Niyo: Tone deaf or tonic? NFL won’t let coronavirus silence its spring

John Niyo
The Detroit News

This is the time of year the NFL regularly reminds its players they’re disposable.

Cam Newton gets released. So does Todd Gurley. DeAndre Hopkins, Stefon Diggs and Darius Slay are traded. The list goes on.

But all that player movement serves as another reminder as well, one that the league underscored with its public comments Wednesday about plowing ahead with plans for the 2020 season amid a global health crisis.

As of today, the Lions, like all NFL teams, are scheduled to open the regular season on time.

The NFL wants everyone to know it’s indispensable.

And maybe it is. Maybe that’s OK, too, as the NFL’s offseason provides a much-needed diversion for sports fans, filling in a landscape that’s just tumbleweeds otherwise.

Tom Brady in a Buccaneers uniform. Philip Rivers going from the ‘Bolts to the Colts. An estimated $2.6 billion worth of contracts doled out in the first week of free agency. More mock drafts than even the most diehard draftnik can handle. In Roger Goodell's world, at least, social distancing won't mean a sports dystopia.

The league held its spring owners’ meetings this week, but rather than gathering at a posh resort like usual – The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, was scheduled to be this year’s host – they handled business via conference calls. One with team presidents on Monday, another with the 32 owners on Tuesday.

More: Lions Mailbag, Part 1: Go after Clowney? Draft Simmons No. 3? Take Okudah over Young?

Among the announcements that came out of those meetings was the owners’ unanimous approval of playoff expansion – from 12 teams to 14, beginning this season – and confirmation that the NFL draft will go on as scheduled, April 23-25, with teams making their selections remotely.

Neither was a surprise. The new playoff format – the opening weekend will now feature Saturday and Sunday tripleheaders – was part of last month’s collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. And the draft decision is one Goodell, the NFL commissioner, had reaffirmed last week with a rather terse letter that also threatened “disciplinary action” for team officials who dared to weigh in publicly with their own opinions.

No what-if scenarios

What was mildly surprising, though, was the way in which league officials addressed the inevitable questions about contingency plans for the 2020 season on a media conference call Tuesday.

“Our planning, our expectation is fully directed at playing a full season, starting on schedule and having a full regular season and full set of playoffs, just as we did in 2019,” NFL vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash told reporters on a conference call.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, with Lions first-round pick T.J. Hockenson, at the 2019 NFL Draft.

And while acknowledging the league takes its guidance from its own medical staff, outside experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pash fended off multiple questions about what-if scenarios and whether there was any concern the start of the season might be in jeopardy.

He noted the NFL opener is still months away – Sept. 10, to be exact – and training camps don’t begin until the end of July. (The NFL offseason is on hold, but there's talk of setting up virtual workouts and coaching in the interim.) Pash also admitted that “if things take a different turn and there are different regulations put in place, then we’d have to address it in a more substantial way.” But when pressed, he held firm on the league’s position that it’ll be kicking off as planned in the fall. 

“That’s our expectation,” he said. “Am I certain of that? I’m not certain I’ll be here tomorrow. But I’m planning on it. And in the same way, we’re planning on having a full season. …

“We did not discuss a shortened season or any changes in the structure of the season. We’re planning on going forward with a regular and complete season, similar to what we’ve played every year. All of our discussion is on a normal, traditional season starting on time, playing in front of our fans in our regular stadiums, and going through a 16-game season, with a full set of playoffs.”

Of course, not everyone’s in agreement about the way the league is handling this offseason. Last month, an advisory committee of NFL general managers recommended postponing the draft. The NFL Physicians Society sent a letter to the league and the players’ union last week making it clear they won’t be conducting any medical exams until the coronavirus pandemic has subsided. That means no post-combine medical rechecks in Indianapolis this month like usual. No physicals for newly-signed free agents or draft prospects. (At least not by team personnel.)

Full speed ahead

College administrators also are starting to address the possibility football won’t be feasible in 2020, given the epidemiological problems we're facing. And ABC/ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit was on the Paul Finebaum Show last week speaking the quiet part out loud, saying, “I’ll be shocked if we have NFL football this fall, if we have college football. I’ll be so surprised if that happens.”

Which is partly why the NFL’s stance seemed so jarring Tuesday.

“What surprised me a little bit was the fervor, for lack of a better word, that the NFL seems to be in saying ‘full speed ahead’ and ‘business as usual,’” said Andrew Brandt, the former Green Bay Packers VP and general counsel, on the Ross Tucker Football Podcast.

More: If Lions go for Jeff Okudah, here are 10 second-round options that make sense

“I know the NFL just wants to put their foot down and say ‘We’re going ahead, just like we did with free agency, just like we’re doing with the draft.’ … But I think there should’ve been some qualifications. Maybe that’s implied for everyone that hears it.”

Maybe so. Or maybe this is simply the NFL’s way of projecting confidence in a time of overwhelming uncertainty, trying to reassure fans and business partners – sponsors, advertisers, TV networks, and so on – that everything will be fine for a league that boasts annual revenue in excess of $15 billion and just secured labor peace through 2030 with a newly-ratified CBA.

Still, the fact that the NFL’s conference call was followed shortly after by a White House press conference “that talked about death in the six figures,” as Brandt noted, probably strikes some as tone deaf.

But that’s apparently a risk the league feels is worth taking, sending a message that reasserts if not reassures, while letting everyone know the NFL isn’t just something we can’t live without. It’s something we won’t have to.

And on that count, maybe we should all hope they’re right.