In a regular NFL season, the showdown between two undefeated teams in Week 5 will be a must-watch for football fans.
But this season is not normal, as evidenced by the fact that the Buffalo Bills (4-1) and the Tennessee Titans (4-0) played in Nashville on Tuesday. It is the first time in a decade, and only the third time in the past 74 years, that a game has been played that day of the week.
The decision to schedule a match that is usually a day out for most players was made to accommodate the first outbreak of the coronavirus in the league, which began nearly three weeks ago in the locker room of the Titans.
After Titans’ Week 4 match against Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed to October 25, the weekend league also pushed Sunday’s Titans-Bills match through Tuesday after more players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus. But the season played outside the so-called bubble is subject to the will of an unpredictable virus. Tuesday’s match was not based on new positive test results from either side.
Although they had not played any game in 26 days, the Giants hardly looked rusty. They defeated the Biles, 42-16, as the two biggest attacking stars returned to the formation. Midfielder Ryan Tannehill was 21 from 28 at 195 yards and three touchdowns while sprinting back in Derek Henry’s indomitable lunges, leading to two touchdowns and viral highlights as he armed a potential competitor, Josh Norman, into oblivion in the second quarter.
Uncertainty biting is the new normal this season as the NFL tries to finish its regular 256-game season in 17 weeks, and broadcast partners – who are all preparing to bid on new long-term rights contracts next year – the content they are eagerly waiting for.
So far, the league has the flexibility to transfer matches, as is the case with Titans-Steelers, because in five weeks, teams still hadn’t taken weeks bye. However, positive tests on the Titans and the New England Patriots over the weekend led to a flurry of changes to the NFL schedule that affected half a dozen other teams.
Troy Vincent, executive vice president of soccer operations in the league, told reporters on Tuesday that rescheduling matches will be more difficult as the season progresses because more teams will take advantage of weeks of farewell. He added that team owners and league executives had discussed adding Week 18 to accommodate the rescheduled matches in the future.
But for the time being, he said, we still have momentum, even if that means playing every Tuesday.
This imperative, as no game foolproof until launch, turned the Bills-Titans match into not only a must-watch, but an example of scheduling play. Health and competitive concerns have to be considered against the precariously balanced NFL calendar.
No team has had to deal with as much disruption as the Titans, who have reported twenty positive cases since late September, when they first shut down the team’s facilities after playing the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3. After their return to the league, they were personally sanctioned. One-day activities, the team closed its facility again on Sunday when another employee tested positive. The Titans were allowed to train as a group for less than three days this month.
Despite the dominance of the Titans on Tuesday, the volatility of schedules appears to be eroding the competitive justice that the NFL has declared it favors. During the recession, the league attempted to maintain a level playing field for teams in the pandemic that initially hit some parts of the country and overtaken others. The league, for example, said that no team would be able to train until every team could.
However, while the Giants were sidelined, their opponents – the Steelers and Fils – continued to train together. The same was true of the Jets, who sent their players home last week for a day – after what turned out to be one false positive test – while their next opponents, the Arizona Cardinals, were training.
Teams welcome extra days to practice and recover, but in most years, those days are defined, not the last minute pressure on teams. In fact, the Bills were on hiatus while the NFL assessed the outbreak in Nashville, frustrating players and coaches – creatures of routine at the best of times – wary of playing on an odd day.
This last-minute approach to scheduling wears off on players. To squeeze in the Chiefs-Patriots on October 5, the league bent its own rules and allowed the Patriots to fly to Kansas City, Missouri, in two separate planes, on match day.
The decision prompted Patriots defensive back Jason McCurty to question whether the league is more interested in making sure such an outstanding game is played during prime times rather than ensuring the safety of players.
As for the League and Players Association, McCurty said, “It’s not about our best interest, or our health and safety – it’s about,” What can we make it look good, look good, and how can we go there and play games? “
However, the league is showing no sign of slowing down. The NFL owners met Tuesday, and will be again on Wednesday, to discuss safety measures and potential penalties for violations. Commissioner Roger Goodell said the owners had been told that the league “could not be satisfied.”
The league is considering heavy penalties along with fines levied on Titans for violating the League’s safety protocols and disturbing other teams. Last week, reports surfaced that several of the team’s players trained together outdoors while receiving orders not to hold in-person sessions.
The league said last week that teams that fail to abide by their rules could be fined, lose draft choices and even forfeit matches, if their actions affected other teams. Despite this, Gödel declined to say whether the Titans would be held accountable for the outbreak. “It’s not about discipline – it’s about keeping our people safe,” said Goodell.