There are not many trap doors nor hidden tricks in the 2020 NFL schedule released Thursday night, which is in line with how the league has conducted business — much of it virtual — this offseason.
However, there are certain levers the league can pull, the most significant of which is tied to Super Bowl LV.
If the league does need scheduling help that science cannot provide for the coronavirus, and delays to the season’s start eventually become necessary, sources around the league indicated that Super Bowl LV could be pushed back by weeks, or even a couple of months potentially, while not having to make significant matchup changes to the regular-season schedule released Thursday night.
The option of the Super Bowl being moved back provides the NFL with the flexibility it needs, though it is not in the league’s plans today, and it prefers not to have any discussion about it.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell warned teams Wednesday in a memo sent to team presidents and executives that he doesn’t want anyone engaging in any hypotheticals about the coming season, and as of now, the games will go on as scheduled, which includes Super Bowl LV in Tampa on Sunday, Feb. 7.
But during a pandemic, there must be hypotheticals that bring flexibility.
Consider this option: Say the start of the season had to be pushed back four weeks — again, not the league’s plan and not what it wants, but a hypothetical — then the NFL simply could push the Super Bowl back four weeks. It then could take regular-season Weeks 1 through 4 and turn them into, essentially, regular-season Weeks 18, 19, 20 and 21. And every team would share the same bye week as its Week 2 opponent, according to team sources that reviewed the 2020 schedule Thursday. If the start of the season were pushed back two months, then the first half of the schedule simply could be moved to the back half of the schedule – assuming the Super Bowl could be pushed back for the corresponding period.
It’s not unlike what the league did with a similar but shorter model that unfolded during the 2001 season because of the 9/11 tragedy. Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue postponed the regular season by one week, moving those regular-season games to the back half of the schedule and eliminating the bye week between conference championship games and the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl wasn’t moved off its scheduled date, but the league was able to quickly amend a set schedule
As of now, there are no plans to push back Super Bowl LV, and it has not been an active discussion, even if it could become that in the weeks to come.
“We’re totally focused on Feb. 7 with the regular season kicking off as scheduled,” Rob Higgins, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl Host Committee, said Thursday. “If adjustments needed to take place, we would be prepared to do that. But we haven’t been instructed to do that whatsoever.”
The league already has certain cushions built into the schedule. The Pro Bowl could be dropped, buying an extra week for the NFL. Teams that are scheduled to play early in the season also have the same bye week later in the season, a formula the league successfully deployed during the lockout season of 2011, giving the league further flexibility on an additional week.
But make no mistake about this current schedule: The weekly matchups are set. The reality, however, is that any one of them could serve as the league’s opening week, even though the league plans to plant a flag on Thursday night, September 10, with the regular-season opener in Kansas City between the Texans and defending champion Chiefs. But if the season were hypothetically pushed back four weeks, then Week 5 could serve as the NFL’s opening week, with the first four weeks being tacked on to the back end of the schedule, giving the league the 16-game regular season it desires.
A potential delay could be longer but the concept is the same: The Super Bowl could very well provide the flexibility the NFL needs.
And if a 16-game season cannot be realized, the NFL might look at 14-game season in which the first two weeks of the regular season would become the last two weeks of the regular season, and weeks three and four would be dropped. There are no divisional games scheduled in Weeks 3 or 4, which happened in weeks 2 and 4 of the 2011 lockout season.
So there are plenty of potential options for the league to explore when it feels it needs to, even if it insists it is not doing that now.
As for the preseason, the NFL is preparing to shorten it to three games as early as next season, when the regular season grows to 17 games. If a shortened preseason kicks off this summer instead, as many now expect, it hardly would be a significant loss.
But for now, the focus is on a 16-game regular season, and the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 7, in Tampa.
So even during a national pandemic, the NFL is treating the 2020 schedule just as it treated the start of free agency in March, the offseason program and the NFL draft it managed to successfully execute in April: business as usual, making adjustments to plans only if and when necessary.