Football is the only major sport that hasn’t been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the NFL has basically plowed through its offseason, so there seems to be an assumption that it’ll be business as usual.
That type of thinking led the league office to prepare a standard 16-game schedule for the 2020 season — an audacious move considering all 32 team facilities are closed indefinitely. It comes out Thursday night, about a month later than it typically has, though the NFL said it had been considering moving the highly anticipated annual release to May anyway.
It’s as if the league refuses to concede in any way that the outbreak might derail it.
Odds are, it will.
The conversation around the coronavirus started with “weeks” before quickly shifting to months and now years. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Tuesday he can’t foresee gatherings of more than 50 people until the final phase of recovery, which won’t be this year. An NFL traveling party is triple that.
It’s fine to hope for the best, but the league needs to plan for the worst. A shortened season would undoubtedly result in some inequitable scheduling, so if the NFL were prudent, it would take that into account within the 16-game slate.
If football can’t start on time with a Thursday night opener Sept. 10, the league needs to establish priorities.
Every team’s six divisional games should be held the last six weeks of the season to provide the best chance of keeping those matchups intact. If it was only possible to play six games, those are the six that matter the most.
On the flip side, the cross-conference games should come first in the schedule. For the Bears, that means home games against the Texans and Colts and road games against the Jaguars and Titans.
The reasoning is clear: Intra-conference games are more important in determining playoff spots. And this will be the first season in which seven teams make the playoffs from each conference, by the way.
There has been speculation about the league leaving open the possibility of taking the first four games of the season and tacking them on the back end of the schedule — meaning they’d be played throughout January — if needed, but that seems unlikely. Taking the regular season through the end of January and having the playoffs in February would require the Super Bowl moving to March.
The Super Bowl is awarded three to five years in advance because of the massive amount of planning necessary to host it. It’s not so simple to bump it back a month. There’s a far greater likelihood of the NFL canceling the first four weeks than delaying the Super Bowl.
One element that would maintain fairness is to have every team alternate home and road games rather than have the occasional three-game homestand or back-to-back road games. That gives the NFL the best chance to have every team play the same number of home dates if it has to cancel games.
It’s rare to have this level of mystery going into an NFL schedule release. The Bears-centric drama generally revolves around when the Packers games are and how many prime-time slots the team gets.
It’s usually a bit anticlimactic because opponents are predetermined by the NFL scheduling model and have been known since December.
The Bears will play each opponent in the NFC North twice. They’ll also host the Saints, Giants, Buccaneers, Texans and Colts. They’ll travel to the Rams, Falcons, Titans, Jaguars and Panthers. That’s the plan, anyway.
But that’s not why everyone’s waiting for the schedule to drop. Pro football will become the first team sport in America with a plan to resume games. And that plan will be interesting, but it’ll also be hard to believe.