Back in the spring, no one was sure what an NFL season would look like with the coronavirus pandemic. Could it be pulled off?
The virus led to shuffled schedules, including a Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers game being played on a Wednesday afternoon. The Denver Broncos had to play a game without a quarterback. Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski was forced to miss his team’s playoff road win against the Steelers because he had tested positive for the virus.
But not a single game was canceled this NFL season despite the pandemic, and now just one game remains with Super Bowl LV. And that’s something NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called “an extraordinary collective effort.”
“There’s so many people that had to work together to get this done,” Goodell told reporters in his annual Super Bowl news conference. “There were doubters. Obviously, there were people that didn’t believe we could do it. Obviously, we had a lot of unknowns ourselves.
“But we believed that staying on schedule and working towards trying to get to 256 games done – as we sort of say shorthand, avoid the asterisk. I think we were able to do that, but we’ve still got a few days left here, so we’re focused on making sure we finish out strong.”
There were scares throughout the season, with outbreaks occurring on teams including the Tennessee Titans and Ravens.
Goodell admitted Thursday in Tampa, Florida, that there were periods of time when there was uncertainty the league could get a handle on dealing with the virus.
“It started in Tennessee where we weren’t sure how to control this, what was causing this,” Goodell said. “Those were some anxious days, there’s no question about it.
“But we believed in our medical experts. We believed in the protocols. We were able to get that under control, and we learned a lot from that, that we then applied and changed, and I think that helped us.
“And then when we had, as an example the Baltimore case, we were able to identify that quicker, but we were able to identify where the source was better. Every stage we learned from that in being able to identify this and isolate.
“Our whole concept here was not to avoid positives. We knew that that was not possible when you’re dealing with 7,500 people just in our system essentially, who were being tested almost every day. That was not going to happen. But the idea is to test frequently, identify when you have a positive and isolate.”
Goodell said 1.2 million fans attended NFL games this season. There will be around 25,000 fans in attendance for Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Sunday, and attendees will be provided PPE kits from the league.
“We want our fans to be safe,” Goodell said. “They need to be smart. They need to wear their PPE.”
The NFL is looking at the possibility of increasing regular-season games from 16 to 17 in 2021, as the league has the discretion in the collective bargaining agreement to implement that as soon as this year.
It hasn’t been decided if international games will be on the schedule in 2021, and it’s also not yet known what fan attendance will look like next season and what types of Covid-19 protocols will be needed for players.
“I wish I knew the answer to that,” Goodell said. “One of the things that I think I have learned and I think all of us have learned is try not to project too far in advance because it’s difficult to do. … I know this: We’ve learned to operate in a very difficult environment. We have found solutions, and we’ll do it again.”