Wednesday’s NFL: Owners delay decision on 17-game regular season

Barry Wilner
Associated Press

NFL owners have delayed a decision on implementing a 17-game regular season for 2021.

During a teleconference call Wednesday that replaced the usual December gathering of owners in Dallas, they opted to push back any move on the expanded season until early in 2021. The NFL and the players’ union agreed during collective bargaining talks earlier this year to adding one regular-season game to the schedule, but not before next season.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

“We had a lengthy discussion on this, obviously it’s an important decision for us,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We did not take any votes with respect to committing to do it. In the collective bargaining agreement, we have that right to do it.”

A scheduling formula for a 17th game was approved unanimously: an interconference matchup, based on divisional standings from the preceding season, and on a rotating divisional basis. The idea is to maintain facilitating competitive fairness; creating additional value through quality matchups; and preserving the objectivity of the scheduling process, the league said.

“It obviously comes into play with respect with our future media arrangements that we obviously are contemplating,” he added. “We expect a decision will be made on that in the next several weeks.”

The length of the preseason would be reduced, as well, if a 17th match is added.

Goodell said the league plans to invite vaccinated health care workers to the Super Bowl as guests. No set number of invitees has been determined for the Feb. 7 game in Tampa.

In a letter to Rob Higgins, president of the host committee for Super Bowl 55, that was obtained by the Associated Press, Goodell wrote that he wanted to “honor and thank health care workers for their extraordinary service during pandemic” as well as promote the importance of vaccinations and the wearing of masks in public.

Goodell added in the letter: “We all know that over the past year, these frontline workers have put their own lives at risk to the benefit of society and we owe them our ongoing gratitude. We also know that they will remain essential for months to come to treat those who are ill and administer vaccines. We hope that in some small way, this initiative will inspire our country and recognize these true American heroes as we look forward to a better and healthier year.”

The NFL plans for fans to attend the game.

“We have not landed on a specific capacity yet, and we will work on that with the medical community in the weeks ahead,” said Peter O’Reilly, who oversees major event planning for the league. “Public health officials will drive every decision we make around this subject.”

Goodell attended the Buccaneers’ victory over Minnesota on Sunday and “was incredibly impressed by the stadium and improvements they made. We are looking forward to one of the most memorable and meaningful games in our history.”

The commissioner acknowledged that playing through the pandemic has provided plenty of lessons, and the NFL will confer with the NFL Players Association after the Super Bowl to discuss 2020 measures that might make sense to keep in a post-COVID-19 landscape.

Changes worthy of further consideration include aspects of the virtual NFL draft; the training camp acclamation period; expanded practice squads; and unlimited callbacks from injured reserve.

“This has been a period of learning. I think it’s forced us to think differently and innovate and we’ll look at that and see how we implement it going forward,” Goodell said.

The owners also approved the Tennessee Titans realigning ownership, with Amy Adams Strunk remaining the primary owner. Goodell said the matter should be completed by the end of December.

“I think it strengthens our ownership in a way that is very positive,” Goodell said.

Colts punter returns

Punter Rigoberto Sanchez returned to the Indianapolis Colts’ practice field just 15 days after having surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. The 26-year-old veteran said he was thankful to be back inside the team facility. It’s unclear when he will return to action.

“It was just great being around my brothers, being on the field,” Sanchez said, describing how he laced up his cleats. “I was grateful before. I haven’t taken one day for granted from the day I stepped inside this building and I’m even more grateful today.”

He declined to say where doctors found the tumor, saying he wanted to keep it personal. Sanchez also said it wasn’t clear yet whether he would need any additional treatment.

The first hint something was wrong came during practice Nov. 25. Sanchez said something felt wrong as he warmed up for kickoffs and immediately went to an assistant coach before heading to medical staff, which suggested doing an MRI.

Surgery was scheduled less than a week later.

Washington foggy QB picture

Alex Smith’s strained right calf prevented him from practicing with Washington, so Dwayne Haskins took snaps with the first-team offense, and coach Ron Rivera said he would be OK with waiting until just before the next game to know who will start at quarterback.

“You’d love to be able to practice and go and get all the reps and stuff,” Smith said during a video conference with reporters, “but I’ve played a lot of football.”

With snow and rain in the area, Washington went through drills at its indoor facility in Ashburn, Virginia, and the session was closed to the media. But the NFC East leader announced that Smith stood by while Haskins, the 15th overall choice in the 2019 draft, got the main work.

Asked whether he thought he can play Sunday when Washington (6-7) hosts the Seattle Seahawks (9-4), who are tied for first place in the NFC West, Smith replied: “It would be ridiculous for me to try to say right now, especially with the type of injury it is. There’s no reason at this point to even try to attempt that. There are several days right here to see how this goes. A lot can change day to day.”

Washington has won four games in a row, with Smith starting each one.

Niners stand by Mullens

The 49ers are sticking with Nick Mullens at quarterback for now despite a pair of costly turnovers that led to defensive touchdowns in last week’s loss to Washington.

Coach Kyle Shanahan had said he would evaluate the position following the 23-15 loss to Washington but ultimately decided to stick with Mullens over C.J. Beathard for this week’s game at Dallas. Starter Jimmy Garoppolo remains out with an ankle injury.

“Nick, first and foremost, if he wants to stay out there, he’s got to stop turning the ball over,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “But I think when you look back to Sunday, I think the other thing that sticks out the most is he missed a number of open throws, just throwing over guys’ heads, about four of them right now. … Nick needs to make those throws and he’s capable of making those throws.

“But I also know it doesn’t help when you have nine drops on top of that. So, to make one guy the center of attention and everything, I know emotionally how everyone feels.”

Mullens has been a bit hit or miss this season in seven starts in place of Garoppolo. He is averaging 272.7 yards passing per game but has struggled to protect the ball. He has committed 12 turnovers in those seven games, including a fumble and an interception last week that were both returned for touchdowns.

Vikes’ kicker quandary

The Vikings have kept kicker Dan Bailey for now, despite a troubling run of misses by one of the most accurate specialists in NFL history.

Coach Mike Zimmer declined to commit to using Bailey for the upcoming game against Chicago. “We’ll see,” was all Zimmer said during a terse video conference call with reporters.

When asked if he anticipated adding another kicker to the roster this week, Zimmer again replied, “We’ll see,” perhaps more indicative of disinterest in discussing a subject that has roiled him throughout his tenure than of an impending transaction.

Bailey missed all four of his attempts Sunday in a 26-14 loss at Tampa Bay, one extra point and three field goals – from 36, 54 and 46 yards. The week before in a 27-24 overtime victory over Jacksonville, Bailey made the winner from 23 yards and another try from 48 yards, but missed two extra points and a 51-yard field goal.

Bears aware

Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy said that the team was made aware of the incident involving defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr. and a 28-year-old woman at a Charlotte, N.C., hotel on the night it happened.

A criminal summons has been issued for Edwards in North Carolina on a charge of misdemeanor assault on a female after the woman claimed, according to TMZ, that Edwards became violent after she turned down his sexual advances in the team hotel Oct. 17. Peter Schaffer, Edwards’ agent, denied the claims against his client and said Edwards tried to de-escalate the situation, which happened on the night before the Bears played the Carolina Panthers.

Schaffer said they informed the NFL and NFLPA on the Monday morning after the incident, and Nagy said the team has worked with the league to address the issue from the start. He also said the team knew of the charge when it was filed.

“We’ve been in lock-step with the NFL on this the entire way,” Nagy said. “It’s something we take very seriously, and it’s not something that I’m going to be adding to because of the legal situation.”

Nagy said Edwards will practice with the team as usual this week. Edwards has played in all eight games since the alleged assault, including against the Panthers the next day.

Coordinator feeling heat

The Dallas Cowboys have gone out of their way to make it clear that head coach Mike McCarthy was not in trouble of losing his job after one season, despite the team’s struggles in 2020 with a 4-9 mark heading into the final three games.

In separate radio interviews this week, owner Jerry Jones and vice president Stephen Jones have said McCarthy will be back in 2021.

That defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has not been given similar assurances tells an opposite story about his prospective future with the Cowboys.

Nolan’s defense ranks last in the NFL in points allowed, last in rushing yards, tied for 29th in third-down percentage surrendered, 27th in big plays allowed, 25th in yards per play and 23rd in total yards allowed.

His departure seems inevitable.

“You know, I don’t even think about it,” Nolan said. “I just take it a day at a time anyway. I prefer not to even answer the question just because it’s not what’s on my mind. "

Jerry Jones seemed to call out Nolan and the defense last week when he talked about wanting a “do over.” He expressed regrets about changing to a complex defense amid challenges of the COVID-19 restrictions with no offseason and an abbreviated training camp.

Extra points

The Seahawks received an unexpected surprise as veteran tight end Greg Olsen returned to the practice field far sooner than most expected. Olsen was designated for return to practice, less than a month after he landed on injured reserve with a torn fascia in his left foot. At the time of his injury, Seattle estimated Olsen would be out at least a month and potentially upward of six weeks. While it would seem unlikely for Seattle to have Olsen play this week against Washington, it’s not entirely out of the question.

... The Ravens placed receivers Marquise Brown, Mile Boykin and James Proche on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

... Saints QB Drew Brees (fractured ribs/punctured lungs) has been designated to return from the injured reserve list.

... Jaguars coach Doug Marrone has named Gardner Minshew as the starting quarterback for Sunday’s game against the Ravens.

... Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.