The 2020 pandemic season may have experienced its “jump the shark” moment when the Denver Broncos played an entire game without a quarterback in their 31-3 loss to New Orleans on Sunday.
For the Ravens, it marked the eighth consecutive day they’ve returned at least one positive test for COVID-19, continuing the largest outbreak the NFL has seen in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. According to multiple reports, Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon tested positive on Saturday while slot receiver Willie Snead tested positive Sunday, leaving Baltimore with an extraordinary 23 players on the reserve-COVID-19 list by the end of the weekend.
The news came just two days before the Ravens’ Tuesday night game at Pittsburgh, a AFC North showdown that has twice been rescheduled and still feels tenuous despite the league claiming the game will go on as scheduled. According to Pro Football Talk, the Ravens returned to their Owings Mills facility for conditioning work Sunday evening despite Snead’s positive test earlier in the day, raising further questions about the policy for a team reopening its facility in the aftermath of an outbreak.
With the Ravens now having 10 current starters — including reigning NFL MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson — and a number of other notable players on the COVID list, a lack of competitive balance continues to be discussed by fans and media alike. However, the league introduced an expanded 16-man practice squad and more flexible roster maneuvering to account for such widespread absences. Maintaining competitive balance, fairness, or integrity — whatever you want to call it — is an understandable talking point, but inequalities due to scheduling, injuries, and other variables are constant in even normal seasons, making it virtually impossible to try to set some kind of “pandemic” standard that wouldn’t still be arbitrary at the end of the day.
In the eyes of the league, the determining factor for whether to play a game or not continues to be the containment of the in-house outbreak that closed the Ravens’ facility for the better part of a week. Those calling for a forfeit aren’t exactly chasing “competitive fairness” from the perspective of the rest of the AFC by gifting the Steelers a win, and that’s not even considering the financial fallout of the teams not being paid in the event of the game not being played.
Where the NFL ultimately failed was its arrogance in not building more flexibility into the 2020 schedule. Instead of learning from MLB’s scheduling nightmares that stemmed from long-term virus outbreaks with the Miami Marlins (10 days) and St. Louis Cardinals (16 days), commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL proceeded with a normal 256-game, 17-week regular season complete with the Thursday games that are strains on teams under even usual conditions. Had the league built a couple open weeks into the schedule — one at midyear and another at the end — in addition to the normal team byes and kept all games to Sundays and Mondays for a 19-week regular season in 2020, rescheduling would have been an easier and safer endeavor.
From the moment the NFL and the NFL Players Association accepted the risks of playing a season in the midst of a pandemic, there had to be an acceptance that competitive balance wasn’t always going to be possible. Players — even some of the league’s best like Jackson — were going to test positive with the possibility of multiple players from the same team or even the same position group being sidelined at the same time. On the flip side, teams free of infection were occasionally going to have their schedules altered because of the opponent in a given week.
In the Ravens’ case, the overriding problem isn’t the players who will be missing from Tuesday’s scheduled game. Where the league has failed is expecting the team’s remaining eligible players — from backup quarterback Robert Griffin III to every member of the practice squad who could be elevated Tuesday — to play in a highly competitive environment without any meaningful ability to practice and prepare.
Had Baltimore endured the exact same number of positive tests on Monday and Tuesday and the outbreak subsided by Wednesday or Thursday, the remaining players still would have had a few days to prepare for a rescheduled Sunday game. At that point, it would have been “game on” with the remaining players in the same way the Ravens needed to use street free agents Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett at quarterback late in their injury-ravaged 2015 campaign.
But a prolonged outbreak such as this — along with the subsequent kicking the can down the road with the schedule — puts eligible players at greater risk for injury with their training facility being closed indefinitely. Once it became apparent the game couldn’t be played on Sunday and Ravens players wouldn’t be able to practice through the weekend, postponing until the end of the regular season was the logical solution. Instead, situations like this will continue to impact other teams and other games as the Steelers will now have to play against Washington on a short week and Dallas has seen its Week 13 schedule disrupted.
Ultimately, there are no perfect solutions playing football in the midst of a pandemic, but the league failing to recognize the need for more scheduling outs leaves it in a precarious position with five full weeks to go in the regular season. Through the first 12 weeks, we’ve seen major outbreaks play out with both Tennessee and Baltimore, so the odds of it happening again feel all but inevitable, especially with virus spread in most NFL cities considerably higher than it was early in the season.
Below is a look at the Ravens players currently on the reserve-COVID-19 list after Sunday’s reported additions:
QB: Lamar Jackson, Trace McSorley
RB/FB: Mark Ingram, Patrick Ricard, J.K. Dobbins
TE: Mark Andrews
WR: Willie Snead
OL: Patrick Mekari, Matt Skura, D.J. Fluker, Will Holden
DL: Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington
OLB: Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson, Jihad Ward
CB: Khalil Dorsey (IR), Tavon Young (IR), Iman Marshall (IR)
SPECIALIST: Morgan Cox