Virus has NFL running short of options

Quarterback Lamar Jackson has been among many Baltimore Ravens players sidelined amid the pandemic.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson has been among many Baltimore Ravens players sidelined amid the pandemic.

Can an entire league be flagged for delay of game?

The NFL announced on Monday that Baltimore-Pittsburgh - a game that was supposed to take place on Thanksgiving night - was bumped for a fourth time, to Wednesday night, a day the league hasn't played on in eight years.

The Ravens are dealing with one of the biggest coronavirus outbreaks of any sport, one that has sidelined at least 18 players, 10 of whom are starters, including starting quarterback Lamar Jackson and running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins.

At least one Baltimore player has tested positive for nine consecutive days, prompting the NFL to cancel the team's morning practice to make sure the inferno wasn't still raging.

With positive case numbers rising across the country, the NFL ordered all team facilities closed on Monday and Tuesday, except for teams playing on those days.

Ravens players voiced concerns Monday with the NFL Players Association, pointing to mixed messages they were getting from the league - that it wasn't OK for them to gather or practice, but it was fine for them to fly together on a plane to Pittsburgh and play a game.

That paved the way for the NFL to once again postpone the game, from Tuesday to Wednesday.

With different types of coronavirus-related situations affecting NFL teams on both coasts, the league is trying to chart a path forward by keeping the schedule somewhat intact. Through the first 11-plus weeks of the season, there have been postponements but no cancellations.

The biggest test has come in Week 12, not only with the pushing back of Ravens versus the undefeated Steelers, but also with a coronavirus crackdown in Santa Clara County, California, which prohibits the San Francisco 49ers from practicing or playing host to games for three weeks.

So the 49ers are headed to Arizona, where they will share State Farm Stadium with the NFC West-rival Cardinals.

Paradoxically, the 49ers will be relocating to a county that over the last week has had more than twice as many reported coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents as the county they're leaving - from Santa Clara (172.3) to Maricopa (357.3).

In consecutive weeks, the 49ers will play Buffalo and Washington on the home field of the Cardinals. But at this point, at least those games are on track to be played.

Ravens-Steelers is like a discarded mattress on the freeway, getting knocked around and starting to cause a traffic jam.

Dallas-Baltimore, originally scheduled as this week's Thursday night game, already had been moved to Monday night, because the Ravens can't play two games in rapid-fire succession.

The NFL also moved Washington at Pittsburgh, originally scheduled for Sunday, to Monday night, when it will be the early game before Buffalo-San Francisco.

Any further postponements of Ravens-Steelers, the game that started this mess, would require more down-the-line postponements, which would impact not only Week 13 but also Week 14.

With multiple teams playing on short weeks, the NFL runs a serious risk of increased injuries and a diminished product.

For evidence, look no further than the game between New Orleans and Denver on Sunday, when the Broncos had to start a practice-squad receiver at quarterback because none of their four quarterbacks were available. One tested positive for the virus, and the other three didn't follow protocols in terms of face coverings and social distancing, and therefore were at heightened risk.

The game was a debacle, an embarrassment for both the Broncos and the NFL, with Denver finishing with more interceptions (two) than completions (one) in a 31-3 defeat.

Australian Associated Press