It can happen to you. It can happen to me. It can happen to everyone, eventually.
That’s the message from Eagles coach Doug Pederson, COVID-19 survivor and fan of the prog-rock group Yes, as well as the NFL, current COVID incubator. Pederson seems to believe this even as his battered team heads west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to face its well-rested and undefeated intrastate rival.
“We know and I know that somewhere this season, it’s going to directly affect us, whether it’s in our building or it affects a game that we are going to play,” Pederson said.
The first such game is Sunday. He doesn’t seem upset.
A COVID-19 outbreak among the Tennessee Titans involving 23 people caused two Titans games to be rescheduled, including their game last weekend against the Steelers.
The Eagles now visit Pittsburgh on Sunday. It will be a much fresher Steelers team than the original schedule intended. The Steelers should be licking their wounds after a brutal conference game against an undefeated team that reached the AFC championship game last season. Instead, the Steelers enjoyed a bye.
The rest of the NFL continued to endure a tsunami of early-season injuries, including the Eagles, who lost linebacker T.J. Edwards at San Francisco last Sunday night. The Birds improved to 1-2-1, but they played a late game, then hopped a six-hour red-eye home. Meanwhile, the 3-0 Steelers watched the game on their couches, then slept all night in their own beds.
The NFL is investigating to see if the Titans ignored protocols, and the league reportedly is considering penalties. Should the Titans forfeit a game? Should they lose a draft pick?
“I’m not the NFL league office, so I can’t comment on penalties and fines and all that stuff,” he said. “I mean, that’s not for me to decide.”
He was wary of endorsing severe punishments. That’s because he knows it could happen to him.
Maybe an exhausted, 310-pound defensive lineman slips his mask below his chin so he can breathe easier on the practice sideline. Maybe an annoyed offensive line coach gets tired of his breath fogging his glasses during a meeting and pulls his gaiter down to his neck. We’re human. It’s a virus.
So no, the Titans don’t deserve to forfeit games or to lose draft picks, even though they exhibited little common sense after the first positive tests, and even though their predicament directly affects the schedules of four other teams. The next team with an outbreak shouldn’t face penalties either.
That’s true even if it means changing the playoff format, as MLB did, and playing football deep into February. Outbreaks among the Marlins and Cardinals last summer altered the baseball season beyond imagination – seven-inning doubleheaders are an abomination – but it worked.
Besides, the Titans will suffer enough. They will lose conditioning and continuity. They will get sick – Scott Kingery will tell you that COVID can flatten the healthiest specimens – and that will affect their play. They will be scared; no one knows the long-term effects of COVID-19, especially on the heart, brain, and lungs. They will suffer guilt and shame.
They also will have to remain in Tennessee, where sports commentator Clay Travis and Sen. Marsha Blackburn trumpet false COVID propaganda, and where the COVID infection rate is ninth-highest in the nation.
The NFL knows that contracting COVID is our reality today, and it does not seek perfect adherence. The two best Patriots, quarterback Cam Newton and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, are COVID-positive, and the Jets shut down Friday after a positive test. Nobody’s talking about stealing their draft picks.
As it was in baseball, the Titans travesty will serve as an alarm.
“I do think it’s a little bit of a wake-up call for the entire league, coaches and players, to maintain the protocols that are in place ... and that we can’t let our guards down,” Pederson said. “Even when we leave the building, I guess the fear is, where do our coaches and players go? We hope they go home, right?”
Going home ensures nothing. Players, coaches, and support staff have husbands and wives and roommates with jobs and social lives. They have children taking classes in person at schools and colleges. The NFL has, so far, chosen to proceed without the bubbles that kept the NBA and NHL safe, though, as we’ve detailed, that’s the best way forward. Like Major League Baseball, the virus will slip through the holes in their netting.
“We have said all along that we expect positive cases,” NFL medical chief Allen Sills said Wednesday. “As long as the virus is endemic in our communities, we will see new cases among our teams. Risk mitigation, not elimination, is the key. Our protocols are designed to quickly identify new cases, get individuals the care they need, and prevent further spread of the virus.”
That’s truer today than it was two weeks ago, when the first Titans popped. The league has tightened protocols. That probably wasn’t as necessary in South Philly, where adherence always has been strict, as it was in Nashville, where two days without new cases had the Titans preparing to reoccupy their facility.
Then again, the Eagles needed only to look at the front of the meeting room to see their wake-up call in the person of Doug Pederson.