NFL's coronavirus plan promises to get ugly, but hopefully not dangerous


It’s fun to think about who might win the Bears’ quarterback competition, or how good Khalil Mack can be in 2020, or if this is the year Anthony Miller and Roquan Smith break out.

It’s less fun to think none of it may matter. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci floated Wednesday the idea that the NFL may need to “bubble” its teams to pull off the 2020 season amid the ongoing and dangerous COVID-19 pandemic. He also cast some doubt the NFL could play its season at all if a second wave of the virus hits this fall. 

I hope he's wrong, but I'm also nowhere near as smart as one of the nation's pre-eminent experts on infectious diseases. 

MORE: Why Bears desperately need Mitch Trubisky to win their QB competition

Time is running out on a league that thought it had nothing but time, while hockey and basketball shut down and baseball’s Broke Billionaires whined about “biblical” financial losses. Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano mentioned July 20 as an expected date for players and full coaching staffs to report to their facilities. That’s in just over a month. 

The NFL will do whatever it can to play a 2020 season, though — that much is clear. But COVID-19 doesn’t care about what the NFL wants. This easily transmissible, deadly virus with no reliable cure, treatment or vaccine will dictate what the 2020 NFL season looks like, if there’s a season at all. 

But let’s say there is a season. Because I really, really, really hope there’s a season. 

It’s hard to imagine there being true, COVID-19 free bubbles as Dr. Fauci mentioned. The amount of essential personnel it takes to play a pro football game is at or above 100. It's unreasonable to ask for 32 of those large bubbles to be in place for half the year. 

But either way, an NFL season is going to look and be weird at best — and not just because it’s hard to imagine fans being in the stands for any game. Hopefully, "weird" or "ugly" never becomes "dangerous."

What will Wednesday’s injury report — the first of the week — look like? How many players will be out with an “illness?” A positive COVID-19 test would likely rule a player out for two weeks, minimum, even if they’re asymptomatic. 

And if a player is symptomatic, it’s not as simple as him returning to play after a couple of negative COVID-19 tests. Denver Broncos edge rusher Von Miller took 17 days off after contracting the novel coronavirus and told the Washington Post “I still feel my lungs trying to get back in shape.”  

There’s a chance COVID-19 could decimate a personnel grouping, if not a team, for a month or more during the 2020 season.  It’s a threat every team will have to be prepared for in a way that’s deeper than football-speak’s reflexive “next man up” mentality. 

“Who knows if you’re going to have to sit three wide receivers one week because they’re all sick?” Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor mused. “I couldn’t predict how this is going to go.”

Nobody can — although, again, one week might be generous. And that's not even accounting for potential hospitalizations or, God forbid, deaths. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the Black community, and obesity is a risk factor in the disease becoming serious. The majority of NFL players are Black; most linemen are clinically obese (defined as having a BMI of 30 or higher), even if they're in outstanding physical shape otherwise. 

It's a potentially serious problem for a sport in which social distancing is completely impossible. 

"It's scary to think that most of my job is physical contact with other players," Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. "And so boy, I don't know. I don't know. I want to be safe and I'm sure they're going to do their best to make sure we're in the best possible situation in order to be able to play this game and do it, right? But it's scary. That's how I feel."

MORE: Five things we learned from Bears assistant coaches this week

Hopefully the NFL can pull this thing off. Their return-to-facilities plan read like guidelines for a hospital more than a place for football players to practice and congregate. Hopefully mask wearing, hand washing, frequent testing and swift isolation can prevent outbreaks during the season. 

But this also feels completely ridiculous, thinking about playing a football season in the middle of a pandemic. But then again...playing a football season in the middle of a pandemic is actually completely ridiculous, isn't it?

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