Many NFL fans have been asking this all week.
How could the league three times postpone the Baltimore at Pittsburgh game after the Ravens’ big COVID-19 outbreak, but force the Denver Broncos play without any quarterbacks on almost no notice this past Sunday?
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and chief medical officer Allen Sills answered that nagging questions and others pertaining to the ongoing pandemic on a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon.
As background, last Thursday a down-roster quarterback on the Broncos, Jeff Driskel, tested positive for the coronavirus. On Saturday he was joined on the COVID-19/reserve list by the Broncos’ only other three QBs on either the active roster or 16-player practice squad: Starter Drew Lock, No. 2 Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles.
The Broncos, of course, got annihilated by the New Orleans Saints, 31-3, after they had no choice but to play a practice-squad wide receiver — Kendall Hilton — at QB. He completed one pass for nine yards.
The Ravens finally played Wednesday afternoon at Pittsburgh, a game originally slated for last Thursday night that was postponed thrice. Over the past 10 days more than 20 Ravens players were parked on COVID-19/reserve either for being infected or as high-risk close contacts.
Why the vastly different approaches by the NFL? And why were the Ravens allowed to even play at Pittsburgh this week when as late as Wednesday morning another player became infected, safety Geno Stone?
“Let me be crystal clear, as we have been with our clubs since last March,” Goodell said. “Health and medical decisions have, and always will, take precedence over competitive considerations and business interests. We follow the facts, we follow the science and the recommendations of our medical experts.
“In the case of the Ravens, we postponed their game against the Steelers to ensure that we had confidence that the virus was contained. Our medical experts believe that they have now sufficiently traced the virus, identified at-risk personnel and that we can now safely proceed with the game.”
In both the Broncos’ and Ravens’ cases, Goodell added, neither team was permitted to play “until we had contained the spread of the virus among the team and in the facility.”
Sills said the league’s medical decisions when investigating an outbreak on any team have nothing whatever to do with “the identity of that individual. Meaning, whether they are a player, coach or staff member — and if they’re a player, what position it is.
“It’s a medical exercise and so, really, the identity or position group doesn’t even come into play. You’re looking at them as patients, not as football players or coaches at that point. So in the situation in Denver we did just what we’ve done with all other cases.”
Added Goodell: “We will not reschedule games for that purpose, even if a club has multiple injuries in a specific position group.
“As we discussed in October at the fall league meeting, we will not postpone or reschedule games due to COVID issues affecting multiple players, even within a position group, if we feel comfortable that the rest of the team is not at risk. This was exactly the case in Denver. Isolating high-risk contacts like we did in Denver is a key component of our protocols and our health-and-safety-first approach.”
Only five Broncos players have been placed on the special reserve list, and already two by Tuesday had come off.
As for the Ravens, five players came off COVID-19/reserve on Monday. With so many still unavailable on that list, a whopping 10 players had to be activated off the 16-man practice squad just to field a team at Pittsburgh.
Sills added that all rapid point-of-care tests conducted on all Ravens players, coaches and sideline personnel hours before Wednesday’s kickoff came back negative, hence the game was allowed to proceed.
“So we can say with confidence that there is no active infection among the players, coaches and staff on the sideline on the Ravens side today,” Sills said.
Goodell was asked what changes with regard to COVID-19 protocols we might see come playoff time. That is, after Jan. 3 — just a month away. Maybe individual team bubbles? Or a league-wide playoff bubble, along the lines of those that worked in summer for the NHL and NBA?
“We are considering a number of alternatives,” Goodell said. “All options remain on the table.”
That said, Goodell did not exactly talk up any bubble concept.
Indeed, how realistic are bubbled environments for the NFL, considering nearly 10,000 individuals on 32 teams currently are deemed essential members? Fourteen teams are slated to make the playoffs. That’d be a lot of people to bubble.
“I guess it depends on (how you define) ‘bubble,’ ” Goodell said. “We don’t see a bubble as I think most of you refer to it as, where we are all in one location and we are all isolating entirely. We feel strongly that our protocols are working. As we’ve demonstrated over the last several weeks, we’re willing to adjust those protocols, adapt those protocols, take additional steps that might be meeting the environmental (conditions of) our communities.
“But I don’t see us doing a bubble in the sense that I think a lot of media focuses on it. We may look at different ways to reduce the risks for our personnel, whether they’re players, coaches or other personnel that would limit exposure to others.”
Sills was asked what are the chances players, coaches and other team personnel might get COVID-19 vaccinations before or during the playoffs. Front-line health-care workers and long-term care residents will be first, U.S. health authorities determined Tuesday.
“We are not in any way trying to campaign to cut the line, as it were, with regard to vaccine availability,” Sills said. “We’ve said all along that we never want to do anything that hinders the public-health effort.”
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