The NFL has plotted the Tennessee Titans’ return to the field for a rare Tuesday night game as the league races to navigate disruptions to its schedule fueled by a sustained coronavirus outbreak inside the team.
The league is scrambling to address virus-related concerns on numerous fronts, with the Titans, New England Patriots and now the New York Jets experiencing coronavirus-related disruptions that have rocked the NFL’s pandemic season.
The Titans, who are still prohibited from practicing because of 21 Covid-19 cases inside the team since last week, are now scheduled to play the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 13. That’s two days after the Sunday on which the game was initially scheduled, a last-ditch attempt to salvage a showdown that has been in doubt because of continued infections inside the Titans. The Titans already have a game against Pittsburgh that has been postponed until later in the season because of the outbreak.
The postponement is part of a string of overhauls designed to get America’s most popular sport back on track despite a growing series of concerning virus situations that has disrupted the league.
The Jets also had a scare Friday after a player returned a positive result on a test, but further testing showed it to be a false positive. The initial result led the team to send all players and personnel home for the day. Later Friday evening, the team said it received all negative results. Previously, on a weekend before the season began, 77 NFL players and personnel registered false positives due to what was described as a contamination in the lab.
The NFL also moved the New England Patriots’ game against the Denver Broncos from Sunday to Monday after three Patriots’ players, including quarterback Cam Newton and star cornerback Stephon Gilmore, tested positive for the virus in the past week. The Patriots game last weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs had already been moved from Sunday to Monday because of Newton’s positive test. New England took two planes to the game in Kansas City to separate Newton’s potential close contacts from the rest of the team, in a safety measure that demonstrated this NFL season’s shaky standing.
Additionally, because the Bills were scheduled for a marquee showdown against the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs next Thursday night, that game has been tentatively moved to the weekend of Oct. 17-18.
The schedule adjustments are contingent on the teams registering all negative tests in the coming days, an outcome that would ensure they’re finally moving past the cluster of cases that has already upended the NFL’s rigid calendar.
No additional members of the Titans registered positive results on tests returned Friday. Another day of clean tests could lead to the team reopening its facility, which has been closed by league mandate since Sept. 29 because of the franchise’s cluster of cases among players and other personnel.
The outbreak already resulted in the postponement of Tennessee’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was scheduled for last Sunday. The NFL rescheduled the Titans-Steelers game for later in the year by shuffling teams’ off weeks, but that exhausted the leeway in the schedule.
The moves will be closely scrutinized, especially because they involve some of this season’s most prominent teams. The Titans are 3-0, while the Bills and Chiefs are both 4-0. The NFL’s first outbreak happens to affect a series of games involving a group of teams competing not just for playoff spots but also the top seed in the AFC—in the first season with expanded playoffs in which only the top seed gets a bye.
Another positive test result inside the Titans could torpedo these plans. That would almost assuredly call off the Titans-Bills game for Tuesday and move Bills-Chiefs back to Thursday. It would also raise questions over whether the Titans-Bills game would be played at all or result in a cancellation—and potentially a Tennessee forfeit.
The outbreak inside the Titans has prompted an NFL investigation to understand how the virus spread inside the team despite protocols designed to prevent just that. When the NFL and its players struck an agreement to return and play amid a pandemic that has paralyzed much of the country, they agreed to policies aimed at thwarting the virus’s transmission. Those protocols included near-daily testing, high-tech contact tracing and social distancing inside facilities.
But the league is looking into whether Tennessee violated those rules, before and after the outbreak was identified. As members of the team continued to register positive results, even past the virus’s standard incubation period, the NFL grew concerned members of the team were gathering despite the order to not do so, people familiar with the matter said. Those concerns proved justified when a Nashville prep school confirmed a group of players assembled there on Sept. 30, a day after the NFL shuttered the Titans facility and ordered the team to conduct no in-person activities.
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