No amount of positive coronavirus tests will stop the NFL meat grinder

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Quick thought experiment here: how many teams, players, or staff testing positive would it take for the NFL to cancel the season? Put the season on hold, like the NBA and NHL did in March? Postpone an entire week of games? I don’t think there’s a feasible threshold for any of those scenarios to happen, but the Tennessee Titans’ positive COVID tests will be the league’s first trial balloon in its cursed pandemic season.

After three new players and five Titans staffers tested positive on Monday, the team won’t be returning to practice facilities until Saturday — one day before their next scheduled game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when fans are set to return to the team’s stadium in Nashville. The Minnesota Vikings, who fell to the Titans on Sunday, also paused in-person workouts, but the team doesn’t have any positive tests as of Tuesday. While there’s a chance of the Titans' Sunday tilt being postponed, the Steelers have reportedly been instructed “to proceed with our game preparations for Sunday's game until [they] are informed otherwise.”

Here’s an especially baffling section from ESPN’s rundown of the Titans' debacle and the NFL’s testing policy, confirming that no player was tested on Sunday, the day after team linebackers coach Shane Bowen tested positive:

“Correct. The protocols call for daily testing on every day except game day. Neither the league or the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) has explained explicitly why, but timing is likely a substantial part of the answer. Results for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, performed on the morning of a game by nasal swab, probably wouldn't be returned in time for kickoff.”

Even after the thickest noggins in sports media declared the NFL a big winner against the “somewhat stabilized” pandemic by week one, it was always a question of when, not if, the first outbreak would occur. The only surprise is that it took three weeks. A sport that routinely shoves its players through the wood chipper of gratuitous snaps and cracks and brain injuries was quite obviously going to fall victim to the pandemic. Up to this point, only leagues with comprehensive bubble and testing regiments have proven to mostly contain it.

The NFL’s first outbreak lines up in timing and scope to the MLB’s initial bout with coronavirus, sidelining the Miami Marlins and their scheduled opponents for a few series. (A similar scenario struck the St. Louis Cardinals — both teams somehow overcame their doubleheader-ridden schedules to make the National League playoffs, which kick off Wednesday.) MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was all too keen on suppressing the threat of COVID-19 spread, essentially declaring mission accomplished just before the Marlins test results rolled in. There’s no reason to imagine the NFL going any differently from here — even if outbreaks pop up on other rosters.

There could be a meteor hurtling toward Foxborough on Sunday, and Roger Goodell would see to it that the Patriots and Chiefs still play until it blew off a stray Patrick Mahomes limb. The Titans and Steelers’ game plan is already shaping up accordingly: Sunday matchup’s tentatively going forward as planned, with the backdoor option of pushing it to Monday night. It’s relatively easy to imagine the NFL expanding its Monday night lineup if outbreaks continue — a nightmare for TV scheduling, but a price the league is amply willing to make in the face of public health risk.

Players already faced cascading injuries by week two — which was thanks to more than just the pesky turf in San Francisco and the Meadowlands. Now, the league has to confront the ambient generational pandemic it was attempting to ignore for the first time. I’m sure this will go well.