Wednesday afternoon football came and went. It happened. And it may happen again.
My biggest takeaway from this quirky Ravens-Steelers game was that I remain stunned that we haven't had multiple games like this being played mid-week, almost every week. I remain shocked that this has not become a more regular part of the football viewing experience.
Consider what is going on with college football, the constant hiccups with trying to schedule college basketball and how ever-changing the games have been in those sports. Consider everything going on in communities around this country trying to get a handle on COVID-19. Consider the time of year that we are in, with people stuck indoors and the holiday season upon us, and who knows -- we may well look back on this Wednesday experiment, with a single game in this unique window, as something close to normal.
No one knows what is ahead, and 2020 has continued to provide us with days and weeks the likes of which none of us could have truly imagined before. This might end up being as good as it will get. By January, things could be markedly worse in the NFL and in this country, and this game was another indication, frankly, of the league's desire to get these 256 regular-season games (or as many of them as possible that matter) played ASAP.
The idea of a pause, which was making the rounds in the rumor mill recently, just doesn't jibe with the prevailing spirit I detect from the league office, and with what Roger Roger Goodell was saying and intimating on a conference call with the media Wednesday afternoon and in his remarks on NBC during halftime.
It is all about whittling down 32 teams to one final champion in as close to normal fashion as possible, no matter how much stress it may put on any particular game in any particular week, be it 1 through 17. That 18th week is going to be the start of the playoffs, I am thoroughly convinced. Trust me, there was never anything close to serious consideration of one of the game's best rivalries -- Baltimore at Pittsburgh -- going to that week; if a game of that magnitude was played on a Wednesday while a lot of Americans were in the car-pool line (where school is actually in session), then you'd best believe any other game could be as well if need be.
I'm old enough to remember two months ago when the Titans outbreak was raging and there was no way that building was going to open until there were two days of no positive results. And even with more intense protocols in place now, that was not the case with this game. The league would point to all it has learned and gained from contact tracing and ramping up its data and processes and the impact of genome tracing ... and so far they have been right. Stunningly so.
There has yet to be evidence of transmission from team to team in-game -- as much as many of us thought that might be a recipe for disaster -- and the NFL playing this game when they did is another indication of how strongly it believes that will continue to be the case. Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez was ruled out of the MLB season soon after that league's delayed start due to a COVID-related condition called myocarditis, and the NFL was able to avoid a similar situation for months before Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney received the same diagnosis in late November, coach Sean McDermott confirmed to the media.
That's not to say there couldn't be more similar cases coming, or that there won't be. But if they are playing these games, and the biggest attention so far has been around the lack of sufficient practice time before the Titans or Ravens have played after outbreaks, I dare say this has gone better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
This is, after all, a capitalist entertainment business, and they negotiated new, overarching regulations before the season with the NFLPA just for instances like this Ravens situation. And as much as we may obsess about the particulars of a certain game's kickoff through the course of the week, the larger reality is that the season has not been compromised to any significant extent. At least not yet.
Just the opposite. Again, that could change any given week. But through three months this seems close to a miracle to me. This was the biggest oddity (or maybe Denver having to play without a QB), but that, in the grand scheme of all things 2020, is not all that odd at all. Think back to all the talk about moving this game back a month, or calling for forfeits, or complaining that it was a football atrocity the likes of which we have never seen and that no one would be compelled to watch.
It was actually pretty damn decent, all things considered. The parts that were the ugliest were born of some of the obvious roster limitations to the Ravens' offense, but it still came down to the final minutes and featured the quirks and unpredictability that have been hallmarks of this rivalry. It wasn't a freak show at all in the end, and it fits in its own strange way into the fabric of the history these two teams are writing along with Charlie Batch winning a big game, and Ryan Mallett and Dennis Dixon nearly doing the same, all against the odds.
We can debate the morality of playing any of these professional sports given the times we are living in, that I would never deny. Yet all of them have been played, are being played or are about to be played again. And, let's be real, if the NCAA and "amateur sports" are finding a way to keep their thing afloat and the cash coming in despite no collective bargaining agreements and with some schools not even fully in session and despite the even greater moral questions about operating college football and basketball, then you would have to be utterly naïve to think that a scenario existed whereby NFL games were not being played.
For over a week, every shifting detail of this Ravens-Steelers game was the stuff of breaking news updates, bulletins and full scale alerts. Each potential twist and turn was the focus of the sports media at any given moment (though it was always going to be played as long as contract tracing indicated that ability; it was always just a matter of when).
In the end, it was pushed back all of six days and ended up looking like a normal football game. For all of their disadvantages, the Ravens came this close to beating the lone undefeated team (and the Titans managed to crush the now 8-3 Bills after having to return from their lengthy outbreak-hiatus and play under less-than-ideal circumstances earlier this season).
When viewed against the backdrop of the entire NBA moving to Orlando in the summer or baseball nearly not starting at all and playing just 60 games, or the Miami Marlins putting a busload of COVID-positive players on two-day bus trip from Philly to Florida, or the St. Louis Cardinals not playing for like half a month and then playing a ton of doubleheaders, was this past week in the NFL all that bizarre?
Given all of what we have seen go on in pro and college sports, to think that the biggest sport in all the land, with the most to lose in having to refund television contracts, would not be playing as well seems like a nonstarter. That's now how this works. That's why months were spent negotiating with the NFLPA about what this season would look like.
That is not to say that it is fair; what's really fair in 2020? Every industry has been impacted by COVID, lifestyles have been altered and the way children are being educated has taken a turn none of us could have predicted. Is it great that the Broncos played with a practice squad receiver at QB, the Steelers had their bye week jerked around and the Ravens didn't have anything close to the normal practice, conditioning and prep time to play this vital game?
No, it's not. I get Robert Griffin III airing his concerns about the kind of muscle injuries that can come from playing a sport like this under less than ideal practice conditions. That frustration is understood. Maybe that lack of practice had something to do with his hamstring injury and maybe it did not -- we'll never know, as injuries have long been an issue for him. But he has a union that agreed to these rules and obligations, and the players passed that through their vote.
Given what so many in this country are experiencing -- health-care workers on the front lines in hospitals, school kids who haven't been able to meet their teachers in person yet this year, small businesses fighting daily for survival -- it seems to me that in 2020 terms the degrees to which one is inconvenienced and aggrieved must be recalibrated like never before. As this is a year like none before.
What we have seen so far is that the NFL and NFLPA will be playing these games, no matter the viewing window, as long as their doctors maintain will not risk causing or furthering an outbreak within a team or between teams. The show must go on, and it has gone on, by and large, without much derailing. That buys them nothing come tomorrow, but I cannot understate how remarkable it seems to me that we've reach this point at all.