Sources — Super Bowl LV could provide the NFL a pandemic scheduling solution
8:18 PM ET
  • Adam SchefterESPN Senior Writer

    • ESPN NFL Insider
    • Joined ESPN in 2009
    • Former president of the Pro Football Writers of America and the author of four books

There are not many trapdoors nor hidden tricks in the 2020 NFL schedule released Thursday night, which is in line with how the league has conducted business — much of it virtual — this offseason.

However, there are certain levers the league can pull, the most significant of which is tied to Super Bowl LV.

If the league does need scheduling help that science cannot provide for the coronavirus pandemic, and delays to the season’s start eventually become necessary, sources around the league indicated that Super Bowl LV could be pushed back by weeks or even a couple of months, potentially, while not having to make significant matchup changes to the regular-season schedule.

The option of the Super Bowl being moved back provides the NFL with the flexibility it needs, though it is not in the league’s plans today, and it prefers not to have any discussion about it.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell warned teams on Wednesday in a memo sent to team presidents and executives that he doesn’t want anyone engaging in any hypotheticals about the coming season, and as of now, the games will go on as scheduled, which includes Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida, on Sunday, Feb. 7.

But during a pandemic, there must be hypotheticals that bring flexibility.

Consider this option: Say the start of the season had to be pushed back four weeks — again, not the league’s plan and not what it wants, but a hypothetical — then the NFL simply could push the Super Bowl back four weeks. It then could take regular-season Weeks 1 through 4 and turn them into, essentially, regular-season Weeks 18, 19, 20 and 21.

If the start of the season were pushed back two months, then the first half of the schedule simply could be moved to the back half of the schedule — assuming the Super Bowl could be pushed back for the corresponding period.

It’s not unlike what the league did with a similar but shorter model that unfolded during the 2001 season because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue postponed the regular season by one week, moving those regular-season games to the back half of the schedule and eliminating the bye week between conference championship games and the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl wasn’t moved off its scheduled date, but the league was able to quickly amend a set schedule

As of now, there are no plans to push back Super Bowl LV, and it has not been an active discussion, even if it could become that in the weeks to come.

“We’re totally focused on Feb. 7 with the regular season kicking off as scheduled,” Rob Higgins, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee, said Thursday. “If adjustments needed to take place, we would be prepared to do that. But we haven’t been instructed to do that whatsoever.”

The league already has certain cushions built into the schedule. The Pro Bowl could be dropped, buying an extra week for the NFL. Every team shares the same bye week as its Week 2 opponent, according to team sources who reviewed the 2020 schedule on Thursday. This approach was the formula the league successfully deployed during the lockout season of 2011, giving the league further flexibility on an additional week.

But make no mistake about this current schedule: The weekly matchups are set. The reality, however, is that any one of them could serve as the league’s opening week, even though the league plans to plant a flag on Thursday night, Sept. 10, with the regular-season opener in Kansas City, Missouri, between the Houston Texans and defending champion Chiefs. But if the season were hypothetically pushed back four weeks, then Week 5 could serve as the NFL’s opening week, with the first four weeks being tacked on to the back end of the schedule, giving the league the 16-game regular season it desires.

A potential delay could be longer, but the concept is the same: The Super Bowl could very well provide the flexibility the NFL needs. And if a 16-game season cannot be realized, the NFL might look at a 14-game season, in which the first two weeks of the regular season would become the final two weeks of the regular season and Weeks 3 and 4 would be dropped. There are no divisional games scheduled in Weeks 3 or 4, which happened in Weeks 2 and 4 of the 2011 lockout season and is another built-in clue that the league is prepared if it has to delay the season.

So there are plenty of potential options for the league to explore when it feels it needs to, even if it insists it is not doing that now.

As for the preseason, the NFL is preparing to shorten it to three games as early as next season, when the regular season grows to 17 games. If a shortened preseason kicks off this summer instead, as many now expect, it hardly would be a significant loss.

But for now, the focus is on a 16-game regular season and the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 in Tampa.

So even during a national pandemic, the NFL is treating the 2020 schedule just as it treated the start of free agency in March, the offseason program and the NFL draft it managed to successfully execute in April: business as usual, making adjustments to plans only if and when necessary.

“The release of the NFL schedule is something our fans eagerly anticipate every year, as they look forward with hope and optimism to the season ahead,” Goodell said in a statement Thursday night. “In preparing to play the season as scheduled, we will continue to make our decisions based on the latest medical and public health advice, in compliance with government regulations, and with appropriate safety protocols to protect the health of our fans, players, club and league personnel, and our communities.

“We will be prepared to make adjustments as necessary, as we have during this offseason in safely and efficiently conducting key activities such as free agency, the virtual offseason program, and the 2020 NFL draft.”

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