Empty stadiums or audibile call for NFL?

Ron Borges

Audibles are one of the key elements for success in professional football. That will never be more true than it is this season…assuming there ever is a “this season.’’

The NFL has thus far been considerably more successful keeping itself alive for its fans in a time of coronaviruses and countrywide lockdowns than its counterparts in other sports. While the NBA, NHL and major league baseball have all ground to a halt, the NFL has found ways to turn a quarantined draft into the highest-rated three-day event in televised sports history.

This speaks to the popularity of the game but also the audacity and flexibility of the folks who run it. The suits leading the NFL truly believe the country cannot live without their game and thus take action to turn inaction into a new form of televised entertainment. They make news when there is no news and create action when there is only inaction.

Who else could turn three hours of watching young guys with overactive pituitary glands sit on their sofas waiting for their phone to ring into a must-watch reality TV show?

While the other leagues fade from view the NFL has thus far successfully conducted virtual free agency, a virtual college draft and now a virtual off-season workout program for its 32 teams and convinced fans it is interesting. Nobody sees these guys, but still it seems, unlike the other sports, they remain live-and-kicking.

But what will happen on September 10 when the first game is supposed to be played between the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans? As an aside, scheduling that as the opening game of the season is in itself a form of genius. Wasn’t it those same Texans who held a seemingly insurmountable 24-0 lead in a divisional round playoff game in Kansas City not so many months back?

In the end, the Chiefs eviscerated that lead, although the Texans, to be honest, had more than a little to do with their own demise and surely will want a second chance to take down Patrick Mahomes and his Lombardi Trophy-toting teammates. So opening the season with a rematch after so bitter an ending for one team and so euphoric a win for the other was pure genius. So, too, is the way their season schedule shapes up.

Publicly the NFL has refused to allow the thought that its season opening may be delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but there remain many stumbling blocks. The clearest is: What if the virus returns with a vengeance after the country begins to return to normal? Large sweaty men rubbing up against each other for 60 minutes may not be viewed as the best form of social distancing.

But there are other roadblocks as well and one significant one is what if some cities and states have opened up while others remain in virtual lockdown? How will the NFL answer the latter problem if, for example, East Coast governors refuse to allow team sports to be played while the South okays them? You can’t have half the teams playing and half not. Nor would it seem likely team owners like Bob Kraft in New England or John Mara in New York would embrace the idea of playing no home games or going to neutral sites all over America.

Frankly, how many neutral sites would even exist?

That is where the audible comes in. Although no one in the NFL hierarchy will say it publicly, it already considered a reasonable contingency plan if it cannot start its regular-season on time. The league will be ready to change its play if conditions prevent it from getting off the line of scrimmage on the second weekend of September.

But how? Run a shift.

Super Bowl LV is presently set for February 7 in Tampa, but the NFL could easily push back the start of the season by tacking whatever early-week games it loses on the back end of the schedule and then pushing the playoffs deeper into February ... or even March. After all, what else will people be doing at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium in March or even April, if that’s when the Super Bowl has to be played?

This is not to suggest that a delay in the start of the NFL season would not cause angst among owners and football-starved fans. It would. But unlike the NHL, NBA and MLB, pro football seems the league best suited to come up with a flexible plan that will allow it to complete the 2020 season, even if it doesn’t end until well into 2021.

Failing that, it could always run the ultimate audible. The NFL could just settle the whole thing by playing Madden20. Who wouldn’t pay to watch Bill Belichick with the controls in his hands vs. Tom Brady? BOOM! As John Madden would say.

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