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Dougherty: NFL season hinges on willingness to embrace an extremely bumpy ride

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - There’s no such thing as unfair in the 2020 NFL.

Not if the league wants to start and finish the season.

Of course it’s a big, big if whether the league can pull it off amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This week’s outbreak among baseball's Miami Marlins is a harsh reminder of how fast the virus can spread and the daunting task the NFL is taking on.

Still, the NFL is moving forward — owners and players have their share of $9 billion of TV revenue as motivation — and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s message (warning?) in a letter to fans this week was, “Adaptability and flexibility will be needed for the foreseeable future.”

Indeed. Any and every contingency has to be on the table if the league is to have any chance of playing the Super Bowl this season.

The possibilities of how this season might go are almost endless. Be prepared, for instance, for teams to not play a full schedule, and for some teams to play more games than others, or to play an unequal number of games at home and on the road. No room for complaining. That’s life in the 2020 NFL.

It could happen any number of ways. Maybe a crushing outbreak of coronavirus on a team or teams will compel the league to cancel a game or two any given week. Maybe an outbreak will hit enough teams that the league will shut down for a couple weeks midseason. That could even happen multiple times.

Maybe the league will move back the playoffs to make up for some lost games. And who knows how far? NBC’s Peter King has speculated the Super Bowl could move back to late February, but who’s to say it couldn’t be played in March?

Maybe cancellations will shorten the season to 12 games. Or maybe some teams will play more games than others, and standings will have to be determined by winning percentage. Major League Baseball did that in the strike-shortened 1981 season — some teams played as few as 102 games, others as many as 109 — and still crowned a World Series champion. It’s not like it would be a first in the NFL, which didn’t go to a schedule where all teams played the same number of games until 1937.

One NFL source said if it comes to it, the league even has contingencies for setting up regional quasi-bubbles to shorten road trips and allow for game-day travel. Teams would be divided into regional quadrants and play only opponents from that quadrant for the rest of the season. The source also said that if scheduling gets far enough off track, the playoffs could be expanded to give more teams their shot at the title despite all the quirks.

Then there’s the matter of teams losing their quarterback or other key players to coronavirus for a couple of weeks. It’s bound to happen. Such is life in the big leagues. No different than an ankle or knee injury in terms of competition.

The Marlins’ recent outbreak and a spate of NFL players (including Packers receiver Devin Funchess and former Packers fullback Danny Vitale) accepting the league’s opt-out provision for this season only adds to the pessimism about the NFL pulling this off without putting teams in a true bubble, like the NBA and NHL. Did the league make a mistake in not taking the bubble approach?

Maybe. Perhaps it could have gone with, say, four bubbles of two divisions each, and played a 14-game schedule in those bubbles. But among other things, the NBA and NHL are essentially reconvening for the playoffs and will live in their bubbles, with limited family contact, at most for three months. A full NFL season plus playoffs is twice as long. Then there’s the question of whether there are four places around the country that could accommodate the practice and workout facilities and house 1,200-plus people (150 per team).

So I can see why the league chose not to go the bubble route. Instead, to get the season in, it’s going to have to use time and flexibility and be willing to endure an extremely bumpy ride.

One change it might have to make is to continue daily COVID-19 testing all season, rather than dropping to every other day after two weeks of camp if the positive-test rate around the league dips to less than 5 percent.

Maybe the league is fighting a losing battle and can't pull this off. Everything is so fluid with coronavirus that the landscape can change drastically in just a couple of weeks, and so much depends on the players following league rules when they’re not at work. Their families, too.

But the NFL also has time on its side if it’s willing to be as flexible as all signs suggest. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons it wanted to start camp promptly, for the extra maneuvering room to adjust and even temporarily shut down on the fly.

I’m sure I’m in the minority, but I’m thinking the NFL has a fighting chance to make this work.

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