If the NFL is forced to operate within a bubble environment, how should the league be structured?
Ben Blessington of the Cool Your Jets podcast makes his Jet X writing debut!
As it stands today, the NFL has no plans to enact any sort of league-wide bubble to help prevent players from contracting COVID-19 during the season.
Instead, the NFLPA and NFL came to a different agreement, which includes daily testing during the first two weeks of training camp and no preseason games, but still incorporates a full travel schedule. The current plan largely puts the responsibility of social distancing in the players’ hands, which could present issues.
The only other sports league with a similar plan, Major League Baseball, has already had an 18-person outbreak with the Miami Marlins, and has had to cancel/postpone Miami’s games (in addition to the Philadelphia Phillies) for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the bubble technique, employed by the NBA, NHL, MLS, and others, has been a massive success so far:
The bubble impact on sports:
NBA: 0 positive tests since July 13th
NHL: 0 positive tests in 4,256 administered in 7-day span July 18th-25th
MLS: 0 positive tests in last nine major rounds of testing
NWSL: 0 positive tests during its entire tournament
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) July 29, 2020
I know what you’re thinking: a bubble is not possible in the NFL. There are thousands of players and coaches across 32 teams, each playing 16 games. It does not seem feasible to lock them all away at Disney World like the NBA or rent an island like Dana White and the UFC. In addition, many NFL players understandably do not want to be placed in a bubble far away from their families.
But what if the NFL were to face a Marlins-type situation? Should there be an early outbreak that decimates an entire position group or team(s), forcing the cancellation of games, it seems as if the NFL’s only options would be to delay the season or cancel it entirely. Given the amount of money a season generates, I’m sure Roger Goodell wants to do everything in his power to prevent the latter from happening.
It seems foolish to not even explore the only option that has proven success in sports during these strange times.
So, how could the NFL institute their own version of a bubble to keep players healthy and prevent a lost season? Is it even possible?
It would take a shortened season, a major schedule adjustment, and likely a delay to the season, but it is possible. In my hypothetical, the answer is not one bubble, but four bubbles!
For the reasons mentioned above, having multiple bubbles is the only way any sort of bubble concept could ever work for an entire league of 53-man rosters plus staff. The four bubbles would be divided by region: East, West, North, and South.
The Eastern bubble would include the eight teams from the AFC & NFC East: Jets, Patriots, Bills, Dolphins, Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, and Washington.
The Western bubble would include the eight teams from the AFC & NFC West: Chiefs, Broncos, Raiders, Chargers, Seahawks, 49ers, Cardinals, and Rams.
The Northern bubble would include the eight teams from the AFC & NFC North: Ravens, Steelers, Browns, Bengals, Packers, Bears, Lions, and Vikings.
And lastly, the Southern bubble would include the eight teams from the AFC & NFC South: Colts, Texans, Jaguars, Titans, Bucs, Saints, Panthers, and Falcons.
Each bubble would need to include a stadium and at least four hotels (2 teams for each hotel) nearby to house players. All teams could practice and play at the same stadium, while team meetings and housing would be at hotels. The plan could even include the use of practice facilities, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s keep it within a single stadium.
After testing and quarantine to enter the bubble, players would only travel to and from the hotel and their bubble’s stadium via team buses. They would be subject to frequent testing and would not be permitted to leave the bubble barring an emergency protocol like the NBA.
For fun, let’s say the eastern bubble is Metlife Stadium in New Jersey, the western bubble is Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the northern bubble is U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota, and the southern bubble is Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. However, this is merely a product of my imagination, so any stadium in these regions (even non-NFL) would work if the league feels every team could have ample space and operate safely.
Each team would play a 10-game season – made up of the six regularly scheduled divisional games and the four out-of-conference games – within their bubble. For example, the Jets would play the Patriots, Dolphins, and Bills two times each, as well as the Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, and Washington.
There would be eight practice slots a day for each team to get on the field in private, while there would be two games each on Saturday and Sunday, a 12:00 PM and 4:25 PM kickoff to provide ample time between each game.
At the conclusion of this 10-week season, the seven playoff teams for each conference will be decided upon by their record, using the divisional record as the first tiebreaker. Any teams who did not qualify for the playoffs would end their season there and go home, while the seven playoff teams from each conference would converge into two separate bubbles, one for the AFC and one for the NFC.
This process would take time for a new quarantine and testing, so there would most likely be 2-3 weeks between the end of the regular season and playoffs. The schedules for practice and games can remain relatively the same, and once a team is eliminated, they go home. The same process can be done separately for the Super Bowl, but only including two teams.
In this scenario, the season would probably be delayed in order to get any plans in order, but the shortening to a 10-game slate should keep the 2021 season on schedule. While many players will likely opt out, a fairly close-to-home bubble and a truncated season may help many players feel more comfortable about being away from their families.
Obviously, this idea is purely hypothetical, but I do think it would be smart for the NFL to look into the only proven method for sports in 2020 thus far. All eyes are on MLB to see how they handle this outbreak and if it was merely a one-time thing or something that forces a season shutdown. At this point, the NFL’s 2020 season largely depends on it.
Let us know what you think in the comments below! Do you think the NFL should explore potential bubble ideas? Thoughts on the current model? Would you be interested in a bubble idea similar to this?