Fall Without Football: NFL doing everything it can so COVID-19 doesn't cause a shutdown

Jarrett Bell
USA TODAY

All this week, USA TODAY Sports will examine the possibility of a fall without football, and what that would mean in a country where the sport is king.

Ready. Set. Hut. Contingency.

The cadence of this projected NFL season, with its own sort of DEFCON 1 threat in tow, is nothing without some crucial audible calls.

 Sure, training camps are set to open Tuesday, but how will it end?

The most pressing questions don’t involve the chemistry of TB12 and Gronk over 100 yards or the gravitational pull of a Patrick Mahomes throw, but rather the science of playing football in the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic. Are they really going to be able to pull this off?

NFL, meet trial and error. It’s the Year of the Contingency Plan.

It would be a shame to open camps and start the season … only to shut it down.

NFL players were so right to push back on health and safety issues during labor talks with owners — and the negotiations are hardly over yet, with significant economic concerns still being discussed — which resulted in key concessions by the league involving the frequency of testing and the preseason. After all, it’s the players who will bear the brunt of the risk in playing during a pandemic, as if the risks of suffering a career-ending injury or long-term effects from concussions aren’t enough.

USA TODAY Sports explores the implications of our biggest sport being sidelined because of the coronavirus in this week's Fall Without Football series.

It’s the theme that hasn’t always worked for the NFL Players Association during other labor battles over the decades that were laced with lockouts, strikes, class-action lawsuits and replacement players, but it has sure resonated in 2020: No players, no game. No peace, no labor.

Yet it is undoubtedly a matter of joining forces to confront the common foe: COVID-19.

What an ominous warning that was recently from straight-shooting Bucs coach Bruce Arians.

"We’ve got to be careful," Arians told The Tampa Bay Times in early July. "The players, they’re all going to get sick, that’s for sure. It’s just a matter of how sick they get."

Yikes. And when it comes to Covid-19, it could be years before long-term ramifications are known.

No, it has never seemed feasible that the NFL could consider the type of "bubble" approach that the NBA has employed in Orlando to resume a season that was suspended in March.

Just don’t think the NFL isn’t operating in a bubble. It’s the USA Bubble, with the patterns, hot spots, governmental mandates (or not) and other pandemic developments in society at large shaping the NFL flow.

Already, we’ve seen a virtual draft, heard about virtual offseason workouts and rolled with anything-but-virtual uncertainty. The Pro Football Hall of Fame Game and enshrinement ceremonies were scrapped, then half the preseason shuttered. This week, the rest of the preseason was canceled, which many fans and participants (although not longshot undrafted rookies) have long deemed useless.

Now the plan — with so many new details and protocols, empty stadiums and $75 million in coronavirus testing in the mix — is to raise the curtain with the opener pitting the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs against the Texans on Sept. 10. Hopefully.

The stakes are high — as in multi-billion dollar impact.

The best-case scenario at this point is for the 32 teams to hold the fort while players undergo daily testing, the idea being that with cleared participants (plus coaches and support staff) testing negative for COVID-19, they can blitz, swap sweat and pile up as desired. According the NFLPA, 59 players league-wide had tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic through Tuesday night. We’ll see what the infection rate is to a larger degree as players begin reporting to camp, but even if initial results sound alarms, the decreasing test results over the past couple of weeks as the NBA and Major League Baseball have ramped up could be a good sign for the NFL.

Don't tell Chiefs head coach Andy Reid there could be no NFL season.

But what if …

... there are false negatives? The testing to be administered by BioReference Laboratories has a 5% error rate, according to the NFL, which is encouraging on many levels but represents a risk that could wreak havoc on the insulated environment of an NFL team. Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn wasn’t kidding when he said recently that his biggest fear was to suddenly have an entire position wiped out on the eve of a game, due to COVID-19. Testing should alleviate much of the concern, but the possibility of cases slipping through the cracks underscores the need for daily tests (unless the positivity rate after two weeks deceases below 5%) that could signal issues.

... the virus is contracted after a player is tested? With a 24-hour window projected to get NFL results back (in the general population, the timeline could be as long as 10 days), it’s conceivable a player previously cleared could become infected while away from the team, even if tested on back-to-back days. A reliable rapid-response test, with point-of-contact results available within an hour, could provide the peace of mind. Yet experts contend that such tests at this point have a reliability rate of about 80%, leaving much gray area.

...  a coach tests positive? Some, like Arians, have said they are taking extra precautions, like possibly wearing a face shield in addition to a mask. NFL rules say everyone in a team building must wear a mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said eight out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the U.S. are 65 and older. That range includes some of the NFL's most prominent head coaches. The oldest is Seattle's Pete Carroll who will turn 69 a few days after the season opener. New England's Bill Belichick is 68. Arians will turn 68 in October.

Perhaps the NFL will benefit from timing. Maybe a more reliable rapid-response test will be available within weeks. We can all also hope that a COVID-19 vaccine will be fast-tracked and widely available within months. Like by the Super Bowl? Don’t hold your breath. And wear a mask. If you attend a game this season, you will be required to.

In the meantime, the NFL’s unusual season will try to roll on without fans in the stands in some places. Competitive balance? Brace yourself for that NFL cornerstone tenet to fall by the wayside as collateral damage of the pandemic, with advantages chalking up to the teams with starting units largely intact (like the Chiefs, with 21 of 22 returning), coaching staffs returning and to teams with some semblance of a home crowd.

Damage, too, will obviously extend to the game-day workers and businesses near stadiums who would be shut out if there are no fans in the stands.

Are you still ready for some football? Well, the product on the field figures to be rather sloppy at the onset, to say nothing of the increased injury risk after the virtual offseason programs, scrapped preseason and truncated training camps. It was crucial for the NFLPA to push for and receive an extended acclimation period after reporting to camp (18 days of stretching and conditioning) as they seek to reduce risks from the types of injuries (muscle tears, for instance) that come in ramping up too quickly.

A fall without football would represent Doomsday for the NFL and its enormous fan base. As far as the NFL is concerned, the show must go on, somehow, some way…even if contingencies include pushing back the season, or starting, then needing to shorten the season.

Yet even if the NFL’s best-laid plans work, it will still be a fall without football as we’ve known it.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.