In a perfect sports world, everyone starts their seasons on time, college football in earnest the first week of September and the NFL the second week, but we are living in an imperfect sports world with unanswerable questions and contingency plans abound.
A late start to the college football season is feeling more and more likely with each passing day. More specifically, with Dr. Anthony Fauci voicing concerns last week of an “inevitable” second wave of coronavirus this fall.
If the college football season gets shifted, say from January to May or February to June, what happens to the 2021 NFL draft, which is slated to take place from April 29 to May 1 in Cleveland? Furthermore, if college football goes late, what happens to the NFL calendar as a result?
In the world of football, everything is connected.
“It’s hard to see anything happening with campuses closed,” Ric Serritella, creator and publisher of NFLDraftBible.com and an advance scout for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We don’t know yet how this plays out, but if we’re going to assume campuses don’t open before the New Year, how do you play? You don’t. I think a February-through-June model works, but in my opinion, it throws off not just this season, but next season, too.
“It has to be an equal playing course, and starting this thing back up in the fall, if there’s a second wave of this? And all of a sudden, there’s a death?”
If college football is played this winter, the NFL must decide how badly it wants a full draft process.
If the league wants all elements of the NFL draft, it would require a considerable shift in the schedule. There are postseason all-star games to be played, of which the NFL is directly involved with two, the East-West Shrine Bowl and the Senior Bowl. These are traditionally played on consecutive weekends in January. The NFL Scouting Combine would have to take place, followed by pro days and individual visits.
At this point, the 2021 NFL draft, with a full pre-draft process having taken place, could not proceed until the fall, which would radically affect the NFL’s ability to have an on-time start to its season.
For what it’s worth, this year all of the college all-star games took place and the NFL was able to get the Combine in before COVID-19 cancelled the global sports world in mid-March. A handful of in-person visits took place, but the majority of college pro days were scrapped, as were the NFL’s plans to hold the draft in Las Vegas, the new home of the Raiders.
“The smart thing is, if I was the NFL, let’s kick off Thanksgiving week this year, maybe next year, and adapt accordingly,” said Serritella, working under the assumption that an on-time start to the 2020 NFL season will not be feasible. “Yes, alterations would have to be made. The 2021 draft is in Cleveland. Millions of dollars go into that planning and all this money is invested, but at some point, they can put off the planning. The NFL didn’t lose any money this year, Las Vegas did.”
To Serritella’s point, a “new normal” is coming to sports in the United States. Major League Baseball is reportedly sifting through an abundance of contingency plans in an effort to get at least 80 games in this season. The NBA, while trying to salvage the rest of this season, not to mention a full pre-draft process, has discussed delaying the start of the 2020-21 season to December.
The pandemic hit at a time when the NFL did not have to worry about making sweeping changes to how it does business. It was in the middle of the offseason. The NFL moved forward with its draft as scheduled, even if it was conducted virtually, which is how teams’ offseason programs will begin. The league is expected to release its preseason and regular-season schedules later this week without any COVID-19-related alterations.
That is all well and good, but as college football prepares to make some decisions on the 2020 season within the next six weeks, the NFL is going to have to do the same.
“Alter the schedule for the next two years, push back the start,” Serritella said. “Players finish a college season in, let’s say June, but training camps are in August? Can’t do it. Push back training camp, push back everything two months, have the Super Bowl in April, continue to have the draft later.
“For the next two seasons, push it back. In three years, start closer to on time. Not completely on time, maybe the third week of September, bump it back by one week gradually. Maybe there’s a permanent change where they push back the Super Bowl? That may open up hosting opportunities for more cities, maybe other cities get in the mix for hosting the Super Bowl.”
Moving the Super Bowl back would not be unprecedented. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the NFL schedule was backed up one week, moving Super Bowl XXXVI from Jan. 27, 2002 to Feb. 3. Starting in 2004, the NFL started its season the weekend after Labor Day, locking the Super Bowl in for the first Sunday in February.