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Opinion | The NFL should push...
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Opinion | The NFL should push season start into 2021

Cian Fahey
Cian Fahey

22:46 20 Jul 2020

NFL rookies report to training camp this week. It's the first move in the start of a new season. But, despite having months to prepare, the NFL and the NFLPA only just agreed to safety protocols that will protect players. There is still no publicly available plan to implement regular-season games.

NFL seasons last for 22 weeks. There are 52 weeks in the year so the NFL's season is shorter than its offseason. From the second week of February until the first week of September, there is nothing to do. The draft process is already much longer than it needs to be.

Because of this, the NFL could easily push the start date of this season back to January or February without disrupting the 2021 season.

California has already taken this measure with high school sports. Many college football conferences have already cancelled their 2020 seasons, including all Ivy League schools. Ohio State, one of the biggest teams in college football, suspended workouts after seeing too many players test positive on their return to the team. That has been a widespread problem for teams in the Power Five conference. Two of those conferences have already trimmed their schedules.

On Sunday, in a coordinated effort, dozens of NFL players tweeted about the league's lack of preparation for Covid-19.

The idea was proposed to his fellow players by Byron Jones. The Miami Dolphins cornerback took part by tweeting, "The NFL continues to ignore major health and safety concerns putting the 2020 season in jeopardy. America wants to watch football and we want to play. Make the necessary changes."

Since then, the negotiations between the NFL and the NFLPA have accelerated. Now the league is close to an agreement that centres around daily testing. That in itself is problematic. America has moved from averaging 20,000 cases per day in the first week of June to more than 60,000 cases per day over the last week.

Both the MLS and NBA are based in Florida, where cases are surging and delays in getting test results are rampant for the general public. The MLS and NBA players are getting quicker results.

The NFL has hired the same company to do their testing that the NBA and MLS are using.

Prioritizing athletes during a pandemic is obviously a problem. The NBA and the MLS players are in bubbles. Their processes are working, aside from the ethical issues. The NFL can't quarantine their teams. There are simply too many players and too many franchises all over the country for them to do it.

A whole roster in the NBA doesn't amount to one-third of a training camp NFL roster. And that's without considering the coaching staffs that can consist of more than 20 more people.

Furthermore, football and basketball are very different sports. NFL offensive linemen and defensive linemen breathe into each other's faces on most plays. There is no way to avoid that without fundamentally changing the sport. Players are constantly getting as tight as they possibly can to opponents. Then you factor in the number of injuries.

Players get hurt each week, which means new players get signed each week, new players who are signed from the outside and who haven't been undergoing daily testing up until that point. Containing any potential outbreak and quarantining the whole league is in itself extremely difficult/impossible. Doing so with a revolving door of players coming in and out of the league throughout the season is a problem multiplier.

So what is the NFL's plan for a regular restart? The Boston Globe's Ben Volin has the details.

  • Most everyone who steps foot inside the building for football purposes — players, coaches, trainers, locker room attendants, but not business-side employees — will wear a tracking device all day for contact tracing purposes. They must be worn during practice, in meetings, on the team bus, and so on.
  • BioReference will set up testing sites at all 32 team facilities, will manufacture all of the tests, and handle all the collecting and testing procedures.
  • The NFL won’t require players to miss a standard number of games in the event of a positive test.
  • A player’s return will also require additional cardiac screening.

"A player who is positive but asymptomatic could return as quickly as five days if he gets two consecutive negative tests." That's startling. It's at best an unnecessary risk to take.

The NFL is also unique in that many of its players are medically obese. Offensive linemen and defensive linemen are great athletes but many of them carry excess weight by design. Theoretically, contracting Covid-19 is likely to be far more dangerous for one of those players than it is your average NBA or Premier League athlete.

One remaining issue to be decided is how many preseason games will be played. A lack of preseason games means a lack of opportunity for fringe players and younger players trying to break into bigger roles. It also most likely means a worse eventual product during the regular season.

Without any offseason workouts and no real preseason work, the NFL will be infringing on the quality of play during its early months. The weather worsens as the season wears on. This means the quality of football is typically better early in the year. The second half of the season has the excitement of the playoffs elevating it. That might not exist without crowds in the stands.

Although the NFL had more time than any other league to prepare for this season, they didn't do it. The plan is only coming together at the last minute. That's because there isn't a good plan for this restart.

Managing this many moving pieces for this many teams in this type of sport simply can't be done safely right now. There's no guarantee it would be safe in January or February either, but pushing it back to the start of the 2021 calendar year would allow for further safety protocols. It would give America more time to get its Covid-19 cases under control. And the start of next year is when a vaccine becomes a possibility.

Playing the start of the regular season in January or February would mean the full season would run through either May or June. That would be better weather to allow for a better product. It would give a three-month break between the end of the 2020 season and the start of the 2021 season. Free agency and the draft could easily fit in.

The NFL has its permanent place in the sporting calendar in America. Super Bowl Sunday is a tradition and it's associated with a specific time of year. It's also the most popular sport in America. Moving the games to a different time won't impact tv ratings.

Pushing the season back makes it safer, makes it more likely that crowds can attend games and makes it more likely the NFL can carry out a full season. The downside of breaking tradition shouldn't outweigh that.

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