- The Washington Times
Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The NFL is facing the first major test of its thesis that playing football during an ongoing pandemic makes sense, as the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings suspended in-person activities Tuesday after several Titans players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Titans announced that they have eight cases — three players and five personnel. The news comes two days after the Titans‘ 31-30 victory in Minnesota.


Minnesota hasn’t reported any positive results, but both teams shut down their facilities early Tuesday morning once the Titans received their results.

Tennessee’s cases mark the NFL’s first in-season outbreak. The scenario raises all sorts of questions, including whether the two teams will be forced to postpone or cancel upcoming games. The Titans (3-0) are set to host the Pittsburgh Steelers, also undefeated, while the winless Vikings travel to Houston to play the Texans (0-3).

As of now, the games remain on. The NFL and the NFLPA said in a joint statement that they were monitoring the situation.

“Both clubs are working closely with the NFL and the NFLPA, including our infectious-disease experts, to evaluate close contacts, perform additional testing and monitor developments,” the two parties said. “All decisions will be made with health and safety as our primary consideration. We will continue to share updates as more information becomes available.”

ESPN reported that the Titans‘ facility will be closed until at least Saturday. The Titans, who are 3-0 on the season, said in a statement that they chose to work remotely “out of an abundance of caution” while the team went about confirming the tests. Multiple outlets reported that the league does not consider the results to be a false positive.

On Saturday, Titans outside linebacker coach Shane Bowen was placed in the league’s COVID-19 protocol, which means he tested positive for the virus or was exposed to someone who did. Bowen did not make the trip to Minneapolis and the game went on as scheduled.

According to ESPN, the league has identified 48 people who were in close contact with the eight Titans players and staffers who now have the virus.

It remains to be seen whether the schedule has to be altered because of the developments. The league told Pittsburgh to proceed with game planning for Sunday’s game in Nashville, the Steelers said in a statement. The NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo also reported that Titans coaches have told players that “if they have to go without any work until Saturday, have a walkthrough then and play the #Steelers Sunday, then that’s what they’ll have to do. No excuses.”

In baseball, MLB was forced to reorganize its schedule on the fly as the league dealt with new cases. Teams such as the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals went weeks without playing following outbreaks. Through it all, MLB finished its shortened 60-game regular season and have begun the playoffs.

The league adapted by scheduling doubleheaders and using previous off days to make up missed games.

Finding new dates on the calendar, however, is much trickier in the NFL. The Titans and Steelers, for example, have different bye weeks, so a possible postponement wouldn’t be as simple as moving the game back a few weeks.

Moving a team’s game back even a few days — say from Sunday to Tuesday — also creates a set of competitive challenges for the following week.

If necessary, one suggested solution from CBS Sports’ Dave Richard proposed moving the Titans-Steelers’ matchup to Week 7 — Tennessee’s original bye — and moving Pittsburgh’s game against the Baltimore Ravens to Week 8 since Baltimore and Pittsburgh were originally off that weekend.

Epidemiologist Zachary Binney, an assistant professor of quantitative theory and methods at Oxford College of Emory University, tweeted that Tuesday’s news was the “worst-case” scenario for the NFL. He wrote that based on the timeline, the Titans could have had infected members of their organization on the field against the Vikings.

NFL players, coaches and staff undergo daily testing — except on game days.

The NFL conducts polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests — the kind that involves a nasal swab — but those results don’t return in time for kickoff. The league could have used point of care (POC) testing for faster results, but those tests are only used to confirm initial positive tests “and the NFL doesn’t yet trust them,” ESPN reported.

“Looks like the NFL gambled and lost by not testing on game day,” Binney tweeted. “Now COVID cases got on the field and played a game in Minnesota. Some bad luck here.”

The NFL and the players’ union spent the summer negotiating details for the league’s health and safety protocols for the pandemic. The plan, which includes contact tracing, social distancing and mask-wearing in addition to testing, was approved just prior to training camp in late July. If someone tests positive, that person must miss at least 10 days and pass another series of tests before being cleared to return.

Over the weekend, Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell became the first player to be placed on the league’s COVID-19 reserve list since the start of the season after he tested positive for the virus. Sunday’s game between the Falcons and the Chicago Bears went on as scheduled as no other person tested positive following Terrell’s diagnosis.


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