Business of Football: What Happened to an Abundance of Caution?; Dud of a Trade Deadline

"An abundance of caution" has been the buzziest phrase of the NFL season, but it doesn't seem to mean what it did a couple months ago. Plus, why the NFL's trade deadline was quiet.
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We’ve reached the midway point in the season. Some teams have already played nine games, but with every team now at least through eight, The MMQB is rolling out our midseason content this week. The business of football has, as always, dominated the storylines throughout the first half of the season.

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Business of football > abundance of caution

In this year defined in good part by the largest national health crisis in a century, the mode of operations of so many has been to act with “an abundance of caution.” The NFL used this phrase earlier in the season in decision-making not only to shut down team facilities and discipline teams found to be in non-compliance, but also to postpone games to a later time slot of that weekend (even Tuesday night) or to move games to an entirely different weekend. The vigilance was done with, of course, an abundance of caution. Recently, however, it appears that mantra may be losing steam.

Earlier in the season, we heard about quarantining or isolating based on players or staff members testing positive or being around those who tested positive for, I thought, a week to 10 days (as we’ve seen in college football, with Trevor Lawrence and others, 10 days is required there). The does not appear to be the case with the NFL. A couple of weeks ago, much of the Raiders’ offensive line was placed on the COVID-19 list midweek; they played in the game that Sunday. This past week, the same was true for Matthew Stafford. Wasn’t it just a month ago when a Patriots game was postponed due to one positive test (Cam Newton)?

Further, the playing of the Thursday night game last week really appeared to show a true ebbing of abundance of caution. The game, a rematch of the NFC championship game between the Packers and 49ers featured both positive tests and reserve/COVID-19 list placements of multiple players on both teams and a closed 49ers facility the day before the game. Yet, almost miraculously, it was game on in San Francisco for Thursday Night Football!

What made the decision to play on Thursday night even more curious was that there were earlier Thursday games this season that were moved with the similar circumstances of positive tests—even on only one of the teams—and closed facilities. Certainly, this game could have been moved to Sunday, Monday or even Tuesday out of an abundance of caution. But it wasn’t, begging the question as to why. Well, as a mantra of this space goes: The business of sports always wins.

Fox took over rights to Thursday Night Football in 2018 to the tune of $3.3 billion over five years. The network’s second Thursday night game this season, between the Chiefs and Bills, was moved for reasons that did not appear different than what was going on with the Packers and 49ers last week. That game, however, was moved to the undesirable time slot of 5 p.m. ET the following Monday afternoon. My strong sense is that Fox executives weighed in, saying something like: “Listen, we gave in on the BillsChiefs and took a hit. Now we’ve got two marquee teams in prime time with no more World Series or NBA playoffs. We’re playing!”

Of course, the NFL or Fox would never admit to this. They would maintain that abundance of caution outweighs business concerns, but—as you know from this space—we would be naive to think differently.

To be clear, the NFL and NFLPA deserve continuing kudos for playing through this pandemic with minimal disruptions. Having said that, now comes the hard part. This NFL COVID season of 2020 will now get more challenging. The tricky balance between health and safety and economics will now get more conflicted.

The weather is turning and the virus is surging. As the teams’ bye weeks fall away, there is now minimal wiggle room to postpone games. There are contingencies being discussed, such as adding Week 18 to the schedule, playing a 16-team playoff with, perhaps, teams with fewer than 16 games completed, etc. But the NFL would prefer none of that. The unwillingness to postpone the Packers–49ers game, even to later the same weekend, appears a harbinger of what is to come.

The abundance of caution mission has started to be subsumed by the business of sports and that, in my opinion, will only increase.

Trade deadline a dud

The NFL trade deadline came and went last week, much in the same way it does every year: with a handful of players traded for low-round draft picks. There were some rumors about well-known names and potential new destinations, but they were just rumors—perhaps even started by the players’ own teams—and no fire. Let’s examine why.

No seamless transition

The schematic nature of football does not lend itself to seamless transition from team to team, as it does in baseball and basketball. This is one reason why NFL free agency has so many “misses” and is more difficult in the middle of the season. Now this transition is further exacerbated due to the on-boarding process during this COVID-19 season; a player would take an additional week before joining a new team, due to protocols, lessening both his contribution and value.

Financial uncertainties

The paucity of fans in stadiums around the league, and lost revenues, will cause some noticeable pain to player finance in 2021. The salary cap will be diminished, perhaps declining up to $25 million below its 2020 level. In talking to team executives, it was clear that this 1) spooked teams from acquiring players with large numbers in 2021, and 2) made draft picks—fixed and reasonable contracts for younger players—even more valuable for next season. This deterred trade activity.

Fuller non-trade a microcosm

One potential trade that had some legs was between the Texans and my old team, the Packers, regarding wide receiver Will Fuller. The complication to that trade, however, was the fact that Fuller is a pending free agent. I have sat in that chair for the Packers and understand that they did not want to surrender a draft pick of any value for a player with only eight games remaining on his deal. Thus, there were probably not only trade compensation negotiations for Fuller but also simultaneous contract negotiations. And Fuller would have been looking at the recent marketplace for top wide receivers, approaching $20 million per year, while the Packers have the elite Davante Adams on the team making less than $15 million a year. This was a truly difficult trade to complete. There were reports of the Texans wanting a second-round pick for Fuller; that might be reasonable were Fuller signed past this season. But a second-rounder for eight games? Of course not. This is not fantasy football; trades can be complicated.

Over the years, I have talked to league officials about ways to juice up the trading deadline, such as moving it back to Thanksgiving week, allowing trades for cash and/or cap space, etc. Their response is always the same: No. They are not interested in emulating the baseball or basketball trading periods where players are acquired for the stretch run. As for “buzz,” the NFL thinks it has enough of that, thank you. Thus, another year, another dud of a trading period.