Saturday, November 28 very well could have been the end of the 2020 National Football League season. Just one game into Week 12 and disaster has already struck many capillaries of America’s favourite pastime. Although earlier battling of a variety of COVID-19 cases/situations since opening kick-off back on September 10, the past week has seen both the COVID numbers and case-severity increase drastically across the league. This, in large part, mirrors the current state of the nation.
The United States has seen over 100,000 new COVID-19 cases daily for each of the past 25 days, with a pandemic-high 205,460 positive test results reported on Saturday. USA has already seen over 13,000,000 cases and 265,000 deaths from the coronavirus, while roughly 90,000 American citizens are facing hospitalization due to the COVID-19.
Although taking some time, COVID worked its way into the NFL. By Week 4, both the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots made headlines as positive cases snaked their way into the locker room. Then-Titans defensive back Greg Mabin tested positive back in late-September, before an additional 12 team members were announced to have contracted the virus. The game scheduled between Tennessee and the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed by the league to Week 7. Just days later, Pats quarterback Cam Newton was announced as COVID-19 positive, to which the league also pushed back his team’s matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs one day.
Following its busy week of schedule adjustments, postponements and negative news stories, the NFL issued a league-wide memo to teams, indicating the importance of proper safety protocols, player tryout procedures and an increase in punishment for teams not following COVID-19 practices, including the forfeit of games/draft picks and hefty fines.
Fast-forward to Monday, November 23, as reports out of Baltimore indicated that running backs Mark Ingram and JK Dobbins and defensive tackle Brandon Williams either had COVID-19 or were considered close-contacts, and would not be available to the Ravens for the team’s Week 12 matchup against Pittsburgh. Further testing throughout the week determined that the number of positive tests within the organization was in the ‘upper teens’. Included in Thursday’s announced caseload was that of reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson. Already having seen the league push back the Ravens/Steelers Thursday Night Football matchup to Sunday, a decision was made to have the game rescheduled once again for Tuesday evening.
On Saturday, fans of the NFL were greeted to more ghastly COVID content, as the Denver Broncos made the shocking announcement that the team would enter its Week 12 matchup without a healthy quarterback listed on its active roster. With backup Jeff Driskel already on the COVID list, the team’s three other gunslingers were also forced out of action, despite each having tested negative throughout the week.
“On Saturday, we were notified by the NFL that new contact tracing information required quarterbacks Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles to be identified as high-risk COVID-19 close contacts,” read a statement released by the Broncos Saturday. “With NFL/NFLPA protocols mandating a five-day quarantine period for high-risk close contacts, we were informed by the league that Lock, Rypien and Bortles will be ineligible to participate in Sunday’s game against New Orleans. We will continue to work closely with the NFL whenever there is a positive COVID-19 case, including sharing all available information in a thorough and timely manner to ensure the safety of our team.”
Much like that of the disheartened Steelers, Broncos players took to social media shortly after Saturday’s announcement, jokingly offering up the vacant quarterback position within the organization. Von Miller, Noah Fant and Jerry Jeudy provided outwardly comedic takes.
Been waiting my whole life for this moment! “Von ELWAY”. Ima passing QB don’t need to run much! Ankle is good for QB pic.twitter.com/Kc3ww0fOkp
— Von Miller (@VonMiller) November 28, 2020
Anybody know if Peyton Manning is busy tomorrow? Laughing but serious 🙃😳
— Noah Fant (@nrfant) November 29, 2020
Guess ima have to get my Lamar Jackson on
— Jerry Jeudy⁴ (@jerryjeudy) November 28, 2020
Shortly thereafter, California’s Santa Clara County released new health and safety protocol surrounding quarantines as well as the suspension of all contact sports, effective Monday, November 30, putting the hometown San Francisco 49ers in an inconvenient bind.
“All recreational activities that involve physical contact or close proximity to persons outside one’s household, including all contact sports, will be temporarily prohibited,” the order stated. “People can continue to engage in outdoor athletics and recreation where social distancing can be maintained at all times.”
The 49ers issued a statement of their own, indicating the club’s awareness of the serious matter at hand, while also hinting at constant conversation between the team and the league in finding San Francisco a temporary operating facility for its previously scheduled two home games that fall within that timespan (Dec. 7 vs. Buffalo, Dec. 13 vs. Washington). Neither games or practices will be allowed at Levi’s Stadium during this new health order.
With players scrambling to learn new positions, playbooks being simplified and teams looking for new homes, one can’t help but think of the MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays, and most recently, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. Operating as the only Canadian club in each of their respective leagues, the Toronto-based organizations have either already picked up shop and moved to a new home, or are planning to do so in the immediate future, in order to ensure that the season does, in fact, carry on.
The Blue Jays faced an uphill battle for the duration of the 2020 MLB season, with vast uncertainty surrounding the team’s home ballpark leading up to and beyond Opening Day. Facing denial from local authorities on playing out of Ontario’s Rogers Centre, the team bounced through various options of home venues, including Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Arizona, however, Toronto ended up settling in across the pond in Buffalo.
Yes, the Blue Jays played the majority of their home games out of Buffalo’s Sahlen Field this past season, easily giving the club the worst possible chance of at-home success out of all MLB teams. Despite that, the Jays went 17-9 at Sahlen, including a 5-2 record against fellow American League East Division rival New York Yankees. According to GM Ross Atkins, the club does hope to play 2021 at home in Toronto, should the COVID-19 pandemic begin to change its deadly course.
“Our management team worked very hard to reimagine how the Buffalo experience could be improved and made better and safe and workable to for all our players,” Atkins said. “But when the players came in they felt like they mattered and that we really thought about them in all of this. When you have a good, young team that is focused on the team itself, it really makes it hard to be negative and point fingers and come up with excuses. And we had that. It was challenging to be playing out of Buffalo at times, but it was certainly fulfilling. Hopefully, we never have to do it again.”
Back home in Toronto, the 2018-19 league-champion Raptors were unable to come to an agreement with the Canadian federal government that would allow visiting teams the right to travel in and out of the country to play Toronto at Scotiabank Arena. Thus the Raptors will begin the 2020-21 season near the Orlando Sports Complex where the 2020 NBA Postseason was held this past summer.
“Ultimately, the current public health situation facing Canadians, combined with the urgent need to determine where we will play means that we will begin our 2020-21 season in Tampa, Florida,” team president Masai Ujiri told CNN on November 20. “We commit to continuing our work together, planning for a safe return to play in Toronto. And as an organization, we remain committed to doing all we can to promote and demonstrate public health measures to help combat the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.”
Although not the most ideal scenario for either the Blue Jays or Raptors, the former was able to sneak into the postseason, despite operating out of a less-than-familiar ballpark. Lessons learned while ‘at home’ on the road most definitely would have included compromise, adaptability, and cooperation. Three character traits that the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, and Pittsburgh Steelers will surely need to employ in order to move ahead successfully amid this seemingly everlasting global pandemic.