Here’s how an NFL bubble could actually work against COVID-19

The need for a NFL bubble is becoming apparent. Here’s how it could work.

A little over a month ago, I wrote that the NFL needs a better plan for COVID-19 this season. My argument was that you can’t expect a full roster of NFL players to go home to their family, and potentially the community at large, and then come back to work to play a contact sport and not have huge outbreaks that threaten the season. My argument was that as much of a logistical nightmare as it would be, an NFL bubble was the only realistic way to finish a full season in our current situation.

As both the NBA and MLB have now started playing in a COVID-19 world—one with a bubble and one without—it appears that my fears and arguments have been validated.

On Friday morning, two big news stories emerged the sports world. The first was the successful launch of the NBA restart in the bubble in Orlando where no players are currently positive for the virus. The second was the nightmare that MLB is facing just a week into the start of their bubble-less shortened season. As of Friday morning, the Miami Marlins have had 18 of their 30 players test positive for the coronavirus. That’s 60 percent of their team.

It’s not just the Marlins either. On Friday, three of the 13 scheduled MLB games for that day were postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests. That’s 23 percent of the day’s games—and that comes just a week into the start of their season. Since then, the St. Louis Cardinals have also had a breakout of positive tests in their organization and they are still waiting on results to see if more positives will come from it.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred reportedly told the MLBPA that if the situation didn’t improve soon, the season could be shut down. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time you’re reading this that even more positive cases have been announced and that MLB is considering hitting the pause button on the season to regroup and try to get things under control.

In simplest terms, the MLB bubble-less season has been an unmitigated disaster. Now, I understand this is a Kansas City Chiefs blog, not a MLB blog, but bear with me. I’ll bring this around to the NFL, but before that, let’s take one more look at how MLB’s situation compares to the NFL’s.

Yes, MLB plays a lot more games and has significantly more travel. Confined travel conditions make for easy spreading of a virus like this. The good news for the NFL is that it will have more time between games and, more importantly, more time between putting a team on a plane all together.

Here’s the bad news.

MLB currently has 30-man rosters and they play a game where guys are naturally spread out on the field. Necessary physical contact between players is rare. The NFL will have 69-man rosters when you include the expanded practice squad players, and they play a sport where physical contact is a fundamental necessity of the game. (I’m not here to discuss if it’s the right thing to do to play a contact sport during this pandemic. Let’s just assume that the players and the owners want to find a way to make a season work so that they can all get paid. We’ll leave the moral debates for another day on another platform.)

If Major League Baseball can’t keep 30 guys from picking up the virus somewhere and spreading it while playing a non-contact sport, what makes anyone think the NFL can keep 69 guys from catching it and spreading it while playing tackle football?

While there’s more time for testing between games, pinning all your hopes on  69 young athletes all making the right decisions seems destined for failure. People make bad and selfish decisions every day. All it takes is one knucklehead going out after a game and the entire team could find itself quarantined and shut down for a week or two. For that matter, it could even be a significant other or relative who gets it and then spreads it to the player they live with while that very player was trying to self-quarantine.

NFL teams have just had players and coaches start showing up in recent days and already Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson has tested positive. The Minnesota Vikings even had their head athletic trainer and infection control officer (in other words, the guy in charge of putting together the team plan to keep them safe) test positive.

An NFL bubble is the only answer.

I know what you’re thinking: “There’s no way to do a bubble for the NFL like the NBA is doing. There are too many players. No facility could handle that many NFL games. It’s impossible.” You are absolutely right, if you are thinking about playing a regular NFL season and doing one bubble with all the teams. If you are willing to think outside the box, however, the league could absolutely make something work.

I’m not saying that the plan that I’m about to lay out is perfect, but it’s better than trying to have a normal season with crossed fingers

THE BUBBLE PLAN

You start the season with eight bubbles, one for each division in the NFL. These four-team bubbles would each consist of less people than the current NBA bubble. There are currently 346 NBA players on the rosters of the 22 NBA teams in the bubble. If you take the 53 man roster plus 16 practice squad players for four NFL teams you get 276 players per bubble. That’s 70 less players than are in the NBA bubble. Even with larger coaching/training/equipment staffs each of these bubbles should still be well within the margins of what the NBA is doing.

Second, many communities have seen their local economy crippled by the lack of tourism due to the virus. So I’m sure the NFL would have no problem finding eight cities that were willing to have a hotel booked up for months for a NFL team to quarantine in. I’m sure local restaurants around that hotel would be thrilled to safely cater meals for them. A host city would just need two training facilities that could be split AM/PM between two teams along with a maximum of two places to play the games. It’s even possible that with no fans in the stadium you could play both bubble games on the same field if you spaced the start times.

So here’s how it would work. Each team would play the other teams in their division bubble twice. So for our own Kansas City Chiefs, their first six games might look something like:

  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Denver Broncos
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Las Vegas Raiders
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Los Angeles Chargers
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Denver Broncos
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Las Vegas Raiders
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Los Angeles Chargers

Each of the divisions would have a similar six-game schedule. At the end of those six games there would be a league wide bye week and the top two teams from each division would advance to the next bubble round. That would also mean that half the teams in the NFL would be done after six games. That sounds like a bad thing at first, but hang with me here. This would mean that after the first six weeks the NFL could move from eight bubble locations down to four. It also means that half the players in the NFL would no longer be quarantined away from their friends and family. This is key.

If you tried to play 17 weeks of quarantined bubble football the teams that had no chance at the playoffs would become major problems. Players would likely just walk away and say I’m done for the year and go home. If they imposed penalties for doing so, they would likely just fake injuries. It would fall apart. This prevents that from happening. Only the teams that are still in the running keep playing.

As far as the finances go, the NFL’s income would come strictly from television revenue and that would be split evenly amongst all the teams regardless of if they advance. Players salaries would be paid the same regardless of how far the team advances. Maybe the league could do some kind of bonus stipends for teams that advance, but all players and teams getting paid would be essential to this plan working.

So now we are down to two bubbles in each conference. To prevent a team from playing a team they just played twice in their division bubble again you could do a split like this.

AFC Bubble A:

  • AFC West #1 seed
  • AFC South #1 seed
  • AFC East #2 seed
  • AFC North #2 seed

AFC Bubble B:

  • AFC East #1 seed
  • AFC North #1 seed
  • AFC West #2 seed
  • AFC South #2 seed

Obviously, the NFC would do the same thing. For this next round, each team would again play all the teams in the bubble twice. So if I quick fill in the blanks for some division seeds, a possible schedule for the Chiefs in the second round of the bubble could be something like this:

  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Miami Dolphins
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Houston Texans
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Miami Dolphins
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs Houston Texans

That would bring each of these teams up to 12 games played and end the regular season. There would be another league wide bye week and the top two teams from each conference bubble based on their record for all 12 games played would advance to a four-team conference playoff bubble.

So that would bring the total bubble locations down to just two and 24 of the 32 teams are now out of quarantine by early December. The top four teams in each conference would now do a single elimination playoff with 1-4 seeding based on the 12 game regular season to determine who plays for the Championship.

So a possible AFC playoff could look something like:

  • #1 Kansas City Chiefs vs #4 Tennessee Titans
  • #2 Baltimore Ravens vs #3 Houston Texans

The NFC would do the same thing and the winners of these games would play inside the same bubble the very next week in the conference championship game. Then there would be a third and final off week before the Super Bowl was played at one of the two remaining bubble locations. That would put the Super Bowl on January 10th, a full month before it is currently scheduled. So even the top two teams would be done and home with their families a month earlier.

If the NFL was still worried about quarantining some teams for that long, they could even trim the second round of bubble games to just one game against each team. That would make the regular season nine games long and, even with the three off weeks, the Super Bowl would be December 20th and all teams could be home to their families by Christmas. I would still greatly prefer that to a season that starts regular and then is cancelled by Halloween.

While it would be a huge sacrifice for the players on those advancing teams to be away from families for that long, I believe something like this is the only realistic way we see a season played all the way through. Television ratings would be through the roof from start to finish. The divisional games would be huge because they could be your team’s only games this season. The second bubble round would be only the best teams in each conference and each game would have big playoff implications.

The bottom line is that the NFL must look at how things are going in professional sports inside and outside of a bubble format. Bubbles work and, if the current state of Major League Baseball is any indication, it appears that seasons without one do not work. I’m not even sure there is time to set this up before the regular season is currently scheduled to start, but if it is going to happen, they need to get moving on it quickly. If they see how things are failing for MLB and do nothing until they start games themselves and run into the same problems, it will definitely be too late.

The time to act is now.

So what do you think? Do you agree that the current plan isn’t good enough and that the season is in serious jeopardy? Do you think that a NFL bubble plan like this could work? Do you think there is an even better way to do things? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.

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