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Analysis: NFL's rescheduling priorities are concerning, and not just because they affected Browns

Browns NFL
Posted at 2:49 PM, Dec 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-30 14:27:25-05

CLEVELAND — When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports that were in the middle of a season, like basketball and hockey, or on the verge of starting, like baseball, the timing of when those leagues would resume play became the biggest stories in pro sports.

The NBA created a bubble and successfully held its playoffs and finals with zero outbreaks. The NHL created bubbles with two hub cities for its postseason, which remained coronavirus-free. MLB opted not to bubble, saw some outbreaks but eventually got things under control, postponing games and making them up later in the season with doubleheaders and added game days.

The National Football League watched the early struggles of MLB and how the league rescheduled games. And while a bubble system in the NFL would have been a far tougher task than the NBA or NHL’s postseason seclusion, the league had every opportunity to observe what happened with professional baseball and saw that outbreaks were bound to happen eventually, with plenty of time to create contingency plans.

It all started in Week 4
COVID-19 issues inevitably arose, beginning with the Week 4 match-up between the Tennessee Titans and the Pittsburgh Steelers. After five players and six personnel tested positive for COVID-19 on the Titans, the league postponed the game and rescheduled it three weeks later.

That same week, the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs game was postponed a day after positive COVID-19 cases on both teams. In Week 5, the Buffalo Bills and Titans game was postponed two days after additional COVID-19 cases arose on the Titans.

In a statement released Sunday regarding the postponement of games early in the season due to COVID-19, the NFL said: “From those examples, we improved our contact tracing capability and since have become more able to identify those players at high risk for becoming positive. Working closely with the NFLPA, we identify those individuals and remove them from the team for 5 days. To date, more than 25 individuals identified as high risk close contacts have turned positive.”

When an outbreak on the Baltimore Ravens could not be controlled, the league started to get questions about how it decides which games get postponed -- questions some Cleveland fans are asking right now after the Browns lost the services of their wide receivers and two defensive players at the end of Week 16 before losing to the Jets.

The 'Ravens Rule'
The Ravens had at least one player test positive for the virus for 10 straight days. The team was forced to place 21 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list during the outbreak including reigning MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, running backs Mark Ingram II and J.K. Dobbins, wide receiver Willie Snead IV, tight end Mark Andrews, offensive linemen Patrick Mekari and Matt Skura, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and defensive ends Jihad Ward and Calais Campbell.

With a Thanksgiving Day game against the Steelers approaching, the league decided to postpone the game. And then postpone it again. And then postpone it again.

The NFL postponed the game three times, which gave the Ravens something every team that's been hit by COVID wishes it had more of this season -- time.

Why postpone not once, not twice, but three times?

Here’s what the league said:

“In the case of Steelers-Ravens, we postponed the game to ensure that we had confidence that the virus was contained. We believed that we sufficiently traced the virus and identified at risk personnel to proceed with the game at no increased risk to the participants. Even then, the Ravens played without 10 players from their active roster as a result of positive cases and close contacts.”

So the Ravens game was postponed because there was an active outbreak.

Got it.

But at the exact same time that the Ravens were dealing with an outbreak, the Cleveland Browns were going through COVID-19 struggles of their own.

Within a matter of days, the Browns had placed offensive linemen Chris Hubbard and Jack Conklin, fullback Andy Janovich, kicker Cody Parkey, long snapper Charley Hughlett, linebacker Sione Takitaki and defensive ends Joe Jackson, Porter Gustin and Myles Garrett on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

While some players returned in time for their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Browns were down Garrett, Gustin, Janovich, Jackson and Takitaki.

That game, despite positive testing being reported over a two-week period, was played as regularly scheduled.

The difference, the league said, was the severity of the outbreak in Baltimore. It was unable to be contained well enough to play the game.

As we have stated throughout the year and clubs are well aware, we make all reasonable efforts, consistent with underlying health and safety principles, to play all regular and postseason games as scheduled. This is grounded in a commitment to the players, the clubs and fans. Adhering to the jointly developed NFL-NFLPA protocols, it was determined by medical professionals that there was no risk of additional transmission of the virus among the team or facility and the game could be played safely as scheduled.

The league has communicated to the clubs throughout the year that this season would have to be different and competitive concerns would be secondary to the health and safety of the players and personnel. Clubs bear the burden when there are issues among their personnel or facility. All decisions where games have been moved this season were to ensure the health and safety of the participants and personnel.

The third postponement of the Ravens-Steelers game was done to "gain an extra day of COVID-19 testing results and to allow Ravens players time to train and avoid muscle strains," NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported.

So while delay makes sense and is the right thing to do to prevent additional spread of the virus, the Ravens' inability to trace the virus and contain it, even though they were fined and were also short plenty of key players, in a way rewarded the Ravens as they were able to postpone their game long enough to prepare their COVID-19 replacements who would go on to play in a close game with the Steelers.

That third postponement seems to negate what the league says it has done so far with other teams this season.

No competitive concern, league says
In a statement from the league, something sticks out that is extremely concerning due to, well, a lack of concern. Yes, the league reiterates that its top priority is the health of players and staff, as it should be. But the NFL says that competitive concerns have not entered the decision of when to postpone games or not.

Competitive concerns have not entered into the decision of when to postpone games nor when to reschedule. Broncos QB situation for example. The Broncos QB room was placed on high-risk close contact status after one QB was positive and contact tracing revealed that the other QBs were at risk. Or the Lions coaches’ issue from this week.

This was similar to other cases earlier in the season when clubs lost players for games or practices (49ers, Packers, Raiders). We identified close contacts of positive players and removed them for the required 5 days. This allowed the 49ers/Packers to be played despite the 49ers losing multiple WRs and the Packers losing multiple RBs. The Raiders had their entire offensive line identified as high risk close contacts of a positive player and played that week without any practice time.

Yes, the league said that.

The NFL does not care what kind of product it is putting out on the field each week, only that it is putting one out.

So in the case of the Browns, who had to place all but one wide receiver from their 53-man roster on the COVID-19 list, in addition to two linebackers, with less than 24 hours before they were set to travel and play the New York Jets, the league did not consider the implications of their on-field product when allowing the game to be played as regularly scheduled.

The Broncos, which the league cited as an example, had their entire quarterback room placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and were forced to play practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton as their quarterback against the New Orleans Saints.

Also cited as an example were the Las Vegas Raiders, which had to place their entire offensive line on the reserve/COVID-19 list, forcing them all to miss practice before their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The league allowed that game to be played knowing an entire position group had not had time to properly prepare for the game.

It doesn’t matter who plays, whether they're conditioned or not (except apparently in the case of the Ravens-Steelers game), just that they play.

The league had discussed the potential for adding a Week 18, and even a Week 19, to accommodate rescheduled games, but the NFL stuck with the goal of a 17-week season in order to keep the playoffs and Super Bowl schedule intact.

At some point, the league should have taken competition into consideration with its decisions to postpone and reschedule games in direct relation to COVID-19, but it failed to do so, and now there are teams, like the Browns, whose seasons could be directly impacted by a single game that could have been moved, as some others before it had been. And that’s a very bad look for the league.

You can read the NFL’s full statement below:

As we have stated throughout the year and clubs are well aware, we make all reasonable efforts, consistent with underlying health and safety principles, to play all regular and postseason games as scheduled. This is grounded in a commitment to the players, the clubs and fans. Adhering to the jointly developed NFL-NFLPA protocols, it was determined by medical professionals that there was no risk of additional transmission of the virus among the team or facility and the game could be played safely as scheduled.

The league has communicated to the clubs throughout the year that this season would have to be different and competitive concerns would be secondary to the health and safety of the players and personnel. Clubs bear the burden when there are issues among their personnel or facility. All decisions where games have been moved this season were to ensure the health and safety of the participants and personnel.

Competitive concerns have not entered into the decision of when to postpone games nor when to reschedule. Broncos QB situation for example. The Broncos QB room was placed on high-risk close contact status after one QB was positive and contact tracing revealed that the other QBs were at risk. Or the Lions coaches’ issue from this week.

This was similar to other cases earlier in the season when clubs lost players for games or practices (49ers, Packers, Raiders). We identified close contacts of positive players and removed them for the required 5 days. This allowed the 49ers/Packers to be played despite the 49ers losing multiple WRs and the Packers losing multiple RBs. The Raiders had their entire offensive line identified as high risk close contacts of a positive player and played that week without any practice time.

You could cite several instances when games were moved due to medical concerns.

  • In the case of Steelers-Ravens, we postponed the game to ensure that we had confidence that the virus was contained. We believed that we sufficiently traced the virus and identified at risk personnel to proceed with the game at no increased risk to the participants. Even then, the Ravens played without 10 players from their active roster as a result of positive cases and close contacts.

  • That case is similar to games that were postponed earlier this season involving the Titans and the Patriots. In both of those cases, the games were not played until we had captured the spread of the virus in the facility. Even then, the Patriots’ Cam Newton still missed a game after his positive test.

  • From those examples, we improved our contact tracing capability and since have become more able to identify those players at high risk for becoming positive. Working closely with the NFLPA, we identify those individuals and remove them from the team for 5 days.
    • To date, more than 25 individuals identified as high risk close contacts have turned positive.

Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.