The pre-season, normally consisting of three or four friendly matches, was cancelled and the season began as scheduled. However, 66 players chose to opt-out, due to concerns over Covid-19. Plus, many teams have experienced injury crises, due to the lack of pre-season, and so the NFL’s illusion of normalcy in a changed world has not stand up to scrutiny.
Other sports adapted, as did football in Europe, following the decrease of the number of virus cases. The very American solution was to set up ‘bio-secure bubbles’ at Disneyworld, Florida. The NBA and MLS continued without fear of outside contamination at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex.
As the NFL season started on 10th September, the trend in Covid-19 cases again began to rise steadily. Stadiums remained empty, except for a select few, which allowed a small number of socially-distanced fans entry, depending on local case numbers. The league did not make it through the first month of action before an outbreak.
The Tennessee Titan’s closed their facilities on 30th September, as 10 players and members of staff tested positive. Their opponents three days earlier, the Minnesota Vikings, likewise shut down their facilities but returned no positive results. The League hastily arranged a plan which meant that the Titans, and their next scheduled opponents the Pittsburgh Steelers, had their bye-weeks brought forward and the game was rearranged.
The bye-week is a welcome break for teams during what is a physically gruelling season. It takes place because of the odd number of teams left in the League. Re-arranging games during these weeks is not a viable solution for the NFL. For a start, the injury list has been unusually large already and removing a rest week is only likely to increase this. In addition, there is only one bye-week per team, so as soon as a team experiences a second postponement, problems arise.
To make matters worse, one positive test is enough for a game to be postponed. The Denver Broncos visit to the New England Patriots, scheduled for 12th October, was postponed to the Broncos’ bye-week after just one positive test in their 52-man squad. This was in addition to Quarterback Cam Newton’s positive test a week earlier. The Broncos, who have been severely impacted by the injury crisis, were only told the day before the fixture that their bye-week had been swapped. This meant their rest week had been taken up by practice for a game that would no longer be going ahead.
What happens when bye-weeks are exhausted as an option to get around Covid outbreaks?
A bubble system is largely unpopular in the League, and arguably for good reason. An NBA season, where games can be played during the week, can be scheduled relatively easily. The 32 NFL teams require far more organising. The physically demanding sport is deliberately scheduled to try and give teams a week between matches and to reduce injuries. In order to play the 16 fixures each week, there would need to be several NFL standard pitches in one facility that allows each team the space to train and play out the whole season.
The alternative is probably the most realistic. As the trend of cases once again continues to grow across America, the relatively short NFL season may be its own saviour. A 17-week season (16 games and one bye-week per team), plus a play-off scheduled over five weeks, means only 22 weeks of the year host NFL games. Following the Super Bowl, the only remaining big event in the NFL calendar is the Draft in April, where teams choose the new players leaving College that year. It is feasible that the NFL season could run up to, or even beyond this point, if required.
The United States response to Covid-19 has been largely criticised, and the political turbulence and aftermath of the election means it is unlikely to change any time soon. As cases look to rise further in the coming months, only time will tell how the NFL and the larger sporting world responds.