- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2020

The NFL’s battle against the coronavirus is falling apart.

Just look at the Denver Broncos, who resorted to playing a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback in Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Saints after a positive test and subsequent contact tracing shelved an entire position. Or the Baltimore Ravens, who have an entire depth chart worth of players with the virus. Or the San Francisco 49ers, who had to find a new home stadium following new coronavirus restrictions from local officials.

Or even more simply: Do the math.

As of Nov. 21, the NFL has had more coronavirus cases (178) in November than it did in the first three months of testing combined (162). The uptick, which the league believes mirrors the surge of positives around the country, has left the league scrambling — addressing each situation on a case-by-case basis while revamping protocols in real time. On Monday, the NFL rescheduled the Ravens’ game in Pittsburgh for the third time, moving the contest from Tuesday to Wednesday.

But that approach has left some teams, players and coaches frustrated. After their loss Sunday, Broncos safety Kareem Jackson suggested the league made an example out of Denver rather than push the game back by a few days. Denver’s quarterbacks were not wearing masks when coming in contact with a teammate who tested positive and were ruled out Saturday, a day before kickoff.

According to multiple reports, the Ravens, who have had at least a dozen players land on the COVID-19 reserve list, are upset over the league’s handling of the outbreak. Pro Football Talk reported there were concerns that the Ravens could strike if the game was still scheduled for Tuesday, while CBS Sports reported that some concerned players reached out to their union to gauge their options for not playing.

Arguments over competitive advantage, however, seem to escape the larger point. At this rate, is the NFL even going to be able to finish the season?

“Yeah, it has, to be honest,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said Monday when he was asked if the question of whether the NFL will make it to the finish line has crossed his mind. “But we’ll see what happens.

“It’s one of those things that, if something happens and we have to pause for a week, well then it’s a bye week for everybody and then we pick up where we left off. I think that’s most certainly a doable thing if that’s what we have to do.”

As Rivera spoke, he did so from his own home. The environment was another example of the NFL trying to adapt to the coronavirus on the fly: Last week, the league sent a memo to teams forbidding them from their facilities on Monday and Tuesday in response to “the continuous increase of positivity rates” and Thanksgiving gatherings.

So far, the league has been fortunate — if not downright, lucky — that it has had only a limited number of postponements on the schedule. In moving from Thursday to Sunday to Tuesday to Wednesday, this week’s Ravens-Steelers contest was the first game rescheduled since Oct. 22, when the NFL flexed Seattle-Arizona into prime time after COVID-19 issues affected the Las Vegas Raiders’ matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There have been almost 20 games rescheduled due to coronavirus-related issues. Tuesday’s reshuffling also included Washington’s upcoming game in Pittsburgh, originally set for Sunday, now moved to a 5 p.m. Monday start at FedEx Field.

Along with moving Washington-Pittsburgh to Monday, the league also announced that Dallas-Baltimore has moved to Tuesday at 8 p.m.

The NFL, though, has installed contingency plans in case further cases affect games from being played. Those details include a possible Week 18, which would make up any contests that have been postponed and can’t be played sooner. And if games get canceled, the league has approved a 16-team playoff format — eight in each conference — to try and offset any lost revenue.

But none of this matters if players and coaches don’t properly follow the protocols in place. The Ravens disciplined a strength and conditioning coach for not wearing a mask in the training room. Broncos coach Vic Fangio said he was “disappointed” to discover starter Drew Lock and the other quarterbacks didn’t wear masks or socially distance at a meeting.

With Lock and company out, Kendall Hinton, a former college quarterback who switched to wide receiver two years ago, was elevated from the practice squad to play under center. Hinton completed just one of nine passes and threw two interceptions.

“We count on them to be the leaders of the team and leaders of the offense and those guys made a mistake,” Fangio said of his quarterbacks.

The NFL isn’t the only sports organization struggling to contain the virus. Far from it. NCAA football and basketball have dealt with a flurry of cancellations, and those games are much harder — if not impossible — to make up. According to CBS Sports, college football has already had 105 games canceled or postponed due to COVID-19.

In the meantime, the NFL will soldier on. The 49ers, for instance, announced Monday that they will play their home games at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, after Santa Clara County officials implemented stricter regulations. Washington travels to face San Francisco in less than two weeks.

For a sport so dominated by regimen, many are being forced to adapt. And that isn’t always easy.

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said it was “extremely disappointing” to learn about the stadium ban without any prior warning after Santa Clara officials announced the updated protocols in a press conference. 

“Everyone has been so committed to this, so the biggest thing for me is just all of us leaving our families,” Shanahan told reporters. “We’re all humans just like everyone else, and it’s a big deal to leave your family for the whole month of December — a huge deal, as everyone knows.”

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