Rescheduling games, devastating injuries, firing coaches: Inside a chaotic Sunday in the NFL

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7:30 a.m., various homes around New York

In a conference call with commissioner Roger Goodell, the 10 or so NFL senior staffers present get briefed by NFL medical director Dr. Allen Sills, who talks about the two new positives. Sills heard about the Patriots’ test late Saturday night, and the Titans’ test before dawn today. By the afternoon, the league would be cautiously optimistic that the Tennessee positive—reportedly of an assistant coach—was probably not connected directly to the organization’s string of 22 previous positives. Thus the league allowing Tennessee to hold a tightly controlled 1-hour, 45-minute practice at 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

Football Ops executive vice president Troy Vincent had gone over scenarios with several teams on Friday in case of positives with Tennessee and New England. The Patriots-Broncos getting moved, for instance, would set into play a major chain reaction causing six games to be moved, and causing bye weeks to be cast to the wind. Havoc, particularly, would be wreaked with the Chargers, who’d have to move four games. Vincent told GM Tom Telesco on Friday. Telesco’s reaction? Priceless. “If you are inflexible or resistant to change, the year 2020 is not for you,” Telesco said. Now the TV folks would go over changes with the networks, football ops would go over changes with all the affected teams, and all would report back in a few hours to be sure all changes were okay before the league would announce them.

7:55 a.m. (5:55 a.m. Mountain Time), Englewood, Colo.

Denver coach Vic Fangio doesn’t have a Twitter account, and doesn’t read Twitter. So on his way to work, he didn’t know what Schefter had reported. But even though the New England situation wreaked havoc with his team’s schedule—they were supposed to play Sunday, and on Friday the game got moved to Monday and he sent his players home for the day, and if it would get moved again, well, Fangio was sanguine about it. His daughter Cassie was a major reason. “My daughter works as a nurse at a military hospital in San Antonio,” Fangio said. “She’s in the military and she came down with COVID because she’s a nurse at a hospital. She’s high-risk. She was real fatigued for three, four days, lost her sense of taste and smell. I’m just thankful that she has fully recovered from that. So, you know, that’s why I don’t get worked up about this stuff.

“Plus, this virus has caused a lot of heartache and pain for our country in the amount of sicknesses, in the amount of deaths, what it’s done to our economy, and what’s it’s done to people’s livelihoods, people’s businesses. If we have a game postponed and be inconvenienced that way, it’s miniscule compared to the bigger issue.”

Fangio’s in the office at 6:30 MT, and 15 minutes later, the league calls. Game’s off. Stay tuned. Likely moved to next week. Fangio does three things: cancels the Broncos’ 7:30 a.m. special teams meeting, calls for a full-squad and organization team meeting in the middle of the team’s practice field outside for 8:15 a.m. MT, and tries to figure out what he’ll tell the team—including about how Denver’s bye week has disappeared.

9:06 a.m., Long Island

Schefter tweets Broncos-Pats has been moved to next Sunday and the Denver-Miami game scheduled for Oct. 18 would be moved. Why, you may wonder, was the New England game moved and Tennessee’s not moved? My educated guess: It’s likely because the league thinks the New England positive test could easily trace to the two positive player tests, because the ideal time for incubation is four to five days and Stephon Gilmore’s positive test was four days earlier; and because the Tennessee positive may not have had the direct connection to the long string of Titans’ positives.

10:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m. MT), Englewood, Colo.

On a pristine Colorado morning, the Rocky Mountains glistening to the west, Fangio gathers about 125 players, coaches and staff on the field, socially distanced. Fangio tells them the game is off, when the game was likely to be played, how this ruins the bye week and now players would be off Sunday, Monday and Tuesday but have to test each day and be back for a game week Wednesday. He said baseball was getting through it while playing, and basketball and hockey too, and football would make it.

“In a weird way,” Fangio told the group, “I’m really happy it’s happening for our team. It identifies the whiners—who are the whiners. Who can’t handle adversity? Who gets hijacked by inconveniences? We don’t want those guys. We want people who deal with this without the whining, who take this inconvenience as an opportunity to get better.”

The place cleared out. Even the coach left to take a free day.

“I’ll be back Monday and Tuesday,” Fangio said.

11:32 a.m.

Prominent NFL team official, on the phone from his city: “It’s a bad day, because we’ll have to move a bunch of games. But people have to realize the scale of what we are. We have been testing now for 10-plus weeks, and we have 80 positives. [It’s almost 11 weeks, and 85 positives.] And in our ecosystems, we have vulnerabilities. It’s okay to discuss some of these ways to try to eliminate the positive tests. But if we take a pause for a week or two, like some people want, do you think none of the 2,400-some players in the league will get COVID while we take this pause? Or, if we create bubbles for the next three months, how many players tell their families, ‘See you in three months,’ and how many players opt out?

“This is going to get hard. People have to realize it’s very likely that not every team will play 16 games. Right now, we can be flexible to some degree with the schedule, but when we start running out of bye weeks to play with, that’s when we have to face the fact that a few teams might play 14 or 15 games. We all know that’s not ideal. But we’re playing football. Keep your mind on that.”

2:17 p.m., Landover, Md.

What a moment. At the two-minute warning of the first half of Rams-Washington, Alex Smith entered the game to play football for the first time in 23 months. His horrifying compound leg fracture was featured in an ESPN doc. He very nearly had the leg amputated. And here he was, trotting on the field to play when Kyle Allen got knocked out of the game. His wife Elizabeth in the stands with their three children on the rainy day, appearing to weep when he came into the game.

“It’s nice in that situation to not have to think about it,” Smith said later. “You just go do it.”

Third play: Aaron Donald rode on his back to a sack. I’m watching the play, thinking, “OH NO! NO!” But Smith went down pretty normally. When he got to bench after the series, Donald appeared to say that fellow’s leg is strong. Except he might not have said “that fellow.”

2:46 p.m., Pittsburgh

Steelers media boss Burt Lauten tweeted: “Today’s attendance @HeinzField for Steelers vs. Eagles: 4,708.”

Somewhere, Jack Ham weeps.

2:47 p.m., New York

All contingencies have been figured out, and the teams have reported back they can do what the league wants on the rescheduled games. Senior vice president of football communications Michael Signora tweets out the eight moved games.

Look at one team, the Chargers. Jets at Chargers, moved from Oct. 18 to Nov. 22. Jags at Chargers, moved from Nov. 1 to Oct. 25. Chargers at Denver, moved from Nov. 22 to Nov. 1. Chargers at Miami, moved from Oct. 25 to Nov. 15. “We knew situations like this would arise,” Telesco texted from the bus on the way to the airport for Chargers-Saints. “We’ll adjust. We’re just glad we’re playing.”

I’m fascinated by one tributary of what’s happened with all the schedule changes. Kansas City at Buffalo was supposed to be the Thursday night game in Week 6. It was tentatively moved to Sunday after the Bills got scheduled to play Tuesday in Tennessee this week. Now it got moved to Monday night at 5 p.m. in Buffalo. Why is this interesting to me? Because it took the Thursday night game, and a very good one, off a prime-time window. Those games, roughly, are worth $60 million a game to the NFL. By moving the game to Monday at 5 p.m. and keeping it on FOX, it gave a great game to a bad time slot, but it avoided making FOX take a lesser game in the only part of the network inventory that is flexible: Saturday windows in Weeks 15 and 16.

3:23 p.m., New Orleans

Schefter tweets that Michael Thomas won’t be active Monday night against the Chargers, and adds an hour later it’s because he punched cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Hearing a lot about this, including the fact that teammates backed Gardner-Johnson in the practice dispute, and that this is a suspension more than another week off to rest an ankle injury. It’ll be interesting to see if Thomas works to get back in the good graces of the team, or if this remains an issue for whatever reason. But if it lingers, it could be a huge issue for the Saints, 2-2 entering tonight’s game. Thomas caught more balls last year than any receiver in history in one season, and his chemistry with Drew Brees is notable. The Saints need his greatness.

5:11 p.m., Pittsburgh

Incredible day for rookie wideout Chase Claypool of the Steelers in the 38-29 whipping of the Eagles: one touchdown rushing, three receiving. He’s the first Pittsburgh rookie since pre-dynasty days (1968) to score four touchdowns in a game. Five things you need to know about Claypool:

1. He’s from Vancouver, and he’s the first Canadian to score four TDs in an NFL game.

2. He grew up “idolizing” the Canadian Football League. “Even though I watched the NFL growing up,” he told me post-game, “the CFL was more attainable and more realistic. You see the Canadian guys in the CFL, but you don’t hear much about the Canadian guys going to the NFL and doing well.”

3. Oregon recruited him at outside linebacker, Michigan recruited him as a tight end. Notre Dame wanted him as a wide receiver. He wasn’t serious about football, really serious, till 7-on-7 competition in the summer before his senior year.

4. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly called him one of the most competitive people he’s been around.

5. His older sister Ashley committed suicide when he was 13. They were close. Before every game, he goes to an end zone alone and says a prayer for her. “I try to make her proud,” Claypool said.

At 6-4 and 238, Claypool looks neither. He looks a couple inches shorter and maybe 10 pounds lighter. When the Steelers got him with 49th pick in the second round last April, wiseguys said it was a great pick. Sunday, you could see why. He fights for 50-50 balls like they’re 100-0 his. His hands seem excellent. He seems like a humble guy. In short, the Steelers got a great pick here.

“Stay humble! Stay humble!” Mike Tomlin told him afterward.

“Ben told me to enjoy it,” he said. “He said, ‘Don’t let it live in the present; let it live in the past. Then attack next week.’ “

Beware Browns. Cleveland at Pittsburgh on Sunday.

6:33 p.m., Arlington, Texas

The leg is not meant to bend how Dak Prescott’s bent near the ankle in the second half of the Giants-Cowboys game. It weas a Theismann-like bend and break, the kind that destroys limbs. It was such an emotional moment. So many players from both teams looking crushed. The former Cowboys coach, Jason Garrett, semi-hugging the current Cowboys coach, Mike McCarthy. One of the best quarterbacks in football would be in surgery within three hours of this moment, and would have questions haunting him about his return to football.

But the faces of the coaches and players on the field. Their concern, their emotion, mirrored what we saw Sunday night, when one of the tallest buildings in Dallas had the number “4” highlighted in the night in bright lights. Prescott was in a contentious contract dispute with the Cowboys, but he never allowed it to be bitter from his end, and it resulted in him turning down every offer and taking the franchise tag this year, $31 million. Huge money, of course. But not Mahomes or Prescott or Rodgers long-term money. And the sentiment everywhere Sunday night was how much people loved this fourth-round pick who rose to the occasion when Tony Romo got hurt and was lost a few months after Prescott was drafted. Pretty great, for the 135th pick in the draft in 2016. Afterward, the Giant who tackled Prescott—clean hit—when he got hurt, Logan Ryan, spoke for fans everywhere.

“I feel terrible,” Ryan said. “It was a routine football play . . . You’ve got a guy, and I am in a similar position, he is scratching and clawing at one year on his deal to try and get rewarded, try to do the right thing, try to show up to work, try to lead his team, try to get a lucrative contract. He had to come out and prove it this year, so for him to get this type of injury . . . That’s why I feel like Dak. I hope he gets $500 million when he comes back. He deserves it. He is a hell of a quarterback.”

Personal note: A couple of years ago, I was at Yankee Stadium. Prescott was in New York and, in a small group, he just sat and watched the game. I went by to say hello, and he told me to come over to sit with him. For an hour we talked about who knows what. But I remember that night, behind enemy lines in the land of the hated Giants, he signed everything. He posed with everyone. He was so happy to be there, in the big ballyard in the South Bronx. Just a guy realizing how lucky he was in life, having a great night. That’s why so many people like him. Just a guy who realizes how lucky he is. And they’ll be praying for his return to the game in 2021, whatever the contract and wherever he plays.

7:06 p.m., Nashville

Think of pandemic football. Think of what an accomplishment it would be if the 3-0 Titans (assuming they play) win Tuesday night against the 4-0 Bills.

Tennessee hasn’t had a regular football practice in 17 days. The Titans worked out twice over the weekend—a light workout Saturday, and a longer practice late Sunday afternoon—but neither could be considered normal. And now they play a game against one of the most impressive teams in football that’s been on its regular schedule, mostly, until this week and the Tuesday game. You very likely won’t hear any Titan player or coach complain about it because, after all, it’s more than 20 COVID-positive tests on the team and organization that put Tennessee in this predicament.

But I wanted to know on all those long days when the facility wasn’t open and they didn’t meet at the Nashville prep school for an unauthorized workout and the team didn’t practice in any organized way, how did the players stay strong and nimble and in shape? Two weeks away isn’t forever, but it’s certainly a factor. You don’t want to play a game that could have significance for the first playoff seed in the AFC with players who’ve not been at their peak physically. Ben Jones, the veteran center, told me he practice three to four times a week the way he’d work at the facility: in a weight room in his garage, about 20 minutes outside Nashville, and, combining cardio with arm strength, attaching battle ropes to his vehicle’s trailer hitch and getting his heart rate up on those.

“Last Sunday,” Jones said, “I sort of simulated a game in my backyard. I got a script of plays, then ran 60 plays on air, sprinting 10 to 15 yards downfield on each play. I used a stopwatch between plays to figure out the time between plays. So I felt like I got a game in right there.”

How do you think your team will play after all this time off?

“We’ll be ready to roll,” he said, sounding confident. “It’s 2020. You’ve got to figure things like this will happen. There’s nothing ideal about playing football in a pandemic. But we have passion for the game. We can’t wait to play.”

9:57 p.m., Atlanta

Two football administrations fired in the first month of the season. Last week, Houston coach-GM Bill O’Brien; this week, coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff. Quinn’s teams never seemed to recover from the horror of blowing the 28-3 lead to the Patriots; since that night, the Falcons are 25-30, and Quinn really is fortunate he got as long as he did to try to turn this around. As for Dimitroff, he built a very good offense around Matt Ryan—his first draft choice, back in 2008—and wide receiver Julio Jones, who Dimitroff traded a bushel of picks to move up to draft in 2011. Both have been outstanding players. But they haven’t been enough, and holes elsewhere on the roster plus a bloated cap doomed him post-Super Bowl.

Where do the Falcons go now, after doing the expected? Veteran NFL GM and president Rich McKay, for now, will run the team, whoever the interim coach is (Raheem Morris or Dirk Koetter, likely), but owner Arthur Blank will want a forward-thinking GM and a coach he can work with. This organization needs new blood and tougher hand, I think. We’ll see what the winter brings.

11:24 p.m., Seattle

If there’d been a crowd, a big crowd, in Seattle on Sunday night, after Russell Wilson led the ‘Hawks to a stunning 27-26 win over Minnesota after all seemed lost, the folks would have serenaded him with “MVP! MVP! MVP!” as he jogged off the field afterward. The end was so perfectly Seahawk: Seattle stopped Minnesota two inches shy of a game-clinching first down with 1:57 to go and the Vikings up six. But Wilson drove 94 yards in less than two minutes, converting a fourth-and-10 to survive and a fourth-and-six to throw the winning TD pass with 15 seconds left. A virtuoso job.

Wilson has a knack to do and say the right things, and he did Sunday night. He wore a Sue Bird jersey to the game, to honor the four-team WNBA champ of the Seattle Storm. After the game, asked about the game-winning drive and TD throw, he said: “I felt like Sue Bird in the clutch.” The town loves Wilson, and the MVP voters just might love him this year too. Seattle’s the only 5-0 team in football.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column