Pat Leonard: Will the NFL season actually start on time?

Tribune Content Agency

It’s a fair question to ask. In fact, it’s only logical to ask it at this point:

Is the 2020 NFL season in jeopardy of being delayed or, let’s be honest, cancelled?

The answer is that the league is not there yet, not even close. They are planning for a season that starts on time, and to get there, they are neck deep in making dramatic changes to teams’ offseason operations to prepare remotely the best they can during this coronavirus pandemic.

However, consider this timeline logically: experts are outlining a best-case scenario of a 12-18-month timeline for a vaccine to control the COVID-19 spread.

One NFL executive already conceded to the league website on Friday that he expects teams won’t be able to gather together in person until late July for training camp at the earliest.

And for the NFL to play even one game, it needs to be able to safely welcome around 61,500-80,000 fans into a stadium. It must be able to guarantee all staff and players can travel, collaborate, and come into close contact without contracting and spreading this deadly virus.

How could the NFL possibly guarantee that type of safety by Labor Day?

“In September, can we have stadiums with people in them?” the executive posted to “I’m trying to watch what’s going on in China moving toward normalcy. But who knows?”

“I don’t see how there aren’t massive delays up and down the (NFL) calendar,” an AFC head coach told Bleacher Report, “including delay to start of the season.”

“I’ll be shocked if we have NFL football this fall, if we have college football. I’ll be so surprised if that happens,” ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said on ESPN Radio.

There are also two incomplete stadiums in Inglewood, Calif., and Las Vegas for the Rams, Chargers and Raiders, respectively. Construction is continuing on both sites for now, but for how long? One worker at Allegiant Stadium in Vegas already tested positive for the virus.

So the bottom line is that while the NFL is not ready to talk publicly yet about the possibility of a delayed or cancelled season (they won’t even push late April’s draft back), it would only make sense that the league creates contingency plans for those scenarios.

And though they’re building a regular season schedule that starts on time for now, it’s reasonable to assume they would create a plan for a delayed slate if it became clear it was necessary.

First, though, they need to focus on what to do tomorrow. And right now the road to all of the league’s decisions is paved by daily communication between — and updates and recommendations from — NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills and NFL Players Association medical director Dr. Thom Mayer.

Their guiding goal is to protect the health of the public and club and league employees while continuing the league’s essential business safely, with an eye of preparing for a season.

And the first step includes discussions about virtual offseason activities where coaches and players can hold team and position meetings, exchange playbooks remotely, and stay on track for the summer and fall.

For the Giants and other teams with first-year head coaches especially, this is a critical element of this unprecedented offseason framework. Teams with first-year head coaches were scheduled to start on April 6, two weeks before everyone else, an annual rule that gives their fledgling programs a head start.

Without having the players in the building, a rookie coach like Joe Judge certainly is not going to accomplish the same kind of work he’d envisioned in his early days running the team. However, it would only be fair to keep that advantage in place for first-year teams.

And I can promise you that these conversations are all happening but simply much more complicated than usual.

The collective bargaining agreement, for example, governs how many hours and days a team can practice and meet with its players, the level of practice they can perform, and many other details.

So this is not just a league decision. It’s also a conversation with the NFL Players’ Association about, for example, how much time Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is allowed to spend per day on a video conference with quarterback Daniel Jones installing his new offense.

Fresh off the narrow passage of a new controversial collective bargaining agreement, then, it’s back to the table for the NFL’s and NFLPA’s leaders. But this time they might not just be talking about the rules governing their game.

By early summer, common sense tells us they could be discussing whether or not there is going to be a game in 2020 at all.


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