The NFL—the league office, teams, players, coaches and everyone else in the pro football sphere—has been well aware that it would almost certainly face unforeseen challenges as it tried to play through a pandemic.
This is a real one.
That the league is dealing with a cluster of positive tests can’t be considered shocking—in fact, it’s probably more surprising that the NFL made it this far without an issue like the one facing the Titans (and, by extension, the Vikings and Steelers). And because this is something that could be planned for, the NFL has protocols ready to be rolled out in order to deal with it.
That said, this isn’t something the league can just handle the same way it has (very successfully) handled everything else over the last couple of months. The protocols used to this point have been, in simple terms, about keeping COVID-19 out. This, on the other hand, will have to be about getting it out of the 32 “virtual bubbles” the league has bragged about building.
There was, of course, the rash of false positives that arose three Sundays before Week 1. But in that case, the question was over managing a scare—and, frankly, not having such a scare tip of the scales of competitive balance—not seizing control of the virus.
We all saw what happened in Major League Baseball. We’ve seen the postponements in college football. We know, as a result, that getting the virus out isn’t as easy as keeping it out. And with a bunch of people infected now, and those who’ve been around them at risk, the stakes are higher.
The next few days should tell us how ready the NFL is.
And with that, here’s some more on how Tuesday morning played out, and where things go from here.
• Titans outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen got his positive COVID-19 test result back on Saturday morning—the test was taken Friday—and missed the team’s game in Minnesota as a result.
• Titans players were off Monday, except for their daily testing. That testing was what returned positives for three players and five staffers Tuesday morning.
• Titans staff in the building in the 5 a.m. hour on Tuesday learned of the positives, and those who tested positive were informed. By 5:20 a.m., in consultation with the league, the Titans made the decision to shut down the building and send everyone home.
• The eight positive tests were rerun by the lab on Tuesday morning, and all eight came back positive a second time. All five of the nonplayers testing positive were football staff. All were part of the traveling party to Minnesota in Week 3, and at least some were coaches.
• Titans players were scheduled to have a half-day on Tuesday (lifting, running, meetings, film) and were forced to make up what they could virtually.
• All the close contacts to the people who tested positive have been isolated. That was done through the contact-tracing devices coaches and players are required to wear. Those are worn during all work hours, including during games, for exactly this reason.
• In the 9 a.m. hour in Minnesota, Vikings head trainer Eric Sugarman, the team’s infection control officer, gathered the team’s brass and told them about the Titans’ situation, and that everyone needed to be out of the building within a half-hour.
• Sugarman also asked that coaches and scouts give his staff any requests about what they’d need from the office to work from home—something that having to work virtually through the spring at least prepared the team for (from a logistical standpoint).
• Additionally, Vikings staff was told the building would be closed for at least 24 hours and to plan for 48. If the team can’t return to the building until Thursday, the plan is to treat the week like the ramp-up for a Thursday-night game. That’s not ideal, of course, but that timeline will at least work, given the circumstances ahead of the team’s Week 4 trip to Houston.
• The Titans, meanwhile, have been told their facility won’t be open again until Saturday at the earliest. They are supposed to host Pittsburgh on Sunday, and coaches have told players to be ready, if need be, to prepare virtually and with only a Saturday walkthrough ahead of the game.
• The NFL hasn’t yet done anything to indicate the game will be postponed, but it’s clearly on the table. The game could be moved to Monday to provide an extra day, or the schedule fortunately allows for a fairly easy switch. The Titans’ bye week is Week 7, the Steelers’ is Week 8 and the Steelers play the Ravens in Week 7. So theoretically, Steelers–Ravens could be moved to Week 8, Steelers–Titans could be moved to Week 7 and this coming week could become the Titans’ and Steelers’ bye, with the Ravens’ bye moved to Week 7. Is that an extremely unfortunate break for the Steelers, to have a bye week now and then games in 13 straight weeks? Sure. But this was always going to be a weird year that would hurt some teams more than others.