BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 11/30/2020

Thiel: Broncos’ virus debacle shows NFL blew it

Seahawks had good news from the weekend’s results, but the NFL offered bad news to all when it forced the Broncos, because of virus violations, to play without a QB. Brutal.

Russell Wilson was sacked six times against the Eagles in Philadelphia on Nov. 24, 2019, a 17-9 Seahawks win. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

The good news over the weekend for the 7-3 Seahawks was that the Patriots beat the Cardinals (6-5), and the 49ers (5-6) beat the Rams (7-4), helping advance the cause of winning the NFC West as they head into the dessert portion of the 2020 menu: The next four opponents have a sugary combined record of 11-31-1.

The bad news was a report that their Monday night opponent, the 3-6-1 Eagles in Philadelphia (5:15 p.m., ESPN), were giving first-unit snaps in practice to rookie backup QB Jalen Hurts, 22, presumably in anticipation of subbing out veteran Carson Wentz for some or all of the game.

Normally the introduction of inexperience, even for the Heisman Trophy runner-up behind Joe Burrow, would be good for an opposing defense. But Wentz has been so bad this season that LB Bobby Wagner and crew likely are in full slobber over the opportunity.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wentz has the worst off-target percentage (23%) among all QB qualifiers, and he is first among all players in interceptions (14), fumbles (10) and sacks (40), and ranks 32nd in completion percentage (58.4), 31st in yards per attempt (6.2).

Hurts? He has played 31 snaps, and thrown two passes, both complete. You can see the clear and present danger of a perfect passer.

The worst news was not Seahawks-specific, but bad for anyone interested in an NFL championship season. The league undercut this weekend its integrity of competition by ordering the Denver Broncos, because of COVID-19 protocol violations, to play a game without a quarterback.

That led to a contest Sunday of abject futility, much derision and a cheap win for the New Orleans Saints, 31-3 in Denver. All because of the stubborn refusal of the league to concede to an out-of-control pandemic with a game cancellation. If the Seahawks win Monday to improve to 8-3, the only NFC team with a better record is New Orleans at 9-2.

The NFL so wants to complete intact its schedule that it is putting players’ health at risk — the very thing it said it vowed to protect with its its stringent rules about testing, isolation  and quarantine for COVID-19.

When a team is rendered borderline dysfunctional with the wipeout of its QB room — and the inability to hire from outside because of the mandatory six-day delay for testing clearance — a forfeit or a no-contest cancellation were the only reasonable options.

Using a practice-squad receiver to play his first NFL game at a position he barely played at Wake Forest in 2018, was unconscionable. His semi-helpless presence at the top level of the industry introduced the threat of half-speed, where his teammates slow down to compensate, and/or his opponents slow down to avoid serious harm in the inevitable blowout.

Any coach in any team sport involving significant contact knows the peril of a player out of his element. Kendall Hinton was one for nine with two interceptions. The Broncos finished with a franchise-worst 112 yards of offense. It’s not just a bad look. It’s dangerous.

The debacle began Tuesday when QBs Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles were found to be in violation of mask-wearing and social-distancing protocols after being in close contact with QB Jeff Driskel, who tested positive the previous Wednesday.

In a video conference Saturday, the NFL told Broncos CEO Joe Ellis and general manager John Elway that the players weren’t allowed to play. But the game would go on as scheduled Sunday, unlike other outbreaks where the league went to great lengths to re-book postponed games. The short notice didn’t even allow the unfortunate Hinton to practice once with his teammates.

“Maybe the league (was) just making an example of us,” said Broncos safety Kareem Jackson after the game, suggesting that the league wanted a public punishment to act as a deterrent. “It’s our guys’ fault for not wearing their masks. But, at the least, maybe move the game to the next day, or whenever, just so we’re given a fighting chance. Obviously disappointing. I’m not sure why it wasn’t moved. I have no clue.”

The NFL has issued no explanation, just a leak of the news through its house organs. Regardless, it introduced a league-mandated competitive inequity, well beyond fines and loss of draft picks for violations, instead of deploying less damaging competitive options.

Before the game, Lock, the starter, tweeted an apology, writing, “In a controlled and socially-distance area, we let our masking slip for a limited amount of time. An honest mistake, but one I will own . . . I sincerely apologize and I fully understand why these safety precautions are so important. Doing the right thing for a majority of the time is not good enough.”

The apology was necessary and seemed earnest, but he deserved sanction for violating rules that his union accepted as work conditions. Yet to strip the Broncos of a fair ability to compete before choosing other options appears to show the NFL panicked and defaulted to the draconian.

A cancellation is a serious team punishment, but it doesn’t jeopardize individual players. Major League Soccer, confronting the same problem of uneven numbers of regular-season games because of virus outbreaks, devised a point system that helped determine playoff teams and a seeding.

The pro leagues generally have agreed to a Covid/reserve list that players enter and leave based on test results. Teams can be short-handed temporarily, much as with physical injuries, but it is seen as a cost of doing business in a pandemic.

The Broncos outbreak at one position, the most critical position, needed a better solution 24 hours ahead of kickoff. Playing 15 regular-season games instead of 16, in terms of potential playoff seedings, is a problem that can be worked out. But putting forth the slop in Denver was reckless, useful only to keep intact TV revenues.

The Seahawks and every team operate in fear that an entire season can come tumbling down based on virus randomness. As coach Pete Carroll put it last week, “It’s day to day.”

That requires the NFL to adapt to the reality of an already difficult situation. It has to realize that the integrity of the schedule during a national crisis is less important than doing right by its players, as well as fans who count on fairness as a bedrock of their belief in sports.


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YourThoughts

  • Guy K. Browne

    On Saturday I was talking with my son about this situation, I commented that it was possible that the game would be canceled or postponed… because the NFL wouldn’t want to air an inferior product, and that if they allowed the game to be played, they would potentially degrade the ongoing perception of their product.
    I think that I was wrong, and right all within the same discussion.

    • art thiel

      Glad you thought so too. I presumed that degrading the level of competition would be forbidden, a sort of a sacred trust. I was wrong. But the NFL’s priorities are wronger, to coin a term.

      • 2nd place is 1st loser

        Coin, another word for greed in the NFL owners mission statement.

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  • DB

    I believe the simple answer is that the league felt it had run out of time to further alter the schedule. Both team had already used their bye as well. Let’s also not forget that the Broncos could have, themselves, forfeited. Of course, this would have penalized the players on the team who weren’t at fault by denying them their game checks. Regardless, I’m not sure why there should be an expectation that the league should alter its schedule or take action to cancel the game because the Broncos didn’t have a quality QB. Had their entire QB room been sidelined in a normal season because of injury or other illness this wouldn’t have been a consideration, even if it happened within 24-48 hours of the kickoff. The Broncos simply would have had to suck it up, and you would have had the same scenario with a barely capable ‘next man up’. Just because the cause is COVID, it’s supposed to be different? The Boncos weren’t ‘stripped of their ability to fairly compete’. They were the one’s responsible. They didn’t follow the rules. It is possible to stay clean. The Seahawks are ample evidence. Why should the league be held responsible to change things for the Broncos? The idea that players were at more risk because the Broncos fielded an inexperienced QB wasn’t born out by the result, and again, if this was a real concern the Broncos had the option of going wildcat or running 100% of the time. Frankly, they might have been more competitive if they had done that.

    • art thiel

      The Broncos did go wildcat a lot and threw only nine passes. That was a crisis response, and apparently the teams escaped injuries. But as I responded to Alan, the league and union, because of game-week time pressure, needed to have agreed to a suspension of pay until after the season was over to determine responsibilities. I understand that pandemic policy had never been made before, but the NFL was the one league that had the opportunity to game out all scenarios before play began. Leaving a team without a quarterback was an unlikely but not unimaginable scenario with an uncontrolled infectious disease. I think a forfeit with suspended pay was an option for a unique circumstance that smart people on both sides could have foreseen.

      • Husky73

        There are a lot of “hired arms” out there that teams bring on for camp purposes and then release. Was there NO ONE that the Broncos could have called upon and signed? I’m sure Keith Price (as one example) would have signed on immediately.

        • Guy K. Browne

          I don’t think that there was enough time to clear the Covid isolation protocols after being signed. I don’t know what that time limit is, but it isn’t one day. I could be wrong, but that’s my understanding.

          • Husky73

            OK, thank you. Good post.

  • Alan Harrison

    Evidently, the NFL wanted to make a point, based on the negotiated contract between the league and its players. Had there been a forfeit, for example (which is the same thing that should happen to the Ravens), because of negligence and not bad luck, none of the players on either team would have been paid for the week. How this got negotiated in is a mark against the players’ reps, but it’s there nonetheless, and it’s why Denver and Baltimore are playing games. Cancelling the game without a forfeit has the same repercussions…no pay. It’s stupid. If the offending team (Broncos/Ravens), however, were on the hook for paying the “innocent” team’s players (Saints/Steelers), that would serve as a better point to make.

    • art thiel

      It’s true about the loss of pay, and I do understand that the NFL needs a hammer for full compliance. But negligent teams are impacting non-negligent teams, and the league race as a whole. What should have happened is an agreement between league and union that suspends pay until an arbitration hearing determines responsibility, which would come after the season to allow the NFL to manage the hour-to-hour crisis.

  • Husky73

    The pride of Ferndale High School will join other NFL head coaches in the unemployment line soon. And yes, Wentz look awful.

    • art thiel

      So much of Philly’s problems are injury-related, and of course the bad Wentz contract. Pederson is mostly a victim here, not a perp. But yes, he’ll be scapegoated.

  • jafabian

    That Broncos game was terrible. I’m disappointed that the NFL allowed it unless they were trying to send a message. Tonight’s Seahawks game should have been comparable but the Hawks didn’t seem to have the same kind of aggression that they would for, say, the Patriots or Niners. Hopefully that will change against the New York teams. Or at least it should. DK came to play though. So that should mean it’s Tyler’s turn the next game.

    • art thiel

      I don’t agree that the Seahawks lacked aggression. They held the Eagles without a TD until the freak Hail Mary, and the offense was two missed Metcalf catches from a blowout, despite Carroll’s self-admitting botching in the first quarter.

  • Kirkland

    Here’s the NFL’s take, from an NPR segment with a reporter with The Athletic I heard. The shorthanded Broncos asked for a delay/reschedule. The NFL said they would agree in the case of a virus outbreak in the community, but not if the roster shortage is from protocol breaches. Since the Broncos’ problems came from improper virus control issues and not a COVID spike in Denver, the league made them play as is. It was their fault for their QBs not following the rules, so they had to live without quarterbacks for one game, neener neener.

    My take: Playing such a bruising game with an insufficient roster is a player safety/welfare issue, along with the pandemic and rest days. The NCAA, of all things, has realized this and adjusted their schedules and team records/bowl chances accordingly. Is it asking the NFL to do the same?

    • art thiel

      If your question reads, is it asking too much the NFL to do the same, my answer is no, it is not too much to ask.

      The difference is that the NFL is a for-profit business that by agreement with players can impose sanctions for protocol violations, and the NCAA is a trade association with little influence over Power 5 football. Most of the schools, however, are public and have a public-safety obligation to put student safety and welfare first, or be at risk for liability lawsuits from families of students if they fail to obey public health mandates set by electeds guided by pandemic science.

      Having said that, the NFL failed to realize or care about the safety aspect of the QB-room breakout on the players. I don’t know yet whether the union can/will call out the league’s judgment. It’s possible that things are deteriorating so fast that the union doesn’t want to demand a hearing in the middle of an hour-to-hour crisis on 32 fronts.

  • Chris Alexander

    Per the league’s “damage control”, it isn’t concerned about “competitive balance” when it comes to the virus; the only thing that matters is CONTAINMENT.

    In Denver, the virus was contained – they had a player that tested positive and he was in quarantine and they identified other players who were “high risk contacts” and they were quarantined as well. There were no other positive tests before the game so . . . the league chose not to postpone or reschedule the game.

    Of course, the fact that it was a single position group – and the most important position group at that – SUCKS for the Broncos. And, on principle, they probably should have forfeited the game rather than sending out a practice squad receiver. But they didn’t.

    To me, the league looks bad here, but the team looks worse. They were the ones who allowed their players to violate protocols and then they chose to send out a player who had taken ZERO practice reps at the QB position. Seems stupid.

    And it makes me wonder what they’d have done if it had been the O-linemen who’d broken protocols and had a positive test. Would they have run out their starting QB behind a line made up of practice squad players that aren’t O-linemen?

    On the other side of the spectrum, we have the Ravens who clearly had NOT “contained” the virus in time to play on Thanksgiving. 10 straight days with positive tests, all while quarantining everyone who tested positive and, presumably, everyone who was deemed to be a high risk contact.

    Like the Broncos, the Ravens’ situation was apparently self-inflicted, with a member of the staff reportedly being the one that violated protocols. But unlike the Broncos, it wasn’t just one player that tested positive or one position group that was affected. They DID lose their starting quarterback though . . . and a considerable number of players. But they got their game pushed back – thrice – and managed to play a competitive game against the Steelers.

    But . . . should they have?

    Even while admitting there is some “logic” in the league’s current explanation and seeing that the teams were complicit in their circumstances, I question the “wisdom” in having the Ravens play this week when they were still getting positive results the day before the game.

    I hope and pray that no one on the Steelers gets infected as a result of having played the Ravens. But I also feel like it would “serve the league right” if that were to happen. Because their current explanation only holds water IF the Ravens’ outbreak was actually CONTAINED. And I, personally, question whether that was the case.