Football is a game tightly controlled by a clock. Yet through the spring and summer, the N.F.L. had something most coaches and players covet: time.
The league was in its fallow period when the coronavirus pandemic in March forced other sports leagues to shut down in midstream. The N.F.L. made its April draft and summer workouts remote, and had months to cherry-pick ideas from around the sports world and create testing protocols, reconfigure team facilities and make other changes.
But with the season underway, the league is now in a two-minute drill thanks to two decisions the owners and players made months ago: They chose to start the season on time as the virus raged around the country, and they did not follow the N.B.A., the N.H.L. and Major League Soccer, which created closed communities to significantly reduce the risk of infections.
Whether through hubris or calculated risk, the N.F.L. instead chose to follow Major League Baseball and golf, which allowed players, coaches and personnel to come and go at the end of the workday, increasing their exposure to the virus. The consequences of that choice are now being felt.
On Thursday, the league indefinitely postponed Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans because of an outbreak of coronavirus infections in the Titans’ clubhouse this week, with five players and six members of the team’s staff having tested positive for the virus.
The Titans and the Minnesota Vikings, who played Tennessee on Sunday, suspended in-person activities at their team facilities on Tuesday. Titans Coach Mike Vrabel said some of the infected players were experiencing flulike symptoms. On Friday, two more Titans players reportedly tested positive.
Major League Baseball, which postponed or canceled dozens of games, found out outbreaks happen unexpectedly and are difficult to contain. The N.F.L. is now juggling its schedule, too, raising concern about the fairness of added games later in the season, when injuries are likely to have accumulated and there is less open space on both teams’ schedules.
Tennessee’s bye comes in Week 7 (Oct. 25) and Pittsburgh’s in Week 8 (Nov. 1), so shifting their meeting to a later date could potentially mean jamming in a game with a short lead time and subsequent shifts to their opponents’ schedules to keep the league calendar on track.
That could disadvantage the Steelers, who have reported no positive cases and appear to have taken every precaution to ensure they can play.
“We were told during training camp that this could happen, if you’re not diligent, you’re not careful,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday. He added: “I’m home-schooling my kids, we’re not having guests over at the house. You have to do those things if you want to play the games on Sundays.”
That the league’s first outbreak came after the third week of the regular season is remarkable considering that thousands of players and personnel have passed through N.F.L. facilities every day since first reporting at the end of July.
“I’m shocked this is the first time we’ve had an outbreak,” said Jim Steeg, a sports executive renowned for having grown the Super Bowl into its current spectacle over his 26 years with the N.F.L. “We’re four weeks into this and only one game has been affected. That’s pretty good considering the track record of baseball. But that could change.”
That early success aside, the league will find out in the coming weeks whether the outbreak in Nashville was a harbinger of bigger problems to come. While the return of football may appear to be a return to normalcy, the 2020 season is anything but, and a league whose image is built on clockwork precision is being forced to react to the whims of the coronavirus.
Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, has said the league will have to remain “vigilant, flexible and adaptable,” and has tried to keep players and coaches in line.
The league has fined several coaches hundreds of thousands of dollars for not wearing their masks correctly during games. On Wednesday, Troy Vincent, N.F.L.’s executive vice president for football operations, sent a memo to teams threatening stiffer penalties, including suspensions or the forfeiture of draft picks. “If we are to play a full and uninterrupted season, we all must remain committed to our efforts to mitigate the risk of transmission of the virus,” Vincent said.
Still, the Titans’ positive tests and other incidents show how difficult it is to maintain the vigilance that will be necessary to keep football on track. Raiders Coach Jon Gruden was one of those fined after a game in Week 2 for not properly wearing his mask on the field. Now the league is investigating his team after an unauthorized employee reportedly entered the locker room, potentially exposing the team, after that same game.
The league is also investigating an incident from Monday in which several Raiders players, including quarterback Derek Carr and tight end Jason Witten, were seen mingling with guests and not wearing masks at a teammate’s indoor charity event in Henderson, Nev., a violation of local prohibitions. Photos and videos of the event posted to social media showed them apparently in violation of league rules against high-risk Covid-19 conduct.
The Raiders owner Mark Davis, who may face fines for the actions of his players, took responsibility. “I take this virus very seriously,” he said. “The message throughout this organization is to wear the masks.”
With more than 2,000 players and hundreds of coaches, trainers and team personnel in the league, the cost of housing them all in secure environments or one central hub would have been great at a time when team owners were bracing for substantial losses from not having fans at games. The players, too, were reluctant to be separated from their families for months.
So the league funneled money into testing, contact tracing and limiting the players’ access to the news media, fans and team staffs. Locker rooms, team planes and other communal spaces were overhauled to create more physical distancing. But outside teams’ facilities, the players, coaches and staff members have been left to police themselves, a strategy that has limits, as the Titans’ outbreak and the incidents with the Raiders show.
By keeping the schedule on track and allowing teams to travel and play in their home stadiums, the N.F.L. has tried to keep things as normal as possible for its franchises in these abnormal times. That choice relied on consistently containing an unpredictable virus, though, and now the league is scrambling to find a Plan B or Plan C with time running out and the game on the line.