Four weeks into this hold-your-breath season it is clear that the NFL still offers the best product in sports and that the league, like so many 2020 operations, is in a really fragile state.
Enjoy football (and fantasy football) while it lasts. Savor the joy and torture that are the Sunday afternoon and Monday night distractions we crave now more than ever. Appreciate every weekend, every game, every highlight.
Because if we haven't reached a point where we consider it inevitable for the season to (at least partially) disintegrate under the weight of COVID-19 complications, the prospects of it holding up in recognizable form for another 13 weeks (plus a month of playoffs) are iffy at best.
We just don't know how long this ride is going to last.
We are a quarter of the way through a 16-game schedule that is woven into a pandemic world with very loose threads. There's no fool-proof method for being able to guarantee anything beyond the moment, no matter how much money and how many resources the NFL dedicates to mitigating the spread of COVID.
We were reminded of that in recent days. Two Week 4 games scheduled for Sunday were postponed, with Titans-Steelers moved to Oct. 25 and Patriots-Chiefs pushed back just a day to Monday night.
These developments were not a disaster. They didn't derail a season. Hopefully they aren't a harbinger, either, because scheduling could become an unmanageable nightmare if multiple teams run into issues.
It won't take much more slippage for the NFL to lose some (perhaps all) of its competitive integrity - or its already shaky handle on player safety. The Chiefs are already in the position of having to play three games in 11 days. With each passing week it becomes more difficult and more irresponsible to cram together slates that would represent a full body of work for every team.
Imagine the NFL with an imbalanced schedule, with some teams playing 16 games and others playing, say, 14. Do we want winning percentage or any metric beyond division championships and total victories to decide playoff spots? It's better than nothing, for sure, but rooting for a particular team at a particular time figures to be more frustrating than in any of the NFL's previous 51 seasons.
Which begs the question: Why didn't the NFL set aside a league-wide bye week - or even two - in order to provide flexibility as an answer to problems that will almost certainly continue to arise as fall works toward winter, flu season peaks and coronavirus cases potentially spike?
Without preseason games or much of a functional preseason training camp, injuries are already on the rise. The league would have been wise to build in an extra bye for that reason alone.
With COVID capable of snaking its way through any facility and any team's personnel, we're facing the likelihood of not being able to fully rely on a winter companion that, in any other year, is so dependable. On Sunday, the Giants play the Cowboys, the Patriots play the Broncos and the Jets play the Cardinals ... we hope.
We're used to planning for next Sunday and the one after, even the next Super Bowl. We're used to digesting Thanksgiving meals with the Cowboys and Lions. We're used to the Patriots running away with the AFC East, the Giants plummeting in the NFC East and the Jets doing goofy Jets stuff from September to December.
We can't bank on anything this time around. We're in a position of needing to root for every team - every day, every week - to do all the right things and get all the right test results, day in, day out, week in, week out.
The Titans had three players initially test positive, and later last week a full-blown outbreak with at least 20 COVID cases among players and staff (with five consecutive days of at least one new positive test). So disconcerting was the situation that the NFL is investigating whether the organization is actually complying with protocols.
Next, the first highly-anticipated showdown of the season took a hit with Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (and a Chiefs practice player) testing positive, leading to that postponement.
Heavy fines, up to $100,000, have been levied against coaches who remove their masks on the sideline, in addition to their organizations being fined $250,000. Several Raiders players were discovered to have attended a charity event without masks and were fined over $10,000 apiece. Week 2 fines alone, according to Yahoo, totaled $1.75 million.
And now the NFL, with its schedule somehow unscathed through the first three weeks of play, is having to take an even more stringent approach. In addition to all the masks and social distancing and daily testing and sanitizing, the league will reportedly start monitoring practice facilities via video and has threatened offending teams with a penalty of forfeited games and/or lost draft picks.
These are admirable efforts. The NFL, in short, isn't screwing around. But the plan is short of a guarantee for safety or, of course, a schedule without disruption from here. Nothing can guarantee that. There will be more positives tests, and its actually impressive that we've come this far so few problems.
At what point does the situation get out of hand?
Hopefully we don't find out. But there is a long way to go.
Super Bowl LV is scheduled for Feb. 7 in Tampa.
In the meantime, here's what we can do: Enjoy the moment. Enjoy Thursday night's game, Tom Brady and the Bucs against the Bears. Enjoy setting your fantasy lineup. Enjoy your pool predictions. Enjoy that fact that we have something to look forward to, for now, and something to hope for in the future. The actual football product is as good, and as entertaining, as it's ever been.
The NFL will keep trying to contain something for which there is no magic playbook and we'll keep watching and keep appreciating every game we can squeeze out of this almost impossible set of circumstances.
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