The NFL needs a playoff bubble to protect against coronavirus
The Deets is a weekday morning dose of commentary — delivered at 7 a.m. —
The Deets is a weekday morning dose of commentary — delivered at 7 a.m. — from sports columnist Dieter Kurtenbach that wraps up everything important in the world of sports and looks forward to another crazy day ahead.
I know the NFL wants to expand its footprint. Teams play games on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday in the league’s quest for total television domination.
But Tuesday Night Football? That’s a bridge too far.
Unfortunately, the NFL on Tuesday is not the half-baked idea of some television executive — it’s the best route the NFL has to ensure the Tennessee Titans can play their Week 5 game amid a coronavirus outbreak that’s now at 23 known cases.
The NFL had nothing but time to learn the lessons of other sports leagues as it pertained to playing amid a pandemic, but in typical NFL fashion, it did its own thing, believing it’s better than the other leagues by default.
No regular-season bubble, national or regional. No schedule cushion. It’s mostly really business as usual for the NFL.
Roger Goodell needs to change that ahead of the playoffs. The league needs a postseason bubble.
Now, to the NFL’s credit, the league’s COVID-19 protocols do work. When they’re followed, that is.
But as baseball learned with the Miami Marlins, there’s always going to be a team that doesn’t follow protocols.
The Titans were reportedly lax about wearing masks in the team facility and allowed players to practice off-site, again not wearing masks, while their facility was shut down. It’s fair to say that they spit on the protocols, which, of course, is the worst thing you can do at a time like this. Did they not read the literature?
Major League Baseball made it work for the Marlins, but just barely — Miami played 28 “games” (some were seven innings) in the final 24 days of the season to play the “full” 60-game season. It was taxing, and that toll was paid by their opponents as well.
But instead of adding another bye week — or two — in the season to help with situations like this, instead of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, the NFL is now scrambling to move around the Titans’ schedule. Their Week 4 game is now in Week 8 — which was once their bye. Their opponent, the Steelers, had to make some changes to make that work. This week’s game will take place mid-week next week. The NFL had to eliminate a great Thursday Night Football game to make that happen.
The NFL is also moving the Patriots’ game back a day after Stephon Gilmore was added to the COVID list a week after Cam Newton was placed on it.
The league’s plan to pretend that nothing could go wrong is proving so foolhardy that the league is reportedly considering making playoff eligibility a byproduct of winning percentage, not the number of wins. Yes, they’re considering straight-up canceling games. Why forfeits are not on the table is beyond me.
It’s all been so haphazard and predictable and it’s not going to get much better, because, I don’t know if you noticed, but COVID is still a major part of our lives and doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
The NFL needs to start worrying about the playoffs. If there’s little wiggle room in the regular season, there’s no wiggle room in the postseason.
Baseball went to a bubble system. Is it flawed and perhaps unfair? Yeah. But you can bet that it’ll work better than teams flying all around a country that has incredibly disparate viewpoints on epidemiology. Baseball will get an entire postseason and all that precious cash that comes along with it.
Take heed, NFL.
Now, the Super Bowl is already in a bubble of sorts. The NFC and AFC Championship Games are already “league events” where the NFL handles credentialing and such. I know the NFL is hoping for more fans in the stands in the months to come, but league officials need to give up that dream now, lest they be buried by it. The league needs to convert the championship games into neutral-site contests.
That’s the easy part.
There will be 10 other playoff games where the NFL could be exposed to a situation like the current one. Situations where a team has an outbreak and messes up everyone’s schedule.
It’d make sense to bubble up those games, too. Do it at the better-seeded team’s home fields by having the visiting team fly out at the start of the week. Everyone in a hotel a few miles (at most) from the stadium. No families or friends or off-night bars. No “exposure planes” like the Patriots had to use last week. No excuse for an outbreak.
It’d also create a semblance of a home-field advantage for the playoffs — a nice perk amid what I imagine will be plenty of empty stadiums.
Would it stink to be in a bubble for week or two, or three or (if you’re lucky) four? Absolutely. But save your conversations about the loss of liberties for the real civic lockdowns. NFL players know the rules of engagement.
The one thing the NFL had compared to every other league was time. Apparently the league used a good deal of that time hoping that things would magically get better. And in some ways, they have. But we’re still going to be living with COVID-19 by the time the playoffs start, and if the NFL’s decision-makers were sharp they’d realize such an arrangement and the league’s current playoff plan is untenable.
Bubble it up.
If you know me, you know that this is not all. For my full breakdown of everything that happened Thursday (including my full thoughts on the A’s playoff exit), previews of what will happen next, and my best bet of the day, subscribe to The Deets to be delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.