Major League Baseball’s missteps in handling the coronavirus pandemic have provided a blueprint that the NFL hopes will help it navigate a safe and successful season this fall.
NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said in a conference call Wednesday that the league is actively discussing how to deal with competitive balance issues that could arise if games are canceled due to COVID-19.
“We hope it doesn’t occur, but just based off of what we’ve seen, we have to have the flexibility, you may not have equal divisional games,” Vincent said. “How do we seed? How does that work as we look at playoff seeding now with the way the new expansion playoff seeding is now in place? So these are things that we’re looking at, that we’ve vetted, frankly, with the competition committee.”
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Outbreaks of the novel coronavirus have wreaked havoc on MLB’s schedule, forcing postponements and cancellations of games that there may not be enough time to make up.
The St. Louis Cardinals went 17 days between games, from late-July to mid-August, and entered Wednesday in second place in the N.L. Central with a 5-6 record.
They could be competing for the same wild-card spot as the Arizona Diamondbacks, who entered Wednesday in third place in the NL West with a 13-11 record.
“We’ve ran through this exercise with the competition committee,” Vincent said. “The thing that we’ve been thinking about in contingency planning, whether it’s outbreak, we want to look at changing of the venue, possible — the postponement of a game; how does that work? The alignment, the inequities.”
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The NFL has managed the pandemic well so far thanks to daily testing and strict screening protocols.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said Wednesday the league has seen “a really low rate of positives” among the 42,000 or so tests it has conducted in the last 15 days. Most of those positives, Sill said, are unconfirmed positives like what Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford experienced days after reporting.
Currently, just 12 players are on the reserve/COVID-19 list league-wide.
On Tuesday, the league sent a detailed memo to teams outlining travel protocols they must adhere to once regular season play begins. Among the rules, members of a team’s traveling party may not use shared hotel facilities like pools and workout rooms, cannot have non-traveling party members in their hotel rooms, and cannot visit the front desk upon departure.
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Hotels also must reserve rooms on lower floors so players and team members can use stairs instead of elevators, and must make private entrances and exits available to all members of the traveling party when possible.
Vincent said the NFL is working with teams to secure accommodations that will meet those requirements, and Sills did not rule out moving games from known coronavirus hotspots altogether.
“I think that that’s something we will certainly continue to try to monitor,” Sills said. “And we all know that this pandemic, if it’s taught us anything, it’s taught us that projecting three, four weeks down the road is a really hazardous business because things change very quickly with regard to what we see. And also there is that lag between behavior and exposure and when infections occur, so you’re seeing the after effects of what a situation one or two weeks previous in terms of current infections.”
While the NFL, like baseball, did not pursue the “bubble” concept that’s kept the virus at bay in the restart of the NBA and NHL, Vincent said New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton raised the possibility of having a playoff bubble in a recent competition committee call.
The NFL Players Association would have to sign off on a playoff bubble, but there could be momentum to making it happen.
“The concept itself of, as you start driving towards the championship run, is there a way — the players could do it if they choose to do it, not club driven — but to create some form of bubble, so to say,” Vincent said. “These are things that we just have to be flexible, so is it something that we’re considering? All things are on the table, frankly, at this juncture, during this fluid environment.”
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