Sports

How to Solve the NFL’s Scheduling Conundrum

Fans sits among cardboard cutouts during the game between the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on October 13, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Tennessee Titans fans sit with Tennessee Titans “fans.” Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Generally speaking, there have been two schools of thought about playing professional sports amid a pandemic. One method involves sequestering players and team personnel inside a closed, controllable environment. It’s a complicated undertaking, but the NBA, WNBA, and NHL’s “bubbles” resulted in zero COVID-19 cases for players after they made it through the initial quarantine periods.

On the other side of the spectrum you have the three-pronged strategy preferred by Major League Baseball and the NFL:

Prong 1: Play ball!
Prong 2: Hope for the best.
Prong 3: See Prongs 1-2.

Major League Baseball’s shortened regular season was marred by early positive cases and 45 game postponements, but teams were able to play catchup with a flurry of doubleheaders. They abandoned the ol’ three-pronged strategy for the postseason, however, and games are being held in a few select stadiums—dubbed “playoff bubbles”—to reduce travel and exposure risk.

NFL officials rejected the idea of a bubble from the get-go, citing squad sizes (too big), staff numbers (also too big), and operational considerations (too complex). As such, teams continue to travel around the country while adhering to a standard 17-week schedule. Or, at least the schedule was standard before players started coming down with COVID-19. The outbreaks have unleashed a scheduling nightmare, with each postponed game requiring a cataclysmic chain reaction. The league’s Whac-A-Mole strategy is plainly unsustainable. Luckily for Roger Goodell, I am here to help.

An NFL schedule is a delicate thing. Teams only play 16 regular season games, and each of these has to be spaced apart to allow rest for players. (Due to the physical toll of the sport itself, a football doubleheader would be tantamount to mass murder.) Just one postponement is the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in Bangladesh and causing a hurricane in Bangor.

Take last Sunday’s Broncos-Patriots game, which was postponed to this week after three New England players including quarterback Cam Newton tested positive for COVID-19. Denver already had a game scheduled for Sunday, and that contest, against the Dolphins, had to be moved to Week 11, which forced that Sunday’s Broncos-Chargers game to Week 8, thus shifting Jaguars-Chargers to Week 7, a move that pushed Chargers-Dolphins to Week 10, which then created a conflict with the existing Jets-Dolphins game that will now be played in Week 6. As such, Jets-Chargers is now a Week 11 affair. Oh, and the Chiefs-Bills Week 6 game is no longer this Thursday; it has been moved to Monday night.

And that’s  just one permutation. The Tennessee Titans organization was mothballed for two straight weeks after 24 players tested positive, and so their Week 5 game against the  Buffalo Bills was played on Tuesday night. (Their canceled Week 4 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers has been moved to Oct. 24.)

The situation hasn’t been ideal. The Bills, for example, now have to play two weeks in a row on short rest. Last week suddenly became Denver’s bye week after the postponement of the New England game, but the Broncos had practiced like normal and didn’t get to enjoy the rest that usually accompanies a bye. Running back Melvin Gordon was not pleased.

But for all the problems this maneuvering has wrought, the NFL has managed to keep its schedule more or less intact. Everything should be fine so long as no one else tests positive for the highly contagious virus that is spreading unchecked throughout the country.

Ah, well.

A member of the Falcons staff also tested positive for COVID-19, but Schefter reports Atlanta’s game against the Minnesota Vikings is still scheduled to proceed this weekend. Though, that’s what the league said about the Broncos-Patriots game, which was pushed to Monday before being postponed a full week, thus forcing the Dolphins to move their game with … oops, we’ve already gone through this.

The NFL has discussed a “break glass in case of emergency” contingency, which is Week 18. In this scenario, the league would host excess unplayed games the week after the regular season ends. (According to NFL.com’s Michael Silver, “the league would likely only play those games if they had a significant impact on the playoffs.”) That slate of games would possibly delay the postseason, meaning they’d either have to eliminate the off-week after the Conference Championships or delay the Super Bowl itself.

The Week 18 plan has one glaring weakness, however, which is that it’s only one week. If COVID cases keep piling up, it’s not inconceivable that teams will have to endure extended absences. Considering the datebook jiujitsu that had to be performed after just one game was postponed, the scenarios where multiple teams have to miss multiple games are almost too complex to fathom. Drastic measures will have to be taken. What would those look like?

Every day is football. Tuesday’s Bills-Titans game was groundbreaking in that it, uh, happened on a Tuesday. Were this a normal occurrence, it would leave Wednesday as the only day of the week that doesn’t feature either college or professional football. Why the restraint? In the event of a scheduling nightmare, the league could pack Monday through Sunday with hard-hitting gridiron action. One could argue that the NFL would actually want this to happen, which raises the obvious question: Did the league purposely mismanage the pandemic in order to secure total domination over the nation’s broadcast schedule?

(The answer is no. Roger Goodell is not playing seven-dimensional chess; the NFL doesn’t even know what pass interference is.)

Shrink football. Reduce team sizes. Allow only five players on the field per side. Move the field indoors. Make it a court. Install two 10-foot-tall hoops on either side. Use a spherical ball. In the event the NFL makes these changes, I know of a facility in Walt Disney World that just became available.

Doubleheaders. Also known as the mass murder idea.

Replicant Bubble. Sure, isolating 32 NFL squads in a controlled environment is a logistical nightmare, but what if you only needed to isolate two teams? Take, say, the Chargers and Texans and put them in a bubble where they’ll play every week. Dress the players in green jerseys so the networks can superimpose other teams’ uniforms depending on who’s scheduled to play. The remaining 30 NFL teams could take the season off while the Chargers and Texans play out the remaining games. Will your team make the playoffs? Depends on if their colors have been superimposed onto the winning team!

Fans might complain, but they’ll still tune in. Nearly 6 million people watched the Dolphins and Jaguars play a Thursday night game on basic cable this season. This green-screen plan is flawless.

Cancel games outright. Just kidding. They’ll probably try the mass murder thing before they cancel any games.

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