In case you missed it, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and Mike Garafolo reported this morning that the Titans and Vikings were both suspending in-person club activities after eight members of the Titans organization — three players and five staff — tested positive for COVID-19. We have been tracking the story here at Broadway Sports if you want more details, but this is what we know right now:
- Shane Bowen — who stayed in Nashville after testing positive on Saturday — was not one of the eight counted in the report.
- The three players have not been identified at this time.
- The Titans facility is currently shut down and is being deep cleaned.
- The amount of time that the facility will be closed seems to be unclear. Some reports have stated that the team has been told they will be shut down until Saturday. Other reports indicate that no firm timetable has been determined and that re-opening will be based on testing results and the advice of disease control experts.
- All eight people who tested positive were asymptomatic, but all eight tests are confirmed positives, no false positives.
- Mike Vrabel is not believed to be among the five staff members.
Obviously, there are several big questions that still need to be answered, including:
- How did this outbreak happen and did the Titans follow appropriate protocols in their handling of the situation?
- Which players have tested positive and when can they return?
- Which staff members have tested positive and what do the Titans do in their absence? For example, what if the entire defensive coaching staff is out?
- Does the facility ban apply to injured players coming in for treatment? If so, how do those players get the medical attention that they need?
We can’t answer any of those questions with the information that we currently have, but we will take a stab at speculating on the biggest question at the moment: what will the NFL do about the Titans-Steelers game on Sunday? Here are the five most likely options that the NFL will consider, ranked in order from most likely to least likely (in my opinion):
1. “The show goes on”
I was very skeptical that this would be possible initially, but I’ve come around on the idea and now think that it is actually the most likely scenario.
Assuming the reports that the Titans facility will be closed until Saturday are true, that would give Tennessee zero actual practices between Minnesota and Pittsburgh. They’d be able to do Zoom meetings during the week and have a walk-through on Saturday, but no in-person contact. That’s deeply unfair to the Titans, but as ESPN’s Dan Graziano points out, competitive fairness is not necessarily the NFL’s first priority when it comes to handling these issues.
The reason that I think this is the most likely scenario? Well, for one, it’s the least disruptive to the NFL, it’s TV partners, and the 31 other teams. The only team that gets screwed here is the Titans, and frankly, that might not necessarily be a bad thing in the league’s eyes if it views the team as having some fault in this outbreak.
After all, this is part of the reason that the practice squads were expanded from 12 to 16 this year, to give teams additional roster flexibility in the event of a mini-COVID outbreak. Being without three players, possibly some coaches, and getting no practices? Tough cookies, Titans. This was part of the deal when the league agreed to push forward with a season under these circumstances.
My guess is this is what happens. The NFL preaches “next man up” all the time. The only difference between this and what the 49ers went through last week is that the Niners got in a few practices.
Negative Impacts: Titans play without practicing
2. Bye Week Shuffle
Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot threw this idea out. There is a scenario where the Titans and Steelers could push their matchup to Week 7, currently the Titans bye week, and the Steelers-Ravens game gets moved from Week 7 to Week 8.
This is the best case scenario for the Titans. They get the week off — which wouldn’t be bad timing with stars Taylor Lewan, A.J. Brown, and Adoree’ Jackson all nursing injuries and questionable to play anyway — and make it up later in the year.
Sure, it sucks to have a Week 4 bye and be faced with the possibility of playing 16 consecutive weeks of football with no breaks if the Titans were to return to the AFC Championship game, but if you end up having Brown, Lewan, and Jackson available for what looks like a critical conference game with Pittsburgh, I think you make that trade.
You could also see a situation where they simply move Titans-Steelers to the end of the season and push the playoffs back a week, but for two likely playoff teams, being at a competitive disadvantage entering the postseason seems more unfair than giving them super early bye weeks.
Negative Impacts: Week 4 byes for both Titans and Steelers, re-arranging of schedule and logistical fallout from that for three teams (Titans, Steelers, and Ravens).
3. Tuesday (or Monday) Night Football
The league could choose to move the game from Sunday to Tuesday. This is a bit of a logistical nightmare in some ways. Yes, it can be done, but broadcast crews, TV partners, referees, fans, and gameday facilities workers will all be impacted in addition to both the Titans and Steelers.
And at the end of the day, the only thing this helps is getting the Titans a chance to get a couple practices in. Sure, those practices are important, but are they worth throwing all those other moving parts out of balance for?
Shifting the game just one day to Monday night is also in play according to ESPN’s Dianna Russini.
That might be a good compromise for the Titans. They would at least get one day of “normal” practice in before the game without significantly impacting the following week. Whether that Monday night game would be another 9:20 p.m. CT kickoff or which channel it would be aired on (CBS technically owns the rights to the game, so I’d assume it would be a rare CBS edition of Monday Night Football), but it sounds like this option is certainly on the table.
Negative Impacts: Short weeks for both Titans and Steelers heading into Week 5, logistics nightmare with little time to plan
4. Game is cancelled
This is extremely unlikely. The NFL likes money, and cancelling games costs them money, even in a COVID season. The league has not cancelled a game since the player’s strike of 1987 and hasn’t cancelled a game due to anything besides a labor dispute since 1933. They have always found ways to make the schedule work around natural disasters and other major disruptions to life as we know it.
Having two teams with 15 games at the end of the year would make playoff positioning tedious and it would mess with record books. For example, does Derrick Henry get credit for being a back-to-back rushing champ if he goes for 1,500 yards in 15 games while someone else rushes for 1,501 in 16 games? At the end of the day, you can argue that those things don’t mean a lot relative to everything else at play, but it’s just something I’m sure the league would prefer to avoid.
This could also be viewed as an advantage for both the Steelers and Titans if it were to happen. Both teams skip out on a tough opponent and get to play just 15 games in 17 weeks while everyone else plays 16.
Negative Impacts: Lost revenue, playoff seeding and record book asterisks, both teams have competitive advantage of extra rest compared to other teams
5. A Titans forfeit
This is even less likely than an outright cancellation in my opinion. As mentioned above, the league very rarely cancels games, but it has never had an official forfeit in its 100-year history.
The only way this option even gets on the table is if the league determines that the Titans were borderline criminally negligent of COVID protocols and chooses to make an example of them. Short of that — and there is no indication to this point that the Titans did anything wrong here — I simply cannot see the NFL breaking a 100-year precedent and hammering Tennessee with a forfeit.
Negative Impacts: Lost revenue, competitive advantage for Steelers, and historical precedent