There will be no National Football League playoff bubble. That much is clear.
Despite more Covid-19 cases among staff and players, the NFL won't forgo its remaining games, and postponements are a last option as Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay is less than one month away.
For all that occurred in 2020, the NFL has completed its regular season, and its postseason will commence this weekend. Six games are on the calendar, but there are already problems entering the playoffs, with the Cleveland Browns the latest team impacted by to Covid-19.
The recent outbreak on the Browns is forcing players and coaches, including head coach Kevin Stefanski, to be sidelined. The Browns, which will compete in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers, remains on the schedule for Sunday on NBC.
And the NFL and its players' union appears content on keeping it that way.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call on Tuesday, Browns offensive lineman JC Tretter was asked by CNBC if the game should be rescheduled due to the positive test. Tretter used the wait-and-see approach, preferring to let the league's tracing system play out.
"When we make these decisions, it's figuring out whether or not the virus is contained," said Tretter, who also serves as president of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA). "That's where we've seen issues where games were postponed and rescheduled... when the virus is not contained in the building."
The NFL confirmed 70 new cases in its most recent testing report on Tuesday, as the country continues to see an increase in Covid-19 cases that are partly blamed on gatherings during the holiday season. But the NFL is too close to its goal of completing the 2020 season on time, and postponing playoff games is almost certainly off the table at this point.
The league is rumored to have Super Bowl make-up dates later in February, but did not respond to a CNBC request to confirm the dates. In an email, an NFL spokesperson, Brian McCarthy, did say the NFL remains "focused on playing the Super Bowl as scheduled on Feb. 7 in Tampa. There's no discussion of alternate dates." He added that staffers for the Browns are working remotely as a precaution, and that the league is going through its contact tracing protocols.
The NFL also released a video on Wednesday explaining its contact tracing process. It highlighted that it isolates infected individuals and prevents them from further contact with teams for 10 days. The video says the next phase is activating its "contact-tracing squad team" using data from Kinexon devices that monitor staffers' and players' proximity to each other.
The NFL has rescheduled regular-season games due to Covid-19 outbreaks, the most notable being the Steelers-Baltimore Ravens games, which went through three postponements.
The game, initially scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, was played on a Wednesday afternoon (Dec. 2), causing hosting media partner NBC to offer to "make goods" to advertisers who didn't get targeted audiences on specific dates.
When games are postponed, networks usually offer the free ad spots on other programs to make up for the lost audience. But when that's offered, a network loses potential ad revenue.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was also on the call with media members Tuesday. He suggested nothing is off the table when it comes to rescheduling, but even he appeared in favor of games being played as long as additional outbreaks are contained.
"Given the schedule that we have right now, we may not have the same flexibility that we had in the regular season," he said. "But to me, the most important takeaway here is that we are sticking to the same protocol and the same way we are approach this, as we would any game."
Smith added that there haven't been any talks about delaying the playoff games or the Super Bowl between the league and the NFLPA.
And again, with advertisers having built-in target dates to run their promotions, networks would also prefer playoff games are played when they are scheduled to avoid further make goods. Hence, losing money on valuable NFL content they've paid billions to obtain.
"The marketers care a lot about predictability," said Kevin Krim, the founder and CEO of advertising metrics data firm EDO. "They don't want things to keep changing, and the NFL knows that. The playoffs are too valuable for this to get disrupted."
Smith also touched on the NFL's push for diversity on the call.
Several teams made changes to their staff, including the New York Jets and Los Angeles Chargers. As it stands, six NFL clubs have open positions, which the NFL has made clear it wants more minority coaches considered.
On the front office side, John Elway, the Denver Broncos' general manager, announced he would be departing the position. The Jacksonville Jaguars also have an open general manager position.
Last year, the NFL installed incentives for clubs to consider more Black candidates hoping team owners would look more at people of color for jobs with the reward talent on the field with compensatory draft picks.
Smith said the NFL asked the NFLPA to offer input on how to improve its diversity problem. He added the union would be presenting its suggestions around the Super Bowl.
"I think that there have been a whole lot of things tried by the [NFL] over several decades, which frankly have not worked," he said. "I think anything that increases transparency, increases the pipeline of qualified candidates; removes barriers to entry into elevated jobs … I think there are a range of things the league should be considering and those are going to be among some of the several recommendations that we make to the league."