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After weathering a rash of positive COVID-19 test results that prompted several teams’ games to be reshuffled in recent weeks , the NFL is hoping to avoid any additional postponements. But pro football remains in a precarious situation as nationwide coronavirus numbers continue to increase.
With bye weeks passing, it would only take a few more delays to force the NFL to again reconfigure its schedule and potentially add an 18th regular-season week for makeup dates.
Such a move or an interruption of the playoffs could threaten the NFL’s plans to host Super Bowl LV on its originally scheduled date of Feb. 7, 2021.
That date remains just more than three months away, so it’s impossible to predict how things will play out. However, although league officials remain vigilant in their efforts to complete the season in its traditional timeframe, they have emphasized the need for fluidity.
For now, NFL and NFL Players Association officials continue to closely monitor data and position themselves to react to whatever incidents necessitate modifications to the schedule. At the same time, the two sides also continue to discuss scenarios that could arise in the remaining 11 weeks of the regular season and five weeks of the postseason.
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As talks continue, one question often leads to another, but few concrete answers follow.
“If there is one consistent theme to our season, it is flexibility and adapting,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last week during a conference call with reporters. “Flexibility is going to be critical. We evaluate, obviously, as many different areas that we think will be at least helpful. Fortunately, we haven’t had to use many of the things that we have discussed and thought about.
“But we will have flexibility to be able to complete our season for the Super Bowl. That’s the goal. We are all focused on that.”
Here are some of the questions on the Super Bowl that Goodell and his staff will continue to mull over as the season marches on.
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How much flexibility does the league have when it comes to Super Bowl scheduling?
Every season the NFL and the host city’s planning committee — Tampa, Florida, for 2021 — settle on a date but also determine backup options, mapping out how to handle emergency postponements.
In 2001, 9/11 attacks prompted the NFL to postpone games during Week 2 of the regular season, forcing the playoffs and Super Bowl to be moved back one week.
That required some finagling, as New Orleans had been scheduled to host the Super Bowl on Jan. 27 and the National Automobile Dealers Association convention the following week. The NFL and NADA eventually reached a deal to swap weeks.
This time around there are no conventions scheduled for February in the Tampa area, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We could move the Super Bowl back as far as four weeks,” Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy told Packers Everywhere in an interview last weekend. “Obviously, we’d prefer not to do that, but you do have that flexibility if we run into a number of outbreaks with different teams or if we have to kind of move the schedule back.”
There’s always an off week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, usually reserved for the Pro Bowl. But the NFL announced last week that the all-star game will not be played this season. Canceling the Pro Bowl essentially gives the NFL an additional week before the Super Bowl in case an 18th regular-season week is needed or if an outbreak were to force the postponement of a playoff game.
For now, moving the Super Bowl back would be the absolute last course of action.
What beyond the actual game would be impacted by a rescheduled Super Bowl?
Businesses such as hotels, convention centers, restaurants and others in the hospitality and transportation fields would have to adjust. The NFL has booked accommodations for teams, league staff, media and more.
Each Super Bowl city also hosts week-long fan festivities. Tampa officials and the NFL announced plans to host the Super Bowl Experience while still accounting for social-distancing requirements. Tampa’s Super Bowl LV Experience is an NFL theme park projected to span 2.7 miles on the Tampa Riverwalk. This will be the first time that the fan experience will take place completely outdoors rather than split between outside and indoor attractions.
Speaking of fans, how full will Raymond James Stadium be for Super Bowl LV?
It’s too early to tell. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in September that he expects “a full Super Bowl.”
The NFL and its medical experts, however, will operate according to CDC guidelines. The 65,890-seat stadium could wind up being only 15-25% full.
In recent weeks, several teams have begun welcoming back a limited number of fans, depending on their local and state guidelines. The league will continue to proceed with caution throughout the regular season and playoffs. But there’s no way to know which direction the numbers will be trending by February.
How would alterations to a Super Bowl date impact team logistics and prep time?
Whether the Super Bowl takes place on Feb. 7 or a later date, it’s very possible that the week leading up to the big game will look different for teams.
Generally, teams arrive in the host city either Sunday evening or Monday morning. The circus that is Super Bowl Opening Night — the first media availability of the week — takes place Monday night. Each day, teams have practices and appearance obligations to fulfill.
This season there is a strong possibility that, with reduced media obligations (news conferences will still take place virtually), teams will remain in their home cities for practices until arriving in Tampa only a few days ahead of the Super Bowl.
Is there a deadline for a decision on the Super Bowl?
For now, no. But eventually there will be. All of these questions are being asked both behind closed doors and publicly, but the NFL has yet to reveal extensive plans and alternative courses of action. That’s because league officials know that any outbreak could suddenly alter the timeline. An answer today could wind up completely changing at any point.
But for now the league and its teams will operate according to the original short- and long-term plans until forced to do otherwise.
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