On Sunday, the NFL passed the two-thirds point of the regular season. When Green Bay’s beatdown of Chicago was done late Sunday night, the NFL was finished with 175 of its 256 regular-season games—68.4 percent—with five weeks to go. And zero games postponed to a possible murky Week 18 on Jan. 10—the Sunday on what currently is scheduled to be Wild-Card Weekend.
“I’m absolutely amazed that we’ve done as well as we have,” Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame GM and adviser to Goodell, told me Sunday afternoon. “The incredible adaptability that [league officials] have shown, and the clubs of course have cooperated tremendously. Who would ever think that you’d have virtual meetings? It’s just beyond anything we’ve had to do before. The fact that it’s gone as well as it has is incredible to me.”
Not sure I’d use “incredible” in an altogether great way. The spectacle in Denver on Sunday wasn’t really a football game so much as one of 256 the NFL had to get out of the way. And Ravens-Steelers might look great on the NBC marquee, but it won’t look so good in the ratings unless Baltimore finds some way to play a competitive game. Which I’m dubious about.
Four points about where the NFL is right now:
• You were warned. In May, I wrote about the wholly unfair season on the horizon. Not my idea; it was what I was being told by influencers in high places—league office, Competition Committee, one owner with sway. “I think you have to look at 2020 as an experimental year that is off-kilter,” one club executive told me after the draft. “It’s a litmus test in how we adapt.” If you want to have a season, another club official said, accept the fact that your team is going to have some hardships you can’t do anything about. Don’t complain about the things you’d normally complain about; be thankful there’s a season.
• The football’s been good, mostly. You know what’s struck me? Some of the best games have been played under pretty tough circumstances. Think, for instance, of Atlanta’s best game of the season (well, maybe till the rout of the Raiders on Sunday). The Falcons were 0-5, fired the coach and the GM, had the following week disrupted by some COVID cases, practiced only once, and went to Minnesota and routed the Vikings 40-23. Tennessee went 17 days without practicing during its early-season outbreak, and responded by beating Buffalo 42-16. New England had to fly to Kansas City on the day of the game in Week 4, without starting quarterback Cam Newton, and 40 minutes into the game, mighty KC was up by three. Scoring’s up, penalties are down. Players seem happier not beating themselves up as much in practice.
• Virtual football is weird, but it has its advantages. Juju Smith-Schuster told me last week his dog Boujee wonders why he’s home so much. He used to be gone from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. or so on weekdays. Now the Steelers do their morning classroom meetings by videoconference, with players home for them, and Smith-Schuster leaves the house around 11 for practice and he’s home by 2:45-ish. “Sometimes he looks at me like, ‘Why you still here?’ ‘’ Smith-Schuster said of Boujee.
Virtual learning hasn’t been as much of a chore as you think. “The little things for special teams, offense and defense throughout the week—that’s something we miss,” Smith-Schuster said. “But the thing with virtual that helps a lot—it gives us time to be separated, to stay at home in our own comfortable space, avoiding COVID and also gives us time to rest our bodies, or do treatment while we’re in meetings. As far as my teammates and how we like it, so far we love it.”
• The forfeit concept doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a part of the game. Lots of issues with it, even if a team suffers some positive tests by ignoring strict adherence to protocols. If a game’s not played, does the perpetrating team get a loss in the standings, and does its foe that week get a win just for having the good fortune of being on the schedule that week? If a game’s not played, by agreement with the players union, players are not paid that week; that’s not going to work. The NFL seems to believe a bit in Hammurabi’s Code this season: If the Broncos’ quarterbacks messed up in protocol behavior (they admit to being lax with mask-wearing in an off-day film session with one positive player in the room who they didn’t know was positive at the time), then the Broncos should suffer for it. That’s not the reason the NFL gave for not allowing Denver to push Sunday’s game back a day or two, but it’s a sort of eye-for-an-eye byproduct. The NFL said if the Broncos had enough able-bodied players, well, tough luck.
Earlier in the column I addressed the October letter to teams from Goodell. But the Denver-New Orleans game filled my email box with messages from (if I may generalize) ticked-off Broncos fans. Wrote Dan Wilson: “I’m hoping in your column this week you can give some insight into why Broncos fans were subjected to the travesty of what should have been a football game, but really didn’t resemble much of one. Why would the NFL reschedule other games but not this one? Why single out the Broncos?”
I agree that it would have been more equitable, without much of a downside except for inconveniencing the Saints, to push the game to Tuesday, when three of the Denver quarterbacks, had they continued to test negative, would have been eligible to play because they’d have tested negative for five days since last being in close contact with the positive player. The NFL moved the Baltimore game (twice) because the league said it wanted to get past the period that players would most likely test positive for the same strain of the virus that was sweeping the team. Dawn Aponte of the league’s football operations team told me Sunday that when the league approved 16-man Practice Squads, part of the reasoning was that the league “would not postpone or reschedule a game simply because of perceived or actual competitive implications—and that went all the way through multiple players up to an entire position group.”
Added Polian: “So it’s up to each club to make sure that they have enough players to cover any kind of occurrence that would take place. In this particular case, they [the Broncos] did have four quarterbacks, but if you’ll remember that [Bucs coach] Bruce Arians at the very beginning of training camp talked about quarantining one quarterback, keeping him out of the line of fire, so that he’s available in case this very thing should happen. Denver did not do that.”
Starting quarterback Drew Lock put the blame on his shoulders Sunday on social media for not being disciplined enough when the quarterbacks came in last Tuesday for some voluntary tape study. Masks were worn, but not all the time. Distance was fudged, the players not keeping six feet apart at all times, and it was clear from someone who watched the tape of the session, with the four quarterbacks in the room, that Lock and the quarterbacks were too comfortable with each other. Lock stepping up didn’t absolve him in the eyes of his coach, whose staff had to figure out a game plan with no quarterbacks, to play against one of the best teams in football. Not optimal. “I was disappointed on a couple levels,” coach Vic Fangio said. “That our quarterbacks put us in this position and that our quarterbacks put the league in this position. We count on them to be the leaders of the team and leaders of the offense and those guys made a mistake and that is disappointing . . . There was a failing there and that’s disappointing.”
Back to the Baltimore story. This was a fast-moving story, as you’ll be able to tell by looking at the timeline of the changing of the game—twice. The changes were due to the virus infecting several players and staff members, and then not slowing down in time to play either Thursday or Sunday in the league’s estimation.
Wednesday, 12:30 p.m., Pittsburgh: The NBC production meeting with the Ravens for the Thanksgiving night game was in progress. The NBC crew and staff in town to do the Thursday game were in a Pittsburgh hotel, in separate rooms on videoconference with the Ravens. NFL schedule czar Howard Katz called Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli, who was on the videoconference, to say the game was moving to Sunday because of more positives in Baltimore. Bummer. The Thanksgiving night game is a huge ratings draw and Black Friday ad hub.
Wednesday, 12:45 p.m. Gaudelli and Katz talk again, with the NFLer asking if NBC wanted to do the game Sunday afternoon. Gaudelli said he’d call him back. A few minutes later, Gaudelli tells Katz that NBC wants the game, but now he has to find a truck to do the game—the regular SNF truck would now have to leave for Green Bay to do Bears-Packers Sunday night, to, presumably, a bigger audience.
Wednesday, 3:05 p.m. Gaudelli gets a truck, gets his bosses’ okay and tells Katz yes, we’ll take the Sunday afternoon game. So now it’s a waiting game, Gaudelli and crew waiting in Pittsburgh now till Sunday, not just Thursday. Quiet time. Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff eat takeout from Morton’s two nights in a row in a big meeting room, socially distanced.
Thursday, 8 p.m. “We’ve had some grim holiday meals over the years,” Gaudelli tells Esocoff, “but this might be the grimmest.” Add this to the festivities: Katz calls and says they’d have to move the game to Tuesday night for COVID reasons. Crazy time. More phone calls from Gaudelli to bosses. Early Friday afternoon, the NFL announces the game is moved to Tuesday, on NBC.
I’ve been told the Ravens are okay with taking their medicine. They’d prefer, of course, to switch the game to Jan. 10, but also realize they don’t have much of a leg to stand on, because reportedly it’s one of the coaches in the strength-and-conditioning area who may have violated COVID protocols with mask-wearing in the building and another protocol violation or two. They’re owning the problem.
A couple of other issues: The league told the Ravens late in the week that the virus was in its late stages . . . and then two more players tested positive Saturday and another Sunday. If today’s early-morning tests show any more player positives, I doubt the league would move to postpone the game, but it should seriously consider it; how could the league be sure the virus has run its course within the team if positives keep happening? Plus, no practice for so many unproven or inexperienced players bugs the team.
Who knows? Maybe this will be a galvanizing thing for the slumping Ravens and give them the spark they’ve been missing much of the year. We’d all be naïve to think the Ravens will be the last team to get hit.
Tonight, Seattle at Philadelphia, is game 176. Tomorrow in Pittsburgh, the league hopes, will be game 177.
Wednesday morning: 79 games left. Eyes on the prize. Eyes on 256, then 13 in the playoffs. Delays only mean more days to swab out positive tests. The 2020 season isn’t art. It’s an endurance test.