June 20, 2024
Covid-19 threatens to derail NFL's path to the Super Bowl

Covid-19 threatens to derail NFL’s path to the Super Bowl

Every loss has a ripple effect, devastating families and communities.

Professional sports leagues, including the NFL, have had to make tough choices, balancing the need to keep their players safe and bring in revenue.

By playing in a bubble, the NBA finished its recent season without a single player, coach, or staff member testing positive for Covid-19, but the NFL decided that option was too logistically complicated. That’s because there are 32 NFL teams each with a 53-man roster plus a practice squad. Only 22 teams were present in the NBA bubble, each with a roster no larger than 15.

A fan displays a sign during a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on December 2.

But as infections soar in the fall and into the winter, the league’s strategy is coming under greater pressure.

“It’s not about whether or not guys want to play,” said Baltimore Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III this week after Wednesday’s 19-14 defeat by the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It’s about whether or not our safety is actually being taken into account. I can’t say much more than that.”

Griffin added that players are afraid to report potential illness, for fear of coming across as lacking desire and losing their place in the team.

“Those things don’t get reported,” he said. “So, when people think, ‘Oh, maybe they just don’t want to play. They just don’t want to do this.’ It’s not that — we love football. We want to play football, but we also want to make sure our families are safe.

“I pulled a hamstring today,” added Griffin, blaming the lack of full practices for increased injuries. “I’ve never pulled a hamstring in my life. You see guys going down left and right.”

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III rushes the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The NFL declined to comment when asked about Griffin’s remarks.

Griffin was playing because Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had tested positive for Covid-19, tweeting: “Praying for my brother @Lj_era8 and every player, staff member and their families dealing with COVID-19. Ensuring the safety of the entire organization is important. Handling this outbreak within the team is bigger than football,” on November 26.
Meanwhile in another game, a breach in Covid-19 protocols prevented the Denver Broncos from fielding a single one of their quarterbacks.

The Broncos were forced to call up Kendall Hinton, an undrafted rookie wide receiver who had played quarterback at Wake Forest, from the practice squad to play a key position against the New Orleans Saints with 24 hours’ notice.

Hinton played valiantly but the fact that he threw more passes to the opposition than to his teammates graphically demonstrated his inexperience.

A coronavirus outbreak forced the postponement of the Ravens-Steelers matchup three times. Due to be played on Thanksgiving, the game was postponed twice more, before finally going ahead on December 2.

Denver Broncos' Kendall Hinton looks for a pass against the New Orleans Saints on November 29.
The Steelers won and increased their unbeaten season to 11-0. But eight-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, starting running back James Conner and starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt were all absent after being put on the Reserve/Covid-19 list.

The Ravens fared worse. With 17 players on the Ravens’ Reserve/Covid-19 list, the team was forced to activate 10 players from the practice squad as replacements for the game.

Deputizing for Jackson, Griffin — in just his second start for the team — finished with seven completions from 12 attempts for 33 yards, throwing a pick-six in the first quarter to open the scoring for the Steelers. That was before he went off with that hamstring injury in the fourth quarter, leaving third-stringer Trace McSorley in charge.

Both teams struggled, especially in the first quarter which saw a collective four turnovers.

During halftime in a televised interview with NBC’s Mike Tirico, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell smiled, looked into the camera and said: “It’s a great game.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had a very different interpretation. Despite earning the win and maintaining the winning streak, he said: “We did enough to win, but that’s all. It was really junior varsity to be quite honest with you.”

Pittsburgh Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin celebrates during his side's game against the Baltimore Ravens on November 1.

Goodell is confident that the league will finish the 2020 season. Speaking on the league health and safety media conference call on Wednesday, the NFL commissioner said that the league is “focused on finishing strong,” but understands the challenge Covid-19 presents.

During that halftime NBC interview, Goodell reiterated: “We do think it’s safe to continue. Listen, there’s challenges. We’re seeing virus spread. And that’s a challenge for us. We believe the protocols we’ve established are working.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was similarly optimistic.

“I just feel like the league did their best. We did our best,” Harbaugh said. “We didn’t bat 1.000. Nobody did. The league didn’t. Nobody did. You can’t bat 1.000 against this thing. But I think our response, in terms of our effort, was a perfect effort.”

Yet the coronavirus testing data released by the NFL and NFL Players Association tells a more worrying story.

Between August 1 and October 31, there was a total of 162 positive tests among players and personnel. During November, that figure has more than doubled.

Maurkice Pouncey (left) faces the Tennessee Titans on October 25.

Since testing began on August 1, a total 156 players and 270 personnel have tested positive for the virus. 33 players and 53 personnel tested positive during the November 22-28 window alone. This represents a 23% total increase on the previous week, which itself was a 35% increase on the week before. The number of new cases every week is rising.

The trend isn’t related to the season though.

The NFL’s chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills says there is no evidence that Covid-19 has spread during games.

“We have seen zero evidence of transmission player to player on the field, either during games or practices, which I think is an important and powerful statement,” Sills said in a media call.

The only conclusion is that, if the spread is not caused by the games themselves, it is by wider society, and by players and personnel not following protocols. And as the number of cases increases in wider society, more NFL players and personnel will be infected by the virus.

Lamar Jackson passes in a game against the New England Patriots last month.
After missing the Broncos game at the weekend, starting quarterback Drew Lock apologized for his part in failing to follow coronavirus protocol, saying: “We got too lackadaisical with it. It ended up hurting us and it hurt this program and I apologize for letting that happen. We could have been better.”

The league is trying its utmost to enforce safety though, doling out punishments where it sees fit.

The Raiders had a draft pick taken in November and saw head coach Jon Gruden fined for failing to follow coronavirus protocols. Steelers coach Tomlin was also fined.

But we’re now seeing decisions taken in the world outside the NFL affecting the league itself.

Santa Clara County in California, home of the San Francisco 49ers, banned contact sports for three weeks, forcing the team to move all operations to Arizona, where they will play two of their remaining home fixtures.

There’s an argument that any notion of fair competition is being lost given the absent players and some teams being unable to play in their home stadiums. Fan support may also wane depending on whether individual states allow public attendance at games.

The NFL made it clear near the beginning of the season that the burden would fall more heavily on teams than the league and its schedule.

In the league’s “Competitive Principles for 2020 Season,” it says: “If a game is postponed due to one club’s inability to play because of Covid cases, the burden of any competitive, financial and other consequences will fall more heavily on that club, particularly if the club has not adhered to the health and safety protocols or has failed to cooperate in contact tracing or other reviews in response to positive tests among club players or staff.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks from his home in Bronxville, New York during the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft in April.

Speaking after the Broncos debacle, Goodell maintained that games would not be postponed even if there is a distinct competitive disadvantage.

“As we discussed in October at the fall league meeting, we will not postpone or reschedule games due to Covid issues affecting multiple players, even within a position group if we feel comfortable that the rest of the team is not at risk,” he said.

“This was exactly the case in Denver. Isolating high-risk contacts like we did in Denver is a key component of our protocols and our health-and-safety-first approach. The data shows it’s working. In fact, more than 20 individuals have been identified over the season as high-risk close contacts that have turned positive.”

The lines between competitive considerations and health and safety appear to be becoming more and more blurred though.

On paper, the Broncos failing to have a quarterback available due to breaches in Covid-19 protocol is safe as it prevents any potential spread of the illness.

But arguably it’s not all that safe to field an undrafted wide receiver rookie as a quarterback in football, which has one of the highest injury rates in professional sport.

Meanwhile with five weeks left of the regular season, the playoffs are coming into view.

Rather than the usual 12 teams, 14 teams will be in the playoffs this year. This may right an imbalance, but if teams are limping into January with reduced rosters due to the coronavirus, and subsequent injuries due to a cramped schedule, there is a distinct possibility that the football on show will not be representative of the highest level.

49ers players stretch during practice on December 3.

Those opening Wild Card playoff fixtures begin on January 9.

By then the NFL might be grappling with the potential wider consequences of the pandemic really running out of control.

Friday’s IHME projection suggests that daily Covid-19 deaths will peak near 3,000 per day in mid-January, though the death rate is expected to drop by February.

So, it’s likely that in the early part of 2021 the NFL will still be dealing with the coronavirus’ impact when Super Bowl LV is staged at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

Goodell and the league are fervent in their desire to finish the season on February 7. But as the rates of infection and death rise in the US, the NFL looks to have quite a challenge on its hands.