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Scheduling in the COVID era not as simple as it seems if NFL wants full season & playoffs

With the Patriots and Titans creating a host of scheduling problems for the league, creating a Week 18 and Week 19 looks to be the only way forward. Unfortunately, even that is fraught with issues and would require some additional flexibility in the interest of fairness.

NFL: New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs and Patriots was able to be played late on a Monday night, but still created more positive tests.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Extending the NFL’s season by creating a Week 18 and Week 19 for holdover games presents a simple solution for the traffic jam (and that’s the diplomatic phrasing) going on in the NFL as the Tennessee Titans flout NFL protocols and the New England Patriots make reckless dining decisions. The league pushed Broncos-Patriots back a week instead of rescheduling it, presumably because they don’t want to go to a Week 18/19, though it’s fair to wonder whether this would be the path they’ve chosen if the Pats hadn’t been the team in question.

Adding some buffer weeks at the end of the season provides the league with a dedicated space to move games so these kinds of scheduling conflicts don’t arise and create unfair circumstances, particularly for the teams like the Broncos who don’t have issues with the virus like New England does. Denver, for example, gets a so-called “bye” week during a period where they practiced on a full schedule assuming they were playing, even adding a workout on Saturday in advance of a Monday night matchup.

Game this scenario out, though: assuming the season continues without major incident — let’s hope for everyone’s sake the Titans serve as a warning to other teams and players — and there are games in scheduled buffer weeks. Let’s say the Packers get the No. 1 seed, a very real possibility as we stand here in Week 6 where all the necessary caveats about a long season apply. What happens if they don’t have any buffer games to play?

They’d get the two weeks off while these games are being played, plus the bye week once the playoffs start. That means the No. 1 seed would have nearly a month off between games. Not only does this create an unfair schematic and health advance for those teams, there are also potential rust factors to account for in this scenario. Teams with the bye weeks have historically been very successful in the Divisional Round — better teams tend to win. That’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it’s not without obvious examples of teams who rested down the stretch, got their bye, and came out flat in their first playoff start. Multiply that now with the potential of empty stadiums.

There’s still some potential to go to a bubble playoff or even a modified schedule if the NFL needs it. I’ve previously suggested a World Cup style tournament to ensure maximum safety while finding a way to fit the schedule pieces together. It’s hardly a perfect solution as it still punishes the better teams for winning by not allowing them to play in their home stadiums.

For example, even under those circumstances, a playoff bubble would rob the Packers or Chiefs or Seahawks of home games that they rightfully earned, whether fans can be there or not. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the tipping point where we either have an unfair schedule or no schedule. Games cannot realistically continue under these current circumstances with positive tests throwing every weekend into flux.

Creating the buffer does make it possible some of those games could simply be cancelled or played simultaneously to playoff games if they don’t actually mean anything for the postseason race. A Broncos-Dolphins contest shouldn’t hold up a Wild Card game. But unfortunately, at this rate, a Week 18 looks like it could be a full slate of games.

One potential solution for the playoff problem involves granting teams second byes. In order to avoid further scheduling catastrophes, wait until Week 16 and move games like Packers-Bears, with obvious playoff implications, to a Week 18. Not only does it create more showcase games to potentially maximize revenue, but it mitigates the potential for long layoffs and empty Sundays with dud games. It would work like flexing into the national and primetime windows, but with a full week to prepare.

Of course, that still doesn’t stop teams from positive tests in those weeks, further complicating the scenarios at play. But that’s why adding two weeks could soften the blow. Let’s say the NFL moves Packers-Bears to Week 18, each team gets a Week 17 bye, and a positive test pops. There’s still a Week 19 to play.

This sort of kicking the can down the road could go on forever, which wouldn’t break the NFL’s heart. More weeks of football means more potential nationally televised games and for a league playing catchup with lost fan revenue, there’s some appeal there. Pushing the playoffs back to give pharmaceutical companies time to come up with a COVID vaccine ramps up the odds for fans in the stadium for marquee postseason matchups as well.

At some points, and we may be there now, we have to come to the conclusion there is no perfect solution and make do. Teams like the Packers, with a limited window to make a Super Bowl, run have every incentive to make this work and it behooves Mark Murphy to be pushing his fellow team governors to find a way to not only avoid disaster, but create a workable framework for a full season and playoffs.

A bubble may be the only way to ensure the season can be fully played, and a playoff bubbles appears inevitable at the current pace. If the league can’t agree on the former, an extended regular season with flexibility in late-season byes (plus a playoff bubble) may be the only way to make this work moving forward, and even that isn’t a perfect solution. Green Bay doesn’t want to give up on what looks like a charmed season, which means the Packers have even more skin in the game to ensure the season can be played safely and in full.