I suppose this was all inevitable. The NFL didn't feel like a bubble was either feasible or necessary – or both – and now is bearing the consequences of playing a season in the midst of a raging pandemic.
The Tennessee Titans are up to 16 cases of COVID-19 and won’t play their scheduled game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, per multiple reports. Then, Saturday morning, another bombshell hit: ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive for the novel coronavirus, ruling him out for New England’s game against the Chiefs – which won't be played Sunday, and may not be played in Week 4 at all (the NFL hopes to play it Monday or Tuesday).
The Bears and Atlanta Falcons still went ahead with their game last week after cornerback A.J. Terrell tested positive less than 48 hours before kickoff. Cornerback, of course, is a completely different position in terms of close contact with others than quarterback. The Falcons also did not have to fly together as a team to a road game, as is the case with the Patriots for their game against the Chiefs.
What the NFL is going through in what feels like a hellish lead-up to Week 4 is what Major League Baseball dealt with during its regular season, and what MLS is dealing with right now, too. In the absence of a true bubble – which prevented cases in the NBA, WNBA, NHL and NWSL – the NFL was going to have players and staff test positive for a virus that is not under control in the United States.
Baseball pressed on after major outbreaks hit the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals. The NFL, too, will press on – and while it doesn’t have the ability to cram in a bunch of doubleheaders, we all have to accept that this season will not carry on as normally as things felt they might in September.
Newton may not be the only starting quarterback to contract COVID-19. The Steelers-Titans game won’t be the only one postponed to later in the season because of an outbreak. Fringy practice squad players will have outsize roles on Sundays. Free agents will be signed off the street, not allowed to practice during the week as they go through COVID-19 intake testing, and then might have to play a few days later.
You hope this week’s news – not just in the NFL, but in the White House – is a wakeup call to everyone about the continued importance of mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene. But baseball’s first outbreak was not its only outbreak. The NFL’s first outbreak probably won’t be its only outbreak.
And, again, we have to accept that the 2020 NFL season will not be normal. It will not be fair. Competitive balance? Not a thing anymore.
The only way to make things normal and fair would be to create an on-the-fly bubble; otherwise, those 16-person practice squads are going to get a lot of action on Sundays to make sure the season continues.
At least the Bears have Matt Nagy constantly haranguing everyone about wearing the dang mask. Not all teams will have an outbreak – the Cubs finished the 2020 season without a single player or coach testing positive for COVID-19. Maybe the Bears can be so responsible – and so lucky, too.
“The players are, I don’t know if I would use the word annoyed, but we stay on them pretty consistently," Nagy said. "We are persistent in regards in nagging them to the masks always being on, when I can mandate that when we are inside.
“When we are outside, wearing them as much as you can as well. They’re not forced to wear them in practice. I think it just reiterates here the importance of all of us always having the masks on.
“When you really think about it, it’s really not that hard to put a mask on. Just wear your mask and wear it all the time. It’s not hard. And what that does is it stops things.
“Even if you are outside of this building, that’s probably something that we should all do. I know that it is an issue for us and we have to make sure collectively all 32 teams – players, coaches, personnel – we’re all following that. I just think it’s real.”