Opinion: Can the NFL pull off a complete season with specter of COVID-19 looming?

Brace yourself. It hasn’t happened yet, but something is bound to come along to crystalize the NFL’s challenge to stage a complete season against the backdrop of a pandemic.

Maybe the big surprise turns out to be the league’s best-case scenario. After scrapping the preseason, the NFL wants to bring you the typical 256 regular-season games and an expanded playoff campaign that culminates in boffo ratings for Super Bowl LV in Tampa on February 7, 2021.

That’s the plan. That’s the hope.

Perhaps, though, we’re on the cusp of a season of outbreaks, interruptions and contingency plans. Or something in between.

Truth is, with COVID-19 as the ultimate X-factor, nobody knows for sure how this will play out.

One thing for certain: A year after celebrating the NFL’s 100th season in grand fashion, the encore is destined for significance on an entirely different type of scale.

As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell put it, “This, obviously, will be an unprecedented and historic season unlike any other.”

Mostly empty stadiums. Daily testing. Socially distanced team meetings. Zoom conferences. Opt-outs. Officials in facemasks. Fake noise. Protocols galore.

This is your 2020 version of the most popular (and prosperous) sports league in the nation, so carefully crafted for survival.

Can the NFL pull this off?

So far, so good. Just look at the stats.

On Tuesday, the NFL announced its latest round of results from COVID-19 testing, covering the seven-day window from Aug. 30-Sept. 5. Of 17,519 tests of 2,641 players, there was just one new positive result.

Think about the odds: 1-in-17,500. That’s like Super Lotto stuff.

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The fresh results continue the pattern that has existed all summer as NFL teams avoided outbreaks with aplomb. There were just four positive player cases from Aug. 21-29 and zero from Aug. 12-20. When teams opened training camps in late July, there were 53 positive cases league-wide among 2,840 players. And now the season is set to open on Thursday night with near-perfect test results.

The outlook was always going to hinge on the testing, which includes the efficiency and reliability of fast results. Now it’s about maintaining the momentum afforded by the trends with the test results – while the league can hold its breath that such patterns continue as team travel enters the equation.

Remember when the big fear was the thought of players swapping sweat in the trenches of a contact sport? Well, the NFL has to this point proven (like the NBA, too, in its bubble) that contact and sweat can match up well enough if each of the participants are clean.

“Because of all the uncertainty going on before the season, I did not know if we were going to have a season,” Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb said during a recent Zoom session. “I did not know how things were going to play out. I think for us to be able to come out here and practice every day, (with) not many cases on our ream right now and just keep playing football … is a positive.”

Goodell knows. This is no time for a victory lap. It’s September, not February.

“I think the big thing for us is to not get comfortable,” Goodell said during a recent media conference call. “The protocols are working. But we’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty here. This is a pandemic that we’re still learning about.”

The defending champion Chiefs will be one of the few NFL teams allowing fans to attend their Week 1 contest, but their capacity will be maxed out at 22%. (Photo: Jeff Curry, Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

When the season kicks off on Thursday night with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans, it’s just the NFL’s luck that Arrowhead Stadium will be one of the few NFL venues that will accommodate fans in Week 1 – albeit with just 22% of the usual capacity. Often described over the years as a “TV sport,” the NFL will truly live up to that moniker as most of the stadiums during Week 1 – and perhaps for much of the season – will be empty.

That, too, is one of the hard realities the league had to accept while contemplating plans over many months to bring its product back safely. The last thing the NFL needs is for its stadiums to become super-spreader hot spots, although the decisions for the capacities — such as government mandate that fans won’t be allowed all season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey — are largely out of the league’s hands.

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In proceeding with what the league can control, Goodell and NFL officials, working in sync with (and in some cases pushed by) the NFL Players Association, have seemingly stayed ahead of the curve with protocols and policies. Sure, the NFL benefited from having more time than other leagues did to plan, as the pandemic began ravaging across the nation during the offseason. Yet in hindsight, decisions to shutter team headquarters for months, stage a virtual draft and cancel the preseason provided the foundation for this chance for a season.

And last week, the agreement by the league and the players union to extend daily testing — which allows for quicker response to positive cases and helps to address the potential for false positives — may prove to be equally significant to the big picture.

But still, in football terms, the NFL season is just finishing pre-game warmups.

As well as it has managed, the league isn’t immune from the threats that come with hot spots and outbreaks – which is why practice squads have been expanded (to 16), injured reserve rules liberalized and tweaks contemplated for accommodating uneven schedules and various scenarios for postponing games. Nothing can be taken for granted. Especially now.

As teams transition from training camp to regular-season mode, threats seemingly become more pronounced as players will be less contained by the camp environment with more opportunities to socialize. Furthermore, there’s always the risk of a spread linked to the close contact with a family member, friend or associate.

“When they’re in this building, you don’t worry about them,” Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told USA TODAY Sports, echoing a theme heard across the league. “When they leave this building, which they have to do, you worry about them. If they are going to contract the virus, most likely it will be away from the premises.”

Unlike the NBA and NHL, the NFL isn’t operating in a bubble — although New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton envisions teams in the playoffs adopting the bubble approach employed by the Saints and Dallas Cowboys during training camp.

In lieu of that, one of the biggest worries for coaches is an outbreak within a team. Even with the league’s strict protocols, medical experts warn that even the most reliable tests can’t guarantee 100% accuracy.

The scare the league encountered in mid-August when more than 70 tests were determined (quickly) as “false positives” due to an apparent breakdown at a testing lab illustrated the type of havoc that can be wreaked as several teams altered practice schedules and affected players were kept off the field.

What if that happened on the final test before game day? If “false positives” can exist, how about “false negatives”?

Of course, legitimate positives still rank as the biggest threat. That’s why personal responsibility and do-it-for-the-team themes are as important as any rule in the front of the playbook.

JC Tretter, the Cleveland Browns center and NFL Players Association president, put it bluntly in his “President’s Corner” message posted on the union’s website.

Tretter wrote, “The pandemic has created a situation where the actions of a single person can affect the health and livelihood of thousands.”

Or even shut down a league.

If the NFL pulls this off, hail the collaborative effort. Just don’t exhale until Super Bowl LV is in the books.

“That feels about five years away right now,” said Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical adviser.

No, at the moment, one game at a time is more than a suitable mantra for the NFL.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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