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Joe Starkey: NFL must consider a COVID-19 buffer week — and forfeits
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Joe Starkey: NFL must consider a COVID-19 buffer week — and forfeits

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Titans have NFL's 1st COVID-19 outbreak; next game still on

FILE - In this Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, Tennessee Titans outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen instructs his players during NFL football training camp in Nashville, Tenn.

I hope this goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: The priority here is neither the Steelers' record nor your fantasy team's Week 4 lineup, but rather the health of afflicted members of the Tennessee Titans organization.

It doesn't feel right to start anywhere else.

Meanwhile, the NFL has a business to run. So do the Steelers - and another team's COVID-19 outbreak does not need to unnecessarily sabotage their season.

It might, though. The NFL would appear to have limited options in making up Sunday's postponement:

- It could move the Steelers' Week 7 game at Baltimore to Week 8, when both teams have a scheduled bye, and send the Steelers to Tennessee in Week 7, when the Titans were supposed to be off.

- It could move the playoffs back a week and create a buffer week for makeup games. This should be feasible because there is currently a two-week break between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. The league could simply cut that to one week.

The first solution, while convenient, would hammer the Steelers. What once loomed as an oasis bye week in early November - situated after a visit to Baltimore and before a trip to Dallas - would now become an actual game against the Ravens that would follow a makeup game against the Titans.

So instead of a perfectly timed rest after the trip to Baltimore, the Steelers would have to play two of the NFL's most physical teams in consecutive weeks - and then the Cowboys - as part of a season-concluding stretch of 13 weeks without a bye.

That would make their season exponentially more challenging.

"We do not care," Mike Tomlin said Thursday, but what else was he going to say? Art Rooney II should absolutely be in contact with the league about alternatives.

The second scenario makes more sense on two levels. One, this probably won't be the only outbreak within a team. Two, the next one might not lend itself so easily to a bye-week switcheroo.

The NFL should announce "Week 18" as a makeup week and make it clear that if a team experiences multiple outbreaks that lead to multiple cancellations, it will have to start forfeiting games. That isn't fair, either, because an outbreak might not be due to malfeasance, but what are the choices?

This isn't baseball. The NFL can't do seven-inning doubleheaders. There are only so many weeks to work with.

So far, the league is doing the right thing. The Titans' outbreak was headed in the wrong direction as of Thursday - another player and staff member tested positive, bringing the total to 11 since Saturday - which meant the NFL was also protecting the Steelers when it postponed the game.

The league had been moving through COVID like a locomotive for months. Completely undeterred. Now, suddenly, the situation has changed. And while the Titans' predicament hardly represents a derailment, some serious reflection is in order.

It is largely up to the players, coaches and league personnel how things go from here. Strict adherence to protocol will be the order of the day.

It's not unlike what happened early in the baseball season, when a couple of outbreaks put the season in peril but ultimately served as a wakeup call.

"Things looked pretty good in summer camp, and then it looked like a season on the brink, but that was everybody's come-to-Jesus moment," epidemiologist Zachary Binney was telling me Thursday. "They tightened up the protocols, people followed the protocols, and everybody was fine from there on out. Here (in the NFL), everything was fine, then you get a hiccup. What happens after the hiccup is the key. We'll see. It will take everybody being really careful and vigilant through the season."

Even that might not be enough, but this is no time to panic. Binney, an assistant professor at Oxford College of Emory University, points out that the NFL never counted on zero cases. When you're not in a bubble like the NBA and NHL, you're going to get cases. The key is stopping a spread once a case is identified.

"The NFL will push forward, and I don't think that's insane," Binney says. "If you see multiple outbreaks, like in baseball, then you start getting worried. It's one isolated incident. The question will really be, what led to this and can it be fixed or can it be repeated? We don't have answers yet."

One answer, for now, is to set aside a week for make-up games instead of lowering the boom on one or more innocent teams.

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