A few months ago, I wrote a column arguing the NFL should push back the playoff a few weeks. At the time, the Tennessee Titans were battling a COVID-19 outbreak and had a game postponed. But the league didn’t follow my suggestion, and it appears to have worked. With all the challenges presented by COVID-19, it’s amazing that more issues didn’t arise. Let’s look back on the incredible journey this NFL season has been.
The NFL completes the regular season and playoffs despite COVID-19
As we approach Super Bowl LV, it’s worth reflecting on the challenges presented by the pandemic. Despite numerous positive COVID-19 cases, the NFL finished its regular season playing every game within the normal 17-week season. The playoffs proceeded uneventfully. And barring any last-minute news on positive COVID-19 results among Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes or a few other star players, the biggest game of the year should go off without a hitch.
Was the season a success? For the most part, I would argue yes, but there are a few issues worth watching in the coming months.
The virtual NFL Draft
In April, as most Americans were struggling under stay-at-home orders, the NFL scrapped its plans to hold a live draft. Instead, the league decided to conduct one virtually. By all accounts, it was a huge success. At the very least, it gave sports fans something to distract us from working from home and helping our kids with online school. Call me nostalgic, though. I did miss the thunderous boos that greet NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as he takes the stage every year.
The coronavirus forces changes to the preseason schedule
Heading into the regular season, the league and the Players’ Association agreed to cancel preseason games and rush through quick training camps. Once the regular season started, we lost several stars to season-ending injuries. Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Dak Prescott, and Odell Beckham Jr. were all out before reaching the halfway point. You could make a competitive NFL roster just from players lost to injury this season.
By the end of October, 15 players went down with Achilles injuries, according to Yahoo! Sports. We usually see soft-tissue injuries in the preseason or early regular season. It would make sense the preseason changes led to more players suffering these injuries. But as I have mentioned repeatedly, you can’t make assumptions too quickly. We won’t know until we have enough data and time to step back and truly see whether there was an effect.
Players testing positive and team outbreaks
The biggest question facing the sport was the risk of players catching the virus. After all, football involves tackling and blocking other players. Surely, we would see a huge number of players infected with COVID-19 from all of this close contact, right?
According to Lindsay Jones of The Athletic, 262 players and 462 coaches and team personnel tested positive between August 1 and January 23. Two teams – the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens – endured widespread outbreaks, forcing game delays and schedule adjustments for many other teams.
From an outsider’s perspective, it didn’t seem like the NFL treated every team and its COVID cases the same. While some teams were fortunate to have their games postponed a few days, others played without entire position groups, like the Denver Broncos did taking the field without a single quarterback or the New Orleans Saints did without an established running back. Unlike college football, there were no roster minimums that forced automatic cancellation or postponement of games.
The NFL’s COVID-19 testing
An important part of the league’s ability to complete the season involved testing. According to Jones, the NFL conducted 954,830 COVID-19 tests. During a time of widespread transmission of the virus, many observers argued that this testing would be better used to screen regular Americans. The league contracted with an independent lab to perform these tests at team facilities. According to The Athletic, the NFL spent more than $75 million dollars to screen its players. Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL Chief Medical Officer, told the publication that the league’s testing did not interfere with the care of the public as the testing did not involve any healthcare agency or hospital.
Myocarditis and the potential long-term health consequences of COVID-19
Finally, there is the question of long-term health consequences, especially myocarditis. This condition affecting heart muscle has been shown to be a consequence of COVID-19 for many adult patients. At least one player – Tommy Sweeney of the Buffalo Bills – was diagnosed with myocarditis. But we have seen this heart issue in other sports. The Big Ten announced in August that 10 football players in the conference developed the condition.
What we don’t know is how big of an issue myocarditis is now or will be years from now for these players. Will an affected athlete gradually overcome it with no long-term effects, or will it harm his health years later?
The NFL helped the country through the coronavirus
Sports – and the NFL in particular – helped the country through the anxiety and frustrations brought about by the coronavirus. Despite all the challenges, the NFL navigated an extremely difficult situation and brought some joy to Americans. As the pandemic hopefully comes to an end in the coming months, we’ll be able to look back and see if there were any long-term consequences for the players who personally faced the enormous health risks taking the field each week.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the February 5, 2021 issue of The Post and Courier.