For the first three weeks of the 2020 NFL season, there wasn’t a visible impact from COVID-19, aside from the empty seats in the stadiums and improperly-worn face masks on the sidelines. Not that it didn’t still loom over everything, but the football product put on the field was essentially untouched.
Then word broke about a handful of infections on the Tennessee Titans, which sparked the first real stress-test for the NFL’s safety precautions.
Up until then, there had only been a few cases here or there, and it hadn’t hit any of the high-profile players. But with the Titans, where an initial report named three infected men, we ultimately saw 18 positive tests over six days within the organization.
Complicating matters quite a bit further, the Titans had just played against the Minnesota Vikings, both winning the game 31-30 and potentially infecting them with COVID, triggering lockdowns for both teams. Fortunately, the Vikings were spared from a single infection and they were able to play in week four against the Houston Texans, winning the game 31-23 (and serving as the final nail in the employment coffin for Texans head coach Bill O’Brian).
But wait, there’s more!
The Titans were scheduled to play the Pittsburgh Steelers this past Sunday. After briefly being teased as a Monday Night game or maybe even a Tuesday Night game, a few more positive tests popped up. In the end, it was decided to push their mid-season BYE weeks up and give both teams time to either isolate or recover.
Also, the New Orleans Saints had a false positive test result threaten their game against the Detroit Lions, which they won 35-29 without additional scares.
Then, starting quarterback for the New England Patriots, Cam Newton (along with practice squad DL, Bill Murray) tested positive for COVID, activating a similar lockdown and move to MNF/TNF for the Patriot and their slated opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs. But after no additional positive tests, the game was played as a second Monday night game, with the Chiefs winning 26-10 and demonstrating the profound value of Newton.
A few days after the game, Patriots star cornerback and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore tested positive for COVID. In response, the Pats cancelled team practices this week and we’ll have to see if their upcoming game against the Denver Broncos takes place as scheduled on Sunday.
And finally, on Wednesday, two more Titans tested positive, bringing the organization’s total positive cases up to 20 in nine days. After the team had registered no new positive tests on Monday and Tuesday, there was hope that the team could play this week, but now, without a BYE week to bridge the gap, the Titans and their Sunday opponents, the Buffalo Bills, are once again thrust into scheduling limbo.
So, with all that in mind, was the NFL successful in their response to these outbreaks?
While scratching two games (easily could’ve been four) is no small consequence (and we’re not out of the woods yet either), I’d say the procedures in place before the outbreak that kicked-in and activated the response we’ve seen were wildly successful.
It didn’t prevent infection, but it immediately prevented further spread of the virus by deploying strict quarantines, contact tracing and video surveillance to the on-going regiment of masks, tests, and social distancing that every team has had in place since the season began. Keep in mind, preventing infection might be impossible when the players aren’t in a bubble environment like the NBA has been.
Most NFL players have followed the league guidelines and remained in their homes when not at a team facility, but as we all know, sometimes you just need to run an errand or two. But in an environment as small and crowded as a weight-room or locker-room, it only takes one person’s reckless actions to sideline the whole team.
And when it inevitably did, the league’s reaction was swift and comprehensive. What more can we realistically ask for from any multi-state organization.
Fortunately for the NFL and Americans in general, 30 other teams played 15 dynamic and fierce games in week four. Well, 2 of those games were trash, but the rest were great. However, one stands alone as the best game of the week.
The champion of the Sunday slate: The undefeated Seattle Seahawks and their 31-23 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
Despite almost identical team stats, like total yards (441 Hawks / 415 Fins), passing yards (343 Hawks / 312 Fins), rushing yards (98 Hawks / 103 Fins), and yards per play (7.1 Hawks / 6.1 Fins), the Seahawks eventual victory can be extracted from one key difference…
While Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw one interception, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw two. And the Hawks capitalized on the additional possessions.
Compared to his first three weeks, Wilson had a down game—only throwing for 260 yards and two touchdowns—but the Hawks got the all-important win, taking the team to 4-0 on the season. It’s amazing in a way that amid a whirlwind of COVID outbreak concerns and cancelations, likely more perceptible to those within the NFL, Wilson kept his team focused on just one thing: winning.
“For us to be 4-0 is a huge thing,” Wilson said. “Just keep winning one game at a time, and that’s what’s really important to us.”
Fun fact: When was the last time the Seahawks started a season with four wins in a row? In 2013, when the Hawks went on to win the Super Bowl.
The main driver of the stunning Seahawks’ success in 2020 is Wilson and the #LetRussCook offense. His MVP-caliber season has been nothing short of extraordinary and Sunday’s game in Miami offered a pile of new evidence to prove his case, but one moment demands extra attention.
Toward the end of the first half, the Dolphins kicked a field goal to bring the score to within 1-point, with the Hawks leading 10-9 headed towards halftime. There were still 24 seconds left on the clock for Wilson to work his magic, but there was a problem, the team headsets stopped working and all communications between Wilson and offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer were stopped. In response, Russell Wilson called the plays himself, completing a 57-yard pass to wide receiver David Moore to set up a short-yardage touchdown as time expired.
“I’m always prepared for those moments. … I know the game plan,” Wilson said. “I know how we want to attack them.”
After briefly climbing back into a competitive game, Wilson’s strike was a momentum-killer for the Dolphins, setting the tone for the rest of the day. It was reminiscent of a similar headset failure last season when the Hawks played the Cleveland Browns, and Wilson called the plays that took his team into the end zone.
But beyond Wilson, many of the other Seahawks had noteworthy games.
Running back Chris Carson, who was injured by a dirty tackle in last week’s game and was questionable coming into Miami, had a solid day rushing the ball 16 times for 80 yards and two touchdowns. Backing him up, Travis Homer scored his first career NFL touchdown and rookie DeeJay Dallas made his NFL debut, looking quite promising in the process.
D.K. Metcalf continued his ascension to join the league’s most-elite wide receivers, hauling in 4 passes for 106 yards. Tyler Lockett, coming off a monster game last week, was quiet in Miami, but emerging receiver, David Moore caught 3 balls for 95 yards and a touchdown.
Much like the first three games in the season, the Seahawks continue to score from anywhere and with anyone, never becoming too reliant on any single player to move the ball down field.
Defensively, the Hawks are still finding their groove. Several key injuries have forced new players into regular rotation and asked them to play at a high level, which has happened and failed to happen steadily. Fortunately, many of those injuries aren’t too serious and we should see starters return to action after the week six BYE.
Barring a new COVID outbreak (deep breath, fingers crossed), the Seahawks will host the 1-3 Vikings for Sunday Night Football. Even though the 12th man won’t be able to generate the deafening noise normally thrust upon the visiting team, I expect quarterback Kirk Cousins to struggle under the bright CenturyLink Field lights.
Especially if the newest member of the Seahawks, recently-signed defensive tackle, Damon “Snacks” Harrison, can play. He was considering retirement at the end of last year, and hasn’t played a snap since, so he’s not expected to be ready by Sunday, but there’s a slight chance.
“Let me see him on a practice field first, I’ve got to see what he looks like running around,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “Learning the defense, he’ll be fine there. He’s a really smart football player, that’s not going to be a problem. It’s just how fit he is and all that. He’s a big man, so we got to see what he looks like.”
After SNF, the Seahawks will enjoy their BYE week, giving injured players a chance to get fully healthy and Harrison a good amount of time to get integrated with the defense before likely making his Seahawks debut.
The Hawks can’t look past the Vikings, but if they can get another win, they will have set a new franchise record of starting a season 5-0. Wouldn’t that be a grand way to enter an off week?
To bring the whole story full circle, it was announced just a few days ago that the aforementioned Miami Dolphins have been cleared to open Hard Rock Stadium to its full 65,000 fan capacity by Governor Ron DeSantis. The team has said it plans to continue allowing a socially-distanced 13,000 fans to attend home games for now, despite the restrictions being lifted.
In the wake of the last two weeks, I can’t imagine the thinking behind welcoming a potential 65,000-person COVID disaster to your state, but that’s where the NFL, and the country in general I suppose, is at with the pandemic: Weighing the pros and cons—the health risks and sporting rewards—trying to maintain aspects of our pre-pandemic life in a post-pandemic world.
From what we’ve seen so far this year, each team is required to face two opponents each week; the team across the field and the virus around the corner. So far, Wilson has led his Seahawks to victories over both through the first quarter of the season.
Let’s hope the Hawks can continue to get the best of COVID, even if they drop a few games in the process. The Seahawks are well on their way to making a return trip to the Super Bowl and it appears to me that the most dangerous adversary they’ll face all year is entirely within their control.
So, I’ll ask the same thing of them that I’m asking of everyone else: wear a face mask, wash your hands, and socially distance whenever possible. In 2020, that’s how everyone will achieve the triumphs we’re all striving for. Go Hawks!