Whether you agree or not, the NFL believes it has enough contingencies at its disposal to make this season happen without bubbling all or some of its teams for the regular season. That’s the clear message NFL executives sent Tuesday afternoon following the first day of virtual owner meetings.
Allen Sills, the NFL‘s chief medical doctor, pointed to two reasons why a regular season bubble wouldn’t be in the league’s best interest. First, the risk of infection still remains with service workers coming and going. Secondly, Sills pointed to the mental and emotional toll of being in a bubble for months. Thousands of players and staffers being away from their families for the holidays may not be best for them.
“First of all the bubble is not foolproof with infections,” Sills said Tuesday. “It doesn’t take away the need for all of our other mitigation strategies. In fact, infection can spread more rapidly inside a bubble if it does get introduced because everyone is together in close quarters. And then you’ve got to consider the mental, emotional and behavioral and just human aspect of that.
“So for all of those reasons right now today we don’t feel that’s the safest course of action for us. We’ve consistently said that we’ll re-eval all of these decisions along the way and make what we think is the safest decision and all options remain on the table but that’s our thought on it today.”
To Sills’ first point, one could easily argue that the NBA and NHL held their seasons and postseasons in bubbles for months without one positive COVID-19 case. Of course, NFL teams are much larger, so the risk would be higher here. The NBA tested about 350 players daily whereas the league is testing roughly 2,800 players daily. There are another 5,000 or so personnel staffers related to all 32 NFL teams who get tested daily, too.
Nevertheless, this offered the clearest evidence yet the league is against the idea of a bubble.
Why the bubble idea never made sense
One, two, four, or eight bubbles never made sense from the beginning, by the way. The infrastructure needed for a single NFL team to function is so great that there aren’t enough facilities on this continent that could house even four teams together for an extended period of time.
The league won’t rule out the potential for a bubble in the postseason, but I don’t think individual teams (or the league itself) would be in favor of moving teams out of their home stadiums for the postseason.
For one, it would make the NFL postseason entirely neutral, which goes against the idea of the regular season mattering for much. Additionally, we’re seeing cities across the country warm to the idea of allowing more fans at stadiums. If that continues, it’s not that farfetched to believe an NFL hosting a playoff game could see the stands at anywhere between 25-50% capacity depending upon location and type of stadium (open air versus domed versus retractable roof.)
Whatever sort of economic impact a city could expect from its NFL team hosting a playoff game would be virtually wiped out if the league took the postseason to southern California or Texas.
What changes could actually happen
As I wrote last week, the league and NFLPA could eventually agree on placing players in hotels for as long as they’re in the postseason. That would be after the holidays, would last for at most 6 weeks and would eliminate most (but not all) risk of contracting the virus through community spread.
Whether the playoffs begin the weekend of Jan. 10 and end on Feb. 7 is unclear. Roger Goodell stressed that flexibility will be critical, and Vincent gave the strongest on-the-record comments yet from a league executive about the possibility of a Week 18.
“We lose that flexibility as you see as the weeks go on as we have to adjust, and that’s what we have to avoid,” Vincent said. “As the season progresses we lose the byes. The 18-week window, the commissioner did reference that in his opening remarks, the focus is playing the 256 games in the 17-week window knowing that potentially if the season continues to progress and things happen, the 18th week potentially could be an option there for him.”
If a COVID-related issue forces a team that has already had their bye to miss a scheduled game, it would seem that the Week 18 plan would finally be deployed by the league.