Will the NFL season start on time?

The league is hopeful coronavirus won't disrupt its regular season, but offseason activities are at risk.

Sony Michel carries the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter of a game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.
Sony Michel carries the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter of a game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. –Billie Weiss/Getty Images

NFL officials remain guardedly optimistic at this point, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, that they’ll be able to stage a complete or nearly complete 2020 regular season. But they are increasingly pessimistic about salvaging any of teams’ offseason programs for players, and wary about potential disruptions that would accompany the opening of training camps this summer.

Those views were expressed by several people familiar with the league’s planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid views about the NFL’s prospects to continue operating as normal during the growing outbreak.

While the spread of the virus has caused other sports leagues to postpone games or shut down indefinitely, the NFL has been relatively unaffected, including moving ahead with free agency last week. The dealmaking between teams and players proceeded mostly as normal, even with some teams’ offices closed and with front office executives, agents and players required to overcome travel restrictions that complicated the ability of players to undergo physicals.

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League leaders can only hope that conditions improve considerably by the time the scheduled opening of the NFL’s regular season in September approaches.

“I’m optimistic we’ll be able to have a season that starts relatively on time,” a person with knowledge of the league’s inner workings said.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league continues to plan for teams’ offseason programs, training camps and the season, but will make adjustments if needed.

“Our primary concern is to protect the health of the public, players, club and league employees while continuing the essential business of preparing for another exciting season,” McCarthy said in a written statement provided to The Washington Post. “We continue to plan for offseason programs and training camps. We will be prepared to make any changes necessary if circumstances warrant as led by medical experts and public authorities.”

NFL leaders and team owners know that other pro sports leagues such as the NBA and Major League Baseball must make decisions first. That ultimately should provide clarity to the NFL about what can and can’t be done. But in the meantime, the NFL will have to make decisions about other activities.

The league has postponed teams’ offseason programs indefinitely. Those programs usually begin in April and conclude in June, including minicamps and practices known as organized team activities (or OTAs). There is strong sentiment that those programs will be canceled entirely.

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“I would be shocked if we had any kind of offseason program at team facilities,” one owner said.

That owner said it is “too soon to tell” about the prospects for training camps and the regular season. Teams generally begin opening training camps in late July. That will be complicated this summer by medical considerations, and the league also will have to factor in competitive concerns.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” a person familiar with the NFL’s planning said. “It also becomes a competitive issue. It’s up to [the league office] to make sure it’s even competitively. . . . What happens if you get into training camp and some team has a player test positive and has to shut down?”

New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton announced last week that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first NFL player, coach or executive known to have tested positive. The league has been in regular contact with a variety of medical experts, and some teams have closed their offices and sent staffers home to work remotely.

The league prohibited players from traveling to visit teams, either for free agency or in preparation for next month’s NFL draft, and barred teams from traveling to visit or scout players. For free agency, teams were told that they could arrange for players to undergo physicals in their home geographic areas.

The NFL plans to look this week at the issue of how many teams have closed their facilities and how many have not, contemplating whether that is a competitive matter that should be addressed. Most teams now will begin to pivot from their primary focus being on free agency to their primary focus being on preparations for the NFL draft.

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The draft is to take place as scheduled April 23-25, but will be a TV-only event, potentially based at the Los Angeles studios of the league-owned NFL Network. The league canceled the live event in Las Vegas associated with the draft.

The NFL also canceled the annual league meeting that had been scheduled for next week in Palm Beach, Florida. For now, the next owners’ meeting scheduled for May 18-20 in Marina del Rey, California, has been expanded to also include coaches and general managers. The league has not yet made a decision about whether to hold that meeting.

Owners had hoped to move quickly, after players narrowly ratified a new collective bargaining agreement running through the 2030 season, to negotiate new broadcasting deals with the TV networks and potential streaming partners. It’s not clear at this point whether the worldwide economic fallout of the pandemic will have a pronounced effect on the timing or substance of those negotiations.

The NFL and NFL Players Association did not delay the onset of free agency last week even though the owners’ labor committee favored such a postponement, according to a person familiar with those deliberations. Some teams also wanted that. But there was relatively little public outcry, it seemed, as quarterback Tom Brady and other players changed teams and lined up lucrative contracts. One person familiar with the league’s view said: “All things considered, I thought it went okay.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote a letter late last week to league staffers. In it, he wrote that the “pandemic has greatly affected our communities around the world” and that the league’s priority is “protecting the health of our employees, the public and everyone associated with the NFL.” He also expressed optimism, writing: “We will get through these difficult days together and every one of you should be proud knowing that you have played an important role to help our world emerge stronger and more unified.”

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