In a normal N.F.L. season, a showdown between two undefeated teams in Week 5 would be must-see viewing for football fans.
But this season is anything but normal, as evidenced by the fact that the Buffalo Bills (4-1) and the Tennessee Titans (4-0) played in Nashville on Tuesday. It is the first time in a decade, and only the third instance in the past 74 years, that a game was played on that day of the week.
The decision to schedule a game that is usually an off day for most players was made to accommodate the league’s first full-blown coronavirus outbreak, which began almost three weeks ago in the Titans’ locker room.
After postponing the Titans’ Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers to Oct. 25, the league over the weekend also pushed Sunday’s Titans-Bills game to Tuesday after more players and staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. But a season played outside a so-called bubble is subject to the will of an unpredictable virus; the playing of Tuesday’s game was predicated on no new positive test results from either team.
Despite not having played a game in 26 days, the Titans hardly seemed rusty. They trounced the Bills, 42-16, as their two biggest offensive stars returned to form. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was 21 of 28 for 195 yards and three touchdowns while running back Derrick Henry’s indomitable rushes produced two touchdowns and a viral highlight when he stiff-armed a would-be tackler, Josh Norman, into oblivion on a second-quarter run.
Gnawing uncertainty is the new normal this season as the N.F.L. tries to finish its 256-game regular season in 17 weeks, and give its broadcast partners — who are all preparing to bid on new long-term rights contracts in the coming year — the content they crave.
Thus far, the league has had the flexibility to move games around, as it did with the Titans-Steelers game, because, through five weeks, teams still had unused bye weeks. Even so, positive tests on the Titans and the New England Patriots over the weekend triggered a cascade of changes to the N.F.L. schedule that affected half a dozen other teams.
Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president for football operations, told reporters on Tuesday that rescheduling games would be harder as the season progressed because more teams will have used their bye weeks. He added that team owners and league executives had discussed adding an 18th week to accommodate future rescheduled games.
But for now, he said, it is full steam ahead, even if that means playing on Tuesdays.
This imperative, where no game is guaranteed to take place until kickoff, turned the Bills-Titans matchup into not just must-see TV, but an instance of must-play scheduling. Health and competitive concerns need to be considered against a precariously balanced N.F.L. calendar.
No team has had to deal with as much disruption as the Titans, who have reported two dozen positive cases since late September, when they first shut down team facilities after playing the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3. After returning to league-sanctioned in-person activities for one day, the team again shuttered its facility Sunday when another staff member tested positive. The Titans have been allowed to practice as a group for fewer than three days this month.
Despite the Titans’ dominance on Tuesday, the juggling of schedules looks to erode the competitive equity the N.F.L. professed to prefer. During the off-season, the league tried to preserve a level playing field for teams in a pandemic that initially hammered some parts of the country and skipped others. The league, for instance, said that no team would be able to practice until every team could.
Yet while the Titans were sidelined, their opponents — the Steelers and the Bills — continued practicing together. The same was true for the Jets, who sent their players home last week for one day — after what turned out to be a single false positive test — while their coming opponents, the Arizona Cardinals, practiced.
Teams welcome extra days to practice and recuperate, but most years, those days are scheduled, not thrust on teams at the last minute. Indeed, the Bills had been in a holding pattern while the N.F.L. assessed the outbreak in Nashville, frustrating players and coaches — creatures of routine in the best of times — wary of playing on an odd day.
This last-minute approach to scheduling is wearing on players. To squeeze in the Chiefs-Patriots game on Oct. 5, the league bent its own rules and allowed the Patriots to fly to Kansas City, Mo., in two separate planes, on the day of the game.
The decision prompted Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty to question whether the league was more interested in making sure such a high-profile game was played during prime time rather than ensuring the safety of players.
For the league and the players’ union, McCourty said, “it is not about our best interest, or our health and safety — it is about, ‘What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good, looks good, and how can we go out there and play games?’”
Still, the league shows no sign of slowing down. The N.F.L. owners met Tuesday, and will again Wednesday, to discuss safety measures and potential penalties for violations. Commissioner Roger Goodell said the owners were told that the league “cannot grow complacent.”
The league is considering heavy penalties besides fines for the Titans for violating the league’s safety protocols and for inconveniencing other teams. Last week, reports emerged that several of the team’s players practiced together outdoors while under orders not to hold in-person sessions.
The league said last week that teams not in compliance with its rules could be fined, lose draft picks and even forfeit games, if their actions affected other teams. Goodell, though, declined to say whether the Titans would be held accountable for the outbreak. “This is not about discipline — this is about keeping our personnel safe,” Goodell said.