Spanning 150 hours and 10 minutes, Week 12 of the 2020 National Football League season has finally come to a close. Yes, it was the longest week in NFL history. Beginning at 12:30 PM on Thanksgiving Day and running through Wednesday’s 3:40 PM kickoff in the now infamous Pittsburgh Steelers/Baltimore Ravens scheduling nightmare, the bizarre, COVID-filled sporting week has finally concluded.
After much uncertainty, the Steelers were able to maintain their perfect 11-0 record through Week 12, narrowly edging out Robert Griffin III and the Ravens in a game heavily scrutinized by sporting officials, players, owners, coaches, fans and doctors worldwide. Originally set to be the marquee Thanksgiving Day evening matchup, the league pushed the game back to Sunday, due to the vast spread of COVID-19 through the Ravens’ roster. The contest was then rescheduling for Tuesday evening, before a third change saw the teams finally hit the field in on Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh.
In his media availability Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was questioned on the league’s handling of the ‘Baltimore situation’, to which he proudly praised his staff and the decisions made this past week.
“In the Baltimore case, we were concerned with the containment of the virus, as we saw a number positives over the last 10 days,” Goodell said. “Our health and safety people and our medical experts – led by Dr. Allen Sills – did a wonderful job of tracing the virus and making sure that we understood where it was generated from and how it was spreading. By having the delays by a couple days, that gave us the confidence that we understood where the virus was coming from and how it was continuing to spread. We knew that we were in the last stage of that and that we were comfortable that the game could be played safely tonight.”
Safely, or fairly? Down key players including starting quarterback and 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, tight end Mark Andrews, as well as the team’s first and second string running backs Mark Ingram and JK Dobbins, the highly-inexperienced Ravens squad had the luxury of its game being pushed back six days from its originally scheduled date.
“Our decisions are based on medical issues,” Goodell added. “With that being our priority, we told the clubs early in the year and they all understand that. Without a medical issue, we are going to play the games. We gave each club additional flexibility with respect to the roster size and flexibility of moving people off of the reserve list and back onto the active roster. That was to make sure that the games were played. On the other hand, we want to make sure that we’re preventing the spread of the virus. That’s why when we see high-risk close contact like we had in Denver – regardless of the position group – we are going to ensure that those players aren’t in a position where they are going to affect others, whether they are on their own team or on the opposing team. That’s been done several times throughout the season.”
Denver, which saw its game carry on as regularly scheduled this past Sunday, played without a single quarterback on its active roster and started the game with rookie wide-receiver Kendall Hinton under centre – a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since 1965. The Broncos ended up as 31-3 losers to the New Orleans Saints, which also played without starting quarterback Drew Brees (ribs/lung), but not for reasons pertaining to COVID-19.
“Let me be crystal clear as we have been with our clubs since March: All medical decisions have and always will take precedence over competitive considerations and business interests,” Goodell said. “We will not postpone or reschedule games due to COVID issues affecting multiple players, even within a position group if we feel comfortable that the rest of the team is not at risk. This was exactly the case in Denver. Isolating high-risk contacts like we did in Denver is a key component of our protocols and our health-and-safety-first approach. The data shows it’s working. In fact, more than 20 individuals have been identified over the season as high-risk close contacts that have turned positive.”
Now having seen a game rescheduled three times and a practice squad wideout take snaps, the latest blip on the 2020 NFL season radar is that of the San Francisco 49ers, who have been forced to leave the Santa Clara County and Levi’s Stadium as local health and safety restrictions were recently amped up, disallowing both the practice and playing aspects of sports and recreation. The 49ers have negotiated a deal with the Arizona Cardinals, that will see San Francisco share State Farm Stadium in Glendale for the team’s December ‘home’ games. Despite all this uncertainty, Goodell is adamant that the season will be completed in its entirety.
“It will take partnership and discipline to complete this season, but I’m confident we’ll be able to do it,” he said. “Listen, there are challenges we are seeing with virus spread and increase in our communities, so that’s a challenge for us. But we believe that the protocols we have established are working. We are going to continue to evaluate and continue to see what kinds of improvements we need to make as we did just last week. Our objective is to finish 256 games safely.”
And in supporting the idea of mirroring the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association’s concept of operating out of hub-city ‘bubbles’, Goodell would have none of it, despite the current state of the ongoing pandemic.
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“We don’t see the bubble as most refer to it in one location,” Goodell said. “We feel strongly that our protocols are working. We’re willing to adjust and adapt those protocols, take additional steps. But I don’t see us doing the bubble in the sense that the media and general public focuses on it. We would, however, consider further isolations to reduce the risk for all of our personnel, so that they are not exposed to the virus and bring it into the facilities or into the clubs.”
During the week of November 15-21, 42,809 COVID-19 tests were completed on 7,886 NFL players and team staff. 28 cases amongst players were announced, while 42 came from team staff. From November 22-28, 42,264 tests were completed on 7,819 players and staff. 33 players tested positive, while 53 staff members saw positive tests.