NFL owners began planning for the possibility that their 2020 regular season will be cut short by COVID-19 cancellations, one of several developments from a two-hour video meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Speaking later on a conference call, commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated that the league is "committed" to completing its full regular season in its scheduled 17-week interval. But after the league's most recent COVID-19 testing report indicated a sharp rise in confirmed cases, Goodell acknowledged the importance of determining an alternative should the season end with not all teams having played 16 games.
If that happens, the league will expand its postseason from 14 to 16 teams, split equally between the AFC and NFC. It was not immediately clear how many games would need to be canceled for the 16-team bracket to be enacted.
"Today's resolution is part of our contingency planning should it be needed," Goodell said.
Tuesday's news coincided with the release of a COVID-19 testing report that reflected the growing case counts around the country. A total of 56 employees, including 15 players and 41 staff members, returned confirmed positive tests between Nov. 1-7. That's more than twice the total of any other period (26, from Sept. 27-Oct. 3), the period that accounts for most of the Tennessee Titans outbreak that forced multiple changes to the league's early-season schedule.
Since then, the NFL has managed to play its games on schedule after deciding to isolate any high-risk close contacts for five days. But league officials are making contingency plans for future game cancellations, including the possibility of a 16-team playoff field.
After deciding last summer against operating in a bubble environment, the NFL has been focused on preventing the spread of inevitable infections. Its chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said Tuesday that the job is "harder" amid rising community spread, but he did point out that a portion of the 41 staff members are team front-office employees who do not have contact with players or coaches.
Nationwide, more than 100,000 COVID-19 infections have been reported for seven consecutive days.
Meanwhile, owners finalized a 10-month discussion aimed at boosting the likelihood that teams will seek out, consider and hire minority coaching and executive candidates. They approved a resolution to reward teams with draft picks if one of their minority coaches or personnel people is hired to be a head coach or general manager.
In the spring, they briefly considered a plan that would reward teams that made the hires. Ultimately, they decided to incentivize an expansion of the candidate pool. Moving forward, teams will receive two third-round compensatory draft picks if someone from their organization is hired or promoted to a head-coaching or general manager job.
Entering the 2020 season, the NFL had four minority head coaches and two minority general managers.
"That just complements part of the overall collection of the things that we're doing," NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said, "to try to increase mobility among in particular Black coaches and females as well in the coach and the GM front. I'm looking forward to seeing what the offseason has to bring in the hiring cycle."