The "Challenge" of All Challenges
By: Rick Goldstein
In these historically unprecedented times, a historically unprecedented approach to having an NFL season must be coordinated as all stones need to be turned.
In a best-case scenario, if there is no longer a risk of a second spike in coronavirus cases and if we have a vaccine by late summer, the NFL season can essentially take place just as scheduled.
NFL general counsel Jeff Pash recently said: "we are planning on having a full season."
Hmmmm. We are still over 16 weeks away from the ordinary start date of football, but that kind of optimism should be taken with less than a grain of salt.
What encourages the league is that models indicate how the curve has trended downward and tailed off in other countries. Billions of dollars are on the line here as owners and players need the season to play out in a normal fashion, but the money starts flying out the window once the league begins to display contingency plans.
Simply stated, the options are either playing in empty stadiums or shortening the season. League officials do not want to guess on a "drop dead" date...meaning the date they would have to decide whether games would be played or not.
It would be reasonable to assume that as long as federal or state mandates against public gatherings do not extend into August, there's no motivation for the NFL to begin changing its stance on the start of the season.
We are already on the doorstep of OTA's and rookie camps (scheduled for May 1-11) so it is logical to assume they will not occur, at least not in their normal process. Training camps for veterans, rookies and selected free agents run from the third week of July through the first week of August. And those borderline senseless four preseason games will be next on the chopping block. A best guess would be two of those games at most get played, and only with neighboring teams to require little (if any) flights.
Given the projections for the ongoing spread of the virus and knowing that different NFL cities will experience the brunt of the outbreak at different times, playing in empty stadiums is not a far-fetched idea. And even if no fans are present, how will teams be able to ensure that the virus does not spread through any given locker room. Surely some players will test positive and others will be exposed before those players are quarantined. This could result in entire teams being eliminated from the schedule.
The extreme idea of pulling off a full season would be the league taking all teams to a remote location free of the coronavirus for the entire season. This would enable a way to play all 256 regular-season games and 13 postseason games. This idea would require building multiple fields and rooms to be built in a hurry. If the Army Corp of Engineers can build hospitals and turn ships into hospitals in a matter of days, this too can be accomplished.
The stumbling blocks are enormous. No one really knows how this is all going to play out. However, I do know this...the NFL is not going to pull the plug on its season before it explores every humanly possible alternative.
The NFL would have to sequester the players, refs, coaches, staff, stadium maintenance personnel; the list goes on and on. Testing and vaccines will be readily available by the fall and that should bring about a safer way to proceed, but asking all those people to separate from family for six months is another dilemma unto itself. Plus, the cost of doing all this would likely be higher than the lost revenue of canceling the season.
Even under the most elaborate of plans, all you would need is one player to break the quarantine, come back positive and the whole season would be in jeopardy. Spending an obscene amount of money on new fields and hotels in an isolated area would still rest on the principle that players are going to make smart and responsible decisions.
Let's say the NFL is given a green light by the medical and scientific folks. The question still begs on who is going to attend these games and risk the possibility of bringing the virus home to family.
Whatver route is chosen, it would be quite a treat and an escape for a shaken nation if the NFL season can move forward. Widespread testing and almost immediate results should be in place by late summer, but the bigger picture is that you can not make the players return without a major renegotiating of the CBA that just recently passed. Players will not agree to basically living in a glass bubble without their families for five to six months.
The NFL schedule is normally released right about now. That is when fans everywhere get their first taste of what is to follow. It is nothing short of a ritual for fans to digest that schedule and begin to play with where the W's and L's will fall, as well as planning road trips to see their favorite teams play in a city they have never been to.
Historically unprecedented times call for historically unprecedented decisions. Things could change quickly over the next few months. We all need something to look forward to. Let us hope a new NFL season is one of those.