There has always been a weird disconnect between the National Football League’s puffed-out self-importance and the way it conducts its games.
This is the league of immense wealth and popularity, which has a competition committee that annually tinkers with rules and procedures in a quest for perfection, and yet still measures first downs with a metal chain between two sticks, and has officials spot the line of scrimmage by wading into a pile of giant bodies and then sticking their foot on the ground. Such precision!
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The games themselves, that is, are more important than their finer details.
But the events of this season, and especially of the past week, have driven that point home to a previously unimaginable degree.
The realities of the ongoing pandemic, and more importantly the NFL’s desire to barrel on through it while still having players and staff moving around their communities and travel between cities, have made an utter mockery of competitive integrity. Games jump around on the schedule, practices are cancelled, whole position groups might be sidelined, and teams can end up going long stretches without gathering before being suddenly thrown back together again to say hello on the eve of playing a game.
There had already been some notable examples of this goofiness — the Las Vegas Raiders having most of the starting defence miss all practices before playing Kansas City comes to mind — but the low point came on Sunday when the Denver Broncos played the New Orleans Saints. All three of Denver’s quarterbacks were in COVID quarantine, so the Broncos turned to Kendall Hinton, a practice-squad wide receiver who played (backup) quarterback at Wake Forest three years ago. I confess to thinking it might be fun to watch a completely inexperienced quarterback with no prep time try to run a really stripped-down NFL offence. It was not fun. Hinton completed one of nine pass attempts for 13 yards. The Saints caught more of his passes (two) than did his own teammates.
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Various NFL insiders were meanwhile reporting that the NFL never gave serious thought to moving the Broncos-Saints game from Sunday even when it became apparent that Denver would have to start someone wholly unqualified for the job. The league insists that competitive reasons are not enough to merit a postponement; as long as a team can literally field enough warm bodies to play a game, the game will go on. So, had the Broncos had more players test positive, or even more players who had been in close contact with a positive case and thus had to quarantine, they might have been bailed out of their rookie-WR-at-QB dilemma.
Which, as it happens, is pretty much what has gone on with the Baltimore Ravens. They were supposed to play the Pittsburgh Steelers last Thursday, but when several positive tests snowballed into more than a dozen, the NFL bumped the game back to Sunday. More positive tests came, and the game was bumped again to Tuesday. On Monday night, it was moved one more time, to Wednesday afternoon. (NBC already has the Rockerfeller Center Christmas special on Wednesday night, which is just perfect.) The Ravens-Steelers game has now been delayed so much that two of the original COVID-positive players, running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins, are now eligible to return to the lineup, despite having been ruled out for Week 12 ages ago. The repeated delays also mean that a Ravens game against the Dallas Cowboys, originally scheduled for this Thursday, has been moved to the following Tuesday, which means reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, who would have missed two games after his positive COVID test, will now miss just one, should he recover as normal.
The cause of all of this with the Ravens, it is worth noting, is a strength coach who didn’t report symptoms and worked in the training facility with players while not wearing a mask. Because the league wanted that game against the Steelers on U.S. Thanksgiving night, the Ravens kept returning to their facilities and infecting one another, with 20 players now affected. And yet the NFL seems to be doing everything possible to allow Baltimore to squeeze its Week 12 game into Week 12, even though it will be played a day before what would have been Week 13. There are countless fantasy-football leagues that are governed with more attention to fairness. That the NFL still has not pushed the big red emergency button that says Week 18 — or the one under a glass case that says FORFEIT — remains a puzzle. Extending the season a week would create some odd ripple effects in terms of scheduling, with some playoff teams getting unexpected rest, but the scheduling hijinks of this season have already shown that the league doesn’t mind messing around with its best-laid plans. More likely, the NFL is simply saving Week 18 as the final option when all other options are exhausted. They could have moved Ravens-Steelers there many days ago, but then the next team with an outbreak would want that treatment instead of, say, shoving an undrafted receiver out there to play quarterback against a Super Bowl contender.
The NFL is sticking with its show-will-go-on mentality until it absolutely cannot anymore. Five weeks of regular-season play left. One imagines we haven’t seen everything, yet.
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