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Column: With Bills-Titans in jeopardy, keeping NFL season in one piece an ‘uphill battle’

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Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott speaks with strong safety Micah Hyde (23) during the first half of the Bills' game against the Raiders in Las Vegas.

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It seemed apparent from the start that the 2020 NFL regular season was put together like a house of cards.

Sure, it would have the look and feel of a normal schedule, with each of the 32 teams playing 16 games over 17 weeks and having their respective byes scattered throughout.

But we always knew, at various points, a contagious puff of air from Covid-19 would knock down some, if not all, of what the league’s schedule-makers carefully put in place.

A quarter of the way through, and there already has been some collapse. Now, the challenge is to avoid turning the collapse into a crater. 

One game, between the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers, had to be moved from last Sunday to Oct. 25 because a bunch of Titans players and staff members had positive Covid tests. Another, between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, was moved a day later because Pats quarterback Cam Newton tested positive. Two days later, Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore also tested positive, causing the team to cancel Wednesday’s practice and meet remotely.

With two more Titans players testing positive Wednesday to bring the total to 22 players and staff members and the team not being allowed to return to its practice facility, Sunday’s game in Nashville between the Buffalo Bills and Titans is in jeopardy of not being played as scheduled.

All of this has sparked conversation about whether the NFL’s protocols to deal with the coronavirus pandemic are being followed. The league began the week by admonishing its clubs to be stricter with day-to-day safety measures after Las Vegas Raiders players attended a charity event without masks. They have since been fined, but two players who were on the field against the Bills on Sunday have tested positive for Covid-19. To date, the Bills say none of their players has tested positive, but the team knows there is little comfort in that.

The fact is that the NFL’s top medical experts fully anticipated the issues that have surfaced and expect more. How could they not? There are too many humans in too many places throughout the country for any sort of absolute containment, especially with the league not following the successful bubble models of other pro sports leagues.

According to NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills, in the nine weeks since the start of training camps, there have been a number of “isolated, new positive cases of Covid among players and other personnel across nearly two-thirds of NFL clubs and one outbreak among the Tennessee Titans.” The league is investigating the Titans for players reportedly breaking protocols last week by gathering for a practice away from the team facility.

Regardless of the findings, it doesn’t address a much larger issue that proceeding with a season with a somewhat business-as-usual approach during a pandemic is predictably going to bring about infections. There’s hardly a sense, at least from the NFL’s perspective, that the worst is over.

“We have said all along that we expect positive cases,” Sills said in a statement Wednesday from the NFL and the NFL Players Association. “As long as the virus is endemic in our communities, we will see new cases among our teams. Risk mitigation, not elimination, is the key.”

“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” Bills coach Sean McDermott told reporters in a video call. “I think we know that there’s a challenge because of how easily this thing spreads. The league, I think, took the right steps to increase the protocols. And it’s necessary, because it’s only going to get more difficult, as people are saying.”

Therein lies the problem.

Wear your face mask. Keep your distance (until you’re at the line of scrimmage or in a scrum or any other close encounters that football requires or even the postgame handshakes). Get tested at the facility. Use common sense after you leave – i.e., avoid large gatherings, be mindful of your settings and those around you. 

Do all those things – and even double down on them, as McDermott said was the case with the Bills – and there are still going to be infections.

“To me, I figured at some point during the season that this situation was going to happen; we just didn’t know when,” safety Jordan Poyer told reporters. “I think just having that understanding that, mentally, it’s going to be different than any other season than we’ve been a part of and that we’re going to have to overcome and there’s going to be times where we might come in the building and the whole schedule might be changed, and we’re just going to have to learn how to adapt.

“I think we’re a mentally strong team to be able to handle all of the obstacles, all of the situations that are going to continue to come up this year. And this is probably not going to be the last time this situation happens.”

It’s fair to say the majority of folks who work in the league are doing more right than wrong when you consider that, according to the NFL and NFLPA, there were 11 confirmed positive tests among players and 15 new confirmed positives among 37,002 tests administered from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3.

Still, as long as the number isn’t zero, the potential for problems is always present. Being diligent and preaching caution can only go so far.

“That’s the reality of our situation,” McDermott said. “It’s somewhat of the reality of the world that we live in right now is everyone has to be responsible and, to some extent, accountable to one another in order to help curb the spread of Covid-19. I think that’s true on and off the field in this case, inside the NFL and outside the NFL.”

A photo circulated on social media Wednesday showing Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes hugging Gilmore after Monday night’s game. Mahomes acknowledged to reporters he had a “mental lapse” in his display of good sportsmanship and respect for an opponent. A similar photo showed Bills quarterback Josh Allen and the Raiders' Maurice Hurst embracing after Sunday's game. Hurst is one of the two Raiders who tested positive this week. 

Those scenes said everything about the way things are in life, as well as society. Mental lapses happen all the time, even with the best intentions. Expecting there to be none after three hours of intense athletic competition is probably expecting too much.

McDermott realizes, though, that these days going beyond expectations is a must.

“It just seems like when you let your guard down, when you start to get too comfortable, if you will, then this thing comes up and rears its ugly head,” he said.

“Our protocols are designed to quickly identify new cases, get individuals the care they need, and prevent further spread of the virus,” Sills said. “It is critically important that we do not grow complacent in our rigorous application of measures proven to be impactful: always wearing face coverings, maintaining physical distancing and practicing healthy hand hygiene. This 2020 season, our common opponent is Covid – it’s all of us together versus the virus.”

In cases where the virus wins, there is the additional mess of trying to sort out the schedule when games are postponed. If the NFL decides not to allow the Bills and Titans to play Sunday, what would be the alternative? Monday or Tuesday wouldn’t currently work given that the Bills are scheduled to face the Chiefs at home on Thursday, Oct. 15. Would a Monday or Tuesday Bills-Titans game push the game from Thursday to Sunday, Oct. 18?

Would the Bills-Titans game be rescheduled for a week after the end of the regular season with additional adjustments to the postseason schedule?

One solution that didn’t appear to be on the table Wednesday was cancellation and the Titans forfeiting the game, even if they were found to have been in violation of protocols. By all accounts, forfeiture would be an absolute last resort after other potential punishments such as fines and the loss of a draft pick. It also could create a new headache, as players conceivably wouldn’t be paid for a game they didn’t play.

However, the possibility of the Titans having a second consecutive game postponed would raise questions about competitive balance being compromised for the foreseeable future. Not knowing when they would play again makes the idea of crowning a champion in their division, the AFC South, seem difficult if standard methods are to be applied.

According to multiple sources, there’s a framework in place to deal with competitive balance issues brought on by the pandemic. One potential solution is the elimination of divisions.

For now, McDermott isn’t allowing himself to get caught up in what neither he nor anyone else in the Bills’ organization can control. He is leaving it to the NFL to provide a guiding light through a storm that doesn’t look to be dissipating anytime soon.

“We have a lot of trust and faith in the league,” McDermott said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to do what’s right. The NFL, there’s a lot of smart people there.”

And even they don’t have all the answers.

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Sports Reporter/Columnist

This is my 5th decade of NFL coverage. I'm a co-host on SiriusXM NFL Radio & a Pro Football HOF selector. I've authored 10 books about football (including multiple NY Times best-sellers). I'm a past president of the Pro Football Writers of America.

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