On Sunday, Nov. 29, football fans witnessed an unprecedented game. The Denver Broncos ruled their entire quarterback room ineligible to play on Saturday afternoon because of a COVID-19 exposure by quarterback Jeff Driskel. Without any quarterbacks available to play, practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton took the helm. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers game was postponed for the third time Nov. 30, highlighting the NFL’s inconsistent and subjective postponement policy. The league will need to set a consistent standard for how it handles positive COVID-19 tests during the playoffs; otherwise, it risks infuriating both fans and players alike. It also seems that the NFL needs to prioritize better health and safety measures to prevent COVID-19 cases in the first place.
Early in the 2020 season, it became apparent the NFL had few consistent policies for players who tested positive for COVID-19. After a COVID-19 outbreak within the Tennessee Titans’ locker room, the NFL completely scrambled its schedule, moving Tennessee’s game against Pittsburgh to Week 7 and making both teams’ bye week occur in Week 4. Just three days later, the Denver and New England Patriots game was postponed the day before it was supposed to occur, after previously being postponed by an extra day. This move rid both teams of a bye week, as neither team’s players could rest during their designated week off. Many Denver players took to social media to express their frustration following the league’s decision, as they felt they were being punished for New England’s positive tests.
With just a few weeks left to play and no bye weeks left to add, the NFL has found itself scrambling to adjust to the continued spread of coronavirus in the same fashion as a student in the library on the eve of a due date.
The fact that the NFL refused to reschedule the Denver game, despite doing so for other teams, prompted players and fans alike to criticize the league once again. With a quarterback who had not thrown a touchdown pass since 2017, Denver was walking into a massacre — and massacred it was. Despite a commendable effort from Hinton, who did all he could given the circumstances, the game was painful to watch from start to finish. The teams combined for 78 passing yards on just nine total completions in a game more closely resembling a high school football game than a professional one, with the Broncos losing 31-3.
The NFL must make its future COVID-19 policies clear. Going forward, establishing clear and consistent guidelines will allow players and fans to be more understanding of its decisions. Unfortunately, the NFL has done no such thing, and its decisions even seem to favor its more marketable games. The NFL had months to prepare for a season it knew would be impacted by COVID-19, yet here we are, 13 weeks into the season, with no idea what the actual policies are regarding games affected by positive tests. Frankly, I doubt the NFL knows what its policies are either.
The NFL is tempting fate by failing to set a clear standard for addressing situations in which playoff teams have an outbreak before the first playoff games Jan. 9. The NFL must take its players’ safety seriously and should postpone any game in which one team risks spreading the virus to opponents and teammates. Unlike in the early regular season, however, the NFL cannot postpone playoff games indefinitely. The Super Bowl is most likely unmovable given the amount of money that goes into it, making the prospect of positive tests arising in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl and during the playoffs all the more frightening.
Furthermore, viewers are wondering whether the NFL will postpone playoff games for teams that are missing players because of exposures, such as Denver. Would the NFL make a team play a game down all of its quarterbacks in the playoffs, all but assuring a loss, or would it postpone the game? What happens if a team is missing players for less important positions? If the NFL fails to clarify these questions and create consistent rules, it risks delegitimizing the entire season.
Austin Barish is a sophomore in the College. The Armchair Analyst appears online every other week.