It justifiably took up so many column inches over the offseason and has dominated so many aspects of our lives the past 18 months. In many ways, it’s a surprise Coronavirus hasn’t had more of an impact so far this NFL season. That all changed this week as COVID-19 hit the league and hit it hard. Cleveland, Washington, and the LA Rams look hard hit as they face a litany of positive cases.
This outbreak has already side-lined big names like Keenan Allen (although he returned in the Chargers’ overtime loss to Kansas City on Thursday), Baker Mayfield, and Jalen Ramsay are amongst the big names who’ve been put on COVID-19/reserve lists over the past two weeks. This has undoubtedly sunk some fantasy football matchups, but now it threatens real games.
The NFL has confirmed that the Rams, Browns, and Washington games have been postponed to later in the week. The league assured fans that postponing games wasn’t a consideration earlier this week, but there comes the point where teams are no longer able to field a team that can safely fulfill a fixture. We may have reached that point now.
In my own UK, the Premier League has postponed a number of this week’s games due to coronavirus, and several European rugby matches have had to do the same. Neither of those leagues wanted to postpone matches either, but they had no choice in the end. Those leagues will be forced to rediscover last year’s flexibility over scheduling to complete the season. The NFL was rightly praised for completing an entire season last year, and they may have to pull off a similar achievement now.
The NFL established clear protocols for games that are cancelled due to coronavirus earlier this year:
“If a game cannot be rescheduled during the 18-week schedule due to a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will forfeit and be credited with a loss, per sources informed of the situation.
In addition, players on both teams will not be paid for the lost contest, and the team responsible for the cancelled game due to unvaccinated players will cover financial losses and be subject to potential discipline from the Commissioner’s office.”
Those protocols were not without controversy, but they had the benefit of clarity. Any unvaccinated players were left no doubt; if there’s a COVID outbreak in your team and it’s your fault, you’re going to pay the price.
This protocol may find itself under pressure over the next few weeks. Coronavirus cases are spiking as the Omicron variant spreads throughout society, just as it is doing across the world. Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, including the Delta variant, although it may also cause less severe illness. Like earlier variants, much of Omicron’s transmission is through asymptomatic cases.
Unfortunately, Omicron has struck as the protection from vaccines has waned amongst those who had their second dose months ago. The response of government and public health institutions has been to encourage people to have a ‘booster jab’ to restore their immunity to COVID-19.
The NFL did update their COVID-19 protocols this week. Changes included increased mask-wearing, limited numbers in weight rooms, a ban on players and coaches eating together, and restrictions on out-of-facility activity. That’s on top of changes on Monday requiring all Tier 1 and 2 staff to get a booster shot by December 27.
This rule does not apply to players, which is where issues may arise. Suppose coronavirus is spreading wildly through vaccinated and unvaccinated players alike before players have had the chance to get a booster jab. Can the league firmly blame any particular group of players? The NFL’s rules still consider those who have been double jabbed to be fully vaccinated. If Omicron is spreading throughout the community amongst those who are unvaccinated and those who’ve had one or two doses of a vaccine, can the NFL escape that spread or pinpoint the source of an outbreak.
The next few weeks are likely to be very challenging for the NFL. For all their best efforts, they cannot completely remove themselves from the issues facing the rest of society. If COVID-19 is rapidly spreading, there is only so much the NFL can do to prevent it. Whilst this thought may keep Roger Goodell awake at night, there are no doubt plenty of NFL GMs and head coaches suffering sleepless nights too.
There is no good time to have a COVID outbreak in the NFL season, but this is a particularly bad time. We’re at the business end of the season, with very tight battles for both the number one spots and wildcard places in both conferences. If you lose a game because of an outbreak earlier in the season, at least you have opportunities to make amends later in the year; the teams losing now have precious few opportunities. Teams will also already be dealing with the wear and tear injuries that happen in any season and so will have less quality and depth to replace players who go on the COVID-19/reserve list.
Cleveland and Washington are in the heart of playoff races (the Rams are in the playoff race too but look much more secure), facing challenging but achievable roads to the postseason. That task would have become much more difficult for both teams this weekend had they had to face rivals fighting for those same playoff spots. We don’t know what condition those teams will be in when rescheduled games do take place if they are even able to happen later in the week.
Fortunately for the Colts, they have so far largely avoided this Coronavirus outbreak. With only Zaire Franklin testing positive. So far, the Patriots have been similarly unaffected, so Saturday’s game should be close to full-strength. That doesn’t mean the Colts will be as lucky in the coming weeks.
This weekend, the Colts have an opportunity to score an incredibly satisfying win against the Patriots. A win that would put them in the driving seat for a wildcard spot at a time when a lot of AFC rivals have to play each other in the final stretch.
The hope for fans of the Colts, and every franchise, has to be that the NFL manages to get control of the outbreak, and we can return to relative normality as soon as possible. If cases do continue to spiral out of control, the final few weeks of the season could be marred by questions of what might have been had teams managed to keep Covid at bay. No one wants a team to miss out on a Super Bowl because of a pandemic, and given how balanced either conference is, any team that makes the playoffs could win it all. We can only hope the NFL can get cases falling again to prevent that from becoming a reality.