend.”

Teams can opt to cut down to 90 players now, or wait until August, but regardless, the worst-case scenario for the NFL and its players is already baked into the cake. And it would have been ridiculous, given what is transpiring in hospitals across this country and what MLB is already dealing with, for such terms to have not been negotiated. Determining how to handle the economics of a shortened or aborted NFL season was one of the final big lingering issues in these months of talks, and it seems quite likely to be one of the more important pieces of the massaged collective bargaining agreement.

And if in fact, a nationwide enterprise as exhaustive as the NFL, which takes thousands upon thousands of people to maintain it on a weekly basis, does not work, should anyone paying close attention to COVID-19 in this country be surprised? There is no one to blame within the sport or the union. If anything, the NFL and NFLPA should be commended for doing the work they did — very quietly and productively and in a far more professional manner than in MLB’s case — to even reach this point.

But it was always contingent on certain medical standards being met and the virus being contained and testing and tracing helping to lead cities and states out of the abyss. And that simply has not been the case. Not even close. This isn’t being negative; it’s merely shooting straight and following the numbers and listening to the doctors and now looking at baseball where the Marlins and Orioles (their next projected opponent) hang in limbo, as well as the Phillies (who hosted the Marlins this weekend) and the Yankees (who were next set to visit Philly). To say nothing of the umpire crews involved, and anyone else who staffed that Marlins/Phillies series.

The tentacles span outward, quickly, and, if anything, the larger numbers of people involved in the daily staging of NFL practices and games, the more extreme travel, the massive size of coaching staffs (rivaling a MLB roster) which include many over the age of 60, and the fact that many of the players are over 300 pounds and more vulnerable to the virus, would seem to portend even greater challenges for what the NFL is attempting to accomplish.

Creating a bubble that large is impossible … but it is also precisely the reason one must brace for gross totals of positive tests to be much higher than other sports. And with players’ families and friends interacting with them, and the outside world, and with no set standard of regulations regarding wearing of masks from state to state, among other preventative measures, the NFL getting through a season has always seemed like the biggest underdog of all.

The ’69 Jets and Joe Namath had far better odds.

This is a crisis far out of the NFL’s control, which is not getting better the closer we get to kickoff. Leaving it up to what amounts to a sports corporation to navigate this unprecedented medical emergency, without any semblance of a unified response within the country itself, was always fraught with peril. With untold billions at stake, and players in a sport where careers are over in an instant, ample motivation remains to plow ahead.

But at some point, perhaps quite soon, something other than a 16-game schedule just may be in order. This virus is undefeated at totally reshaping the way every other sport has been forced to operate, and had a massive impact on both the volume and location of games. Expecting the NFL to be different, somehow exceptional to COVID-19, never made much sense, and once the training facilities finally start filling up this week that stands to be more obvious than ever.

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