Roger Goodell was clear through the scouting and draft process that all things must be equal for all teams; if one team can’t open its facility, then no team can use its facility. Fair enough, and it was actually an unintended and lovely consequence that draft rooms this year were dining rooms and kitchens and home offices, with kids [and one dog] hanging out with GM and coach dads. “It was great to see all 32 teams be as efficient or almost as efficient in the draft while having a lot better quality of life,” said Seattle tight end Greg Olsen—and Americans everywhere seemed to agree.
Talking to smart people in and close to the league in the past few days, I got the impression the idea of an imperfect season is on the minds of many.
“At some point,” one top club executive said, “we’re going to have start accepting inequalities. What happens when teams in four states are told, ‘You can’t have training camp?’ Do those teams not have camp? Do they travel to a state that allows a gathering of 100 or so people to work? Time will tell, but the way it looks now, there’s no way all states are going to be under equal rules by the summer.”
“I’m very confident of a 16-game season with a Super Bowl in February,” said sports-business consultant Marc Ganis of SportsCorp Ltd. Ganis is a confidant of several owners and top league officials. “I didn’t say I was confident in 16 games with a bye, or what week in February the Super Bowl would be, or if every team will play eight games in their home stadiums, or whether there will be fans at every game. There’s more information that’s needed before we have these answers. Teams are just going to have be flexible.”
I put a lot of stock in Ganis’ words, because I know who he knows and I know how much NFL people value his advice. Asterisk to his points: I am not as confident of a 16-game season, nor are a couple of the smart people I spoke with for this column. I won’t be surprised if this is a 12 or 14-game season. But with the scheduled start of the regular season 18 weeks away, that’s a lot of time for many different alternatives to develop, and pressure points to come from all over—including the White House, which clearly wants sports to resume. So we can’t know now what shape the league will take this year, but we can have some ideas to consider.
The caveats of the season make this week’s release of the 256-game slate problematic. I’ve thought all along the new stadium in Los Angeles, SoFi Stadium, would host its first game in Week 1, quite possibly the marquee Cowboys-Rams game, and quite possibly in the NFL’s big Sunday night NBC window. But now with the end of stadium construction slowed due to the coronavirus and the real possibility that no fans would attend the game in a state, California, that has been uber-sensitive to crowds of any sort, would the NFL want to scrub that matchup and instead put the Sunday night opener in a place that is “opening up” more aggressively now?
As I’ve said in this space, it’s likely the NFL is making multiple schedules, in the case of a reduction to 14 or 12 or 10 games per team. Even a 16-game schedule could have major changes. It’s possible the schedule gets pushed back a week or four, and maybe the byes eliminated, but we can’t know that now. It’s also possible the league could choose to start four weeks late and simply kick off the schedule with the Week 5 games, beginning Oct. 8 . . . and take Weeks 1 through 4 and put them on the last four weekends in January. That would keep the bye week intact, which is likely important because the players union would fight to keep the in-season week off in place. In that scenario, playoffs would begin Feb. 6 with the Super Bowl on Feb. 28.
When the schedule comes out later this week, the one thing current events have done, most likely, is to make Tampa Bay a national team with new quarterback Tom Brady. I’d be surprised if the Bucs didn’t get scheduled for a prime-time game in Week 1, perhaps in one of the two ESPN windows on Monday.
I was on a call with reporters in April with the National Football League Players Association’s medical director, Thom Mayer, who was surveying the cloudy landscape. “We’ll go anywhere the science takes us and nowhere the science doesn’t,” Mayer said. “We’re going to look at everything as long as it keeps all 2,500 players safe.” I doubt you’d see any players say they were refusing to play. But if a team, for example, gets four or five positive tests of players, coaches or staff close together, would the league shut down that team and cancel its next game or two?
Potentially sensitive. What if each of the 32 teams is testing its players and essential staff twice a week. (Obviously, they’ll have to be tested regularly, to ensure that no COVID-positive person spreads the disease in the close quarters of a football team.) Say that’s 150 people (players, coaches, staff). So 300 tests per week (17) per team (32)—that adds up to 163,000 tests for the regular season. Let’s round up for the full season: 200,000 tests for a sports league to play its full schedule. By August, will there be enough tests so that the NFL doesn’t seem piggish to be using 200,000 that could go to the general public? (Even half that number, 100,000 tests, is a major number if many in the country are going without.)
And teams will have to be willing, in the case of a positive test, to commit to placing that person in quarantine for two weeks. So the Kansas City Chiefs had better be comfortable with Chad Henne playing for two weeks or more if Patrick Mahomes tests positive. The Patriots had better be comfortable with Josh McDaniels coaching the team for two weeks if Bill Belichick tests positive.
I could see the NFL, if and when fans are allowed to come to games, advising anyone over 70 to not come. I could see alcohol being banned at games for the year. (Meaning, theoretically, fewer trips to crowded restrooms through crowded concourses by patrons.) With three teams in California, and Gov. Gavin Newsom having a hair-trigger about anything that draws a crowd, the NFL may have to determine if it’s willing to play games with fans in Tampa Bay, and games with no fans in California, for most of all of the season.
TV and The Media
I won’t be surprised if the major networks have their broadcast teams call games from studios. It wouldn’t be hard, for instance, for FOX to set up producers and directors for games on their massive lots in Los Angeles, and perhaps for CBS to do the same in studios in or near their studios in New York City. I’m sure it’d be weird for Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to sit eight feet apart in a soundproof booth in Hollywood to do a big 49ers-Seahawks doubleheader game, but it was weird for Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht to run a three-day draft from his kids’ spacious toyroom, and he managed pretty well.
As for writers and other media covering games, this might be a season of no trips to team facilities and no press box viewing—but a lot of watching games on TV and Zoom press conferences with coaches and players after the game.
The executive offices for Santa Clara (Calif.) County, Jeffrey Smith, said last month he doesn’t see any sports events in the county—home of the 49ers—until at least Thanksgiving. Could the 49ers at some point have to play games somewhere else? Could the 49ers play an imbalanced schedule, with more games on the road than at home? Think about how the sports landscape has changed in the last six weeks before you say, Absolutely not!
You have to consider that by August—when preparation for a full season would have to begin—that all rules for human contact and the gathering of even small crowds could still be different in some of the 50 states.
So there’s lots to think about. When you see the schedule come out this week, it’s okay to be excited and have anticipation. But don’t get married to it.
“I think you have to look at 2020 as an experimental year that is off-kilter,” one club executive of a major market team told me. “It’s a litmus test is how we adapt.”