By Sally Fahey
Now that the NFL draft is in the virtual books, let’s see how they’re doing with planning for the 2020 season.
A Super Bowl that kicks off on Feb. 28.
A regular season that starts as late as Thursday, Oct. 15.
An NFL season with no bye weeks or Pro Bowl.
These are all contingencies that the NFL has considered as the league moves forward with its plans to hold a full regular season.
The league’s executives are trying to put themselves in the best position to fit in a full season, or at least a nearly full season, even if there are delays.
NFL schedule-makers are in the process of designing a 2020 season that has several different wrinkles. When the schedule is released next month, it will look like a standard 16-game, 17-week slate, but it will be designed to allow for several steps that could become necessary depending on the state of the pandemic. (The 17-game regular season agreed to in the new CBA goes into effect with the 2021 season.)
In one version, the start of the season could be delayed by up to five weeks with relatively few adjustments. Such a scenario would have Super Bowl LV, currently set for Feb. 7, 2021 in Tampa, pushed back by three weeks. If that happens, it could compete with other big events that typically try to avoid Super Bowl Sunday.
Two weeks of early-season games could be shifted wholesale to the end of the season. A third week would feature teams only playing opponents with the same bye week, so that week could be cut and byes eliminated leaguewide.
These contingency-laden plans also include cutting the weekend between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, where the Pro Bowl is typically played, to allow another week to be lost to delays. Under such a plan, the Pro Bowl would not be played.
Specific conversations have occurred with Tampa hosts about delaying the Super Bowl by one week to Feb. 14, but a source said the last two weeks of February are in play as well.
Sources caution that none of the plans are final, and nothing has been ruled out. All parties are aware that the season is still subject to major variables around the spread of the coronavirus by late summer, local regulations and medical progress against the disease.
But the NFL’s chief scheduler, Howard Katz, and the NFL’s broadcasters are working with two overriding goals: Do what they can to preserve the possibility of playing a full 16-game slate, and also keep the Super Bowl in February.
By setting up the schedule now with those potential changes in mind, such as eliminating the Pro Bowl and getting assurances that the Super Bowl can be moved, the league could start as late as Oct. 15 — what would typically be Week 6 — and play a 16-game season that ends in February.
Tampa Bay Sports Commission Executive Director Rob Higgins declined to comment on the possibility of a Super Bowl shift. “We’ve been in constant communication with the NFL and we’re totally focused on Feb. 7, 2021,” he said.
The NFL has told network executives to expect the schedule to be released as early as May 7 — two days before the May 9 date that the NFL originally had circled.
Even though Brian Rolapp, NFL executive vice president of media, said on March 30 that the league would announce a schedule by May 9, internal debate is still roiling about whether the league should even announce anything.
Sales staffs at teams, leagues and broadcasters are agitating for a tangible schedule, desperate for any offering to give ticket buyers, sponsors and advertisers. Some high-level strategists, though, are questioning the wisdom of releasing a schedule with so many unknowns.
They worry that a schedule release will be interpreted as a challenge to powerful politicians, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has been pessimistic about resuming major sporting activities this year.
For those reasons, insiders said, the schedule will be released with an emphasis on the contingencies. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said on April 17, “We continue to plan for the season as scheduled, including the Super Bowl, and will be prepared to adjust as necessary.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell later addressed the issue on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”.
“One thing I’ve learned about what we are going through as a country is you can’t tell a week from now much less three months from now,” Goodell said. “So, our job is to be ready. We will obviously be ready to make alternatives.”