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NFL running out of options for fitting in games amid pandemic

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, left, and Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll talk before a game Monday.
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, left, and Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll talk before their game Monday night.
(Chris Szagola / Associated Press)

Can an entire league be flagged for delay of game?

The NFL announced Monday evening that Baltimore-Pittsburgh — a game that was supposed to take place on Thanksgiving night — was bumped for a fourth time, to Wednesday night, a day the league hasn’t played on in eight years.

NBC had to shoehorn in the game, which will kick off at 12:40 p.m. PST because of the network’s commitment to broadcasting the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony.

The Ravens are dealing with one of the biggest virus outbreaks of any sport, one that has sidelined at least 18 players, 10 of whom are starters, including starting quarterback Lamar Jackson and running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins.

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At least one Baltimore player has tested positive for nine consecutive days, prompting the NFL to cancel the team’s morning practice to make sure the inferno wasn’t still raging.

“These decisions were made out of an abundance of caution to ensure the health and safety of players, coaches and game day personnel and in consultation with medical experts,” the NFL said in a statement.

Players at Utah’s Corner Canyon High successfully made it through the COVID-19 pandemic to win 14 games this season.

Last week, the Ravens disciplined a team employee for lapses that almost certainly contributed to the outbreak. According to multiple reports, the team suspended strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders for failing to report coronavirus symptoms, and not consistently wearing a face covering or tracking device.

With positive case numbers rising across the country, the NFL ordered all team facilities closed on Monday and Tuesday, except for teams playing on those days. The Ravens gathered for practice on both Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, but had to call off the sessions when they did not get approval from the league.

Ravens players voiced concerns Monday with the NFL Players Assn., pointing to mixed messages they were getting from the league — that it wasn’t OK for them to gather or practice, but it was fine for them to fly together on a plane to Pittsburgh and play a game.

That paved the way for the NFL to once again postpone the game, from Tuesday to Wednesday.

Broncos practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton was promoted to start at quarterback against the Saints on Sunday.
Denver Broncos practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton was promoted to start at quarterback against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

The Ravens issued a statement Monday night that they had held a “safely distanced walk-through/conditioning session” at their headquarters, and plan to hold another one Tuesday.

“Players arrived already prepared to work out on the field,” the team said, “and they did not enter the locker room or training room.”

With different types of coronavirus-related situations affecting NFL teams on both coasts, the league is trying to chart a path forward by keeping the schedule somewhat intact. Through the first 11-plus weeks of the season, there have been postponements but no cancellations.

The biggest test has come in Week 12, not only with the pushing back of Ravens versus the undefeated Steelers, but also with a coronavirus crackdown in Santa Clara County which prohibits the San Francisco 49ers — and anyone else involved in contact sports — from practicing or playing host to games for three weeks.

So the 49ers are headed to Arizona, where they will share State Farm Stadium with the NFC West-rival Cardinals. Where the 49ers will practice is still up in the air, but their home county’s new regulations prohibit them commuting from the Bay Area. Anyone who has traveled more than 150 miles from Santa Clara County is required to quarantine for 14 days upon return.

Paradoxically, the 49ers will be relocating to a county that over the last week has had more than twice as many reported coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents as the county they’re leaving — from Santa Clara (172.3) to Maricopa (357.3).

Jared Goff draws the ire of coach Sean McVay after committing three turnovers as the Rams lose 23-20 to the 49ers on a last-second field goal.

In consecutive weeks, the 49ers will play Buffalo and Washington on the home field of the Cardinals. But at this point, at least those games are on track to be played.

Ravens-Steelers is like a discarded mattress on the freeway, getting knocked around and starting to cause a traffic jam.

By taking the extreme step of moving that game to a Wednesday — something the NFL hasn’t done since 2012 when the kickoff opener conflicted with the Democratic National Convention — the league has to deal with a massive ripple effect.

Dallas-Baltimore, originally scheduled as this week’s Thursday night game, already had been moved to Monday night, because the Ravens can’t play two games in rapid-fire succession.

The NFL also moved Washington at Pittsburgh, originally scheduled for Sunday, to Monday night, when it will be the early game before Buffalo-San Francisco.

Any further postponements of Ravens-Steelers, the game that started this mess, would require more down-the-line postponements, which would impact not only Week 13 but also Week 14.

After Josh Kelley failed to get a first down on a key third and one in the fourth quarter, the Chargers had to settle for a field goal in their loss at Buffalo.

With multiple teams playing on short weeks, the NFL runs a serious risk of increased injuries and a diminished product.

For evidence, look no further than the game between New Orleans and Denver on Sunday, when the Broncos had to start a practice-squad receiver at quarterback because none of their four quarterbacks was available. One tested positive for the virus, and the other three didn’t follow protocols in terms of face coverings and social distancing, and therefore were at heightened risk.

The game was a debacle, an embarrassment for both the Broncos and the NFL, with Denver finishing with more interceptions (two) than completions (one) in a 31-3 defeat.

“That was the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of,” Broncos tackle Garett Bolles said Monday. “It’s a game that I’ll tell my grandkids [about] one day and say, ‘Hey, I played a game with no quarterback. We had to get a quarterback off the practice squad.’ ”


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