Super Bowl 55 will be played this weekend, bringing the most chaotic and drama-filled NFL season to a close. This is the story of how it did it.
The NFL was distinct from the other major US sports, in that it didn’t have its season interrupted when the first wave of COVID-19 hit the country in March 2020.
This had some distinct advantages, including learning from other leagues in managing the virus protocols, but the NFL was always going to be a different beast.
Determined to take advantage of this knowledge and make sure that nothing got in the way of a successful and complete season.
The NFL is unique in a few fashions.
Be it the rapid movement of players between teams, the massive sizes of rosters (53 per team, as opposed to 15 on an NBA roster), and the fact that a hometown advantage includes the weather conditions (and previously a crowd) that don’t apply to the NBA.
Much like most sporting leagues around the world, The NFL’s quirks are central to their own sport and likely not seen anywhere else in the world.
Tom Brady, the biggest name in the history of the sport, moved to Tampa Bay during the offseason.
Without a chance to meet his teammates decided to stage an informal practice with his new teammates in a public park in Tampa Bay.
He was fined by the municipality and was slapped on the wrist by the NFL, which was about to announce its protocols.
The NFL announced its testing and tracing protocols, and the other COVID-19 related changes prior to teams reporting for training camp in late July.
And then the league held its breath.
Knowing it would have to take action at some point to keep its season going.
The most notable changes were a broad definition of close contact (anyone who spent 15 minutes or longer within six feet of a positive case), and a requirement to wear masks, essentially, at all times at the team facility.
Players and staff members were all to wear a tracking device on their wrist for contract tracing purposes and were tested daily.
During the first few days of preseason training camp, players were tested at drive through clinics and sent on their way for virtual meetings.
Only once they had cleared three negative tests were they allowed in the building. And so on the season started, the second (maybe third?) wave of COVID-19 across the country be damned.
The first major hiccup was week four.
An outbreak in the Tennessee Titans team facility with more than 10 players and multiple coaches testing positive.
The schedule-makers scrambled, as Tennessee and its opponents Pittsburgh were both granted an unplanned bye to allow the team to get the outbreak under control.
Tennessee wouldn’t play until the following Tuesday, and two teams had their bye brought forward because their opponents had played on a short week.
The rest of the NFL played on in Week 4, and again in Week 5.
Superstars of the competition Lamar Jackson, reigning MVP, Von Miller, one-time Super Bowl MVP, and Patrick Mahomes, defending champion would test positive, among others, and miss games throughout the season.
The virus and the NFL had one key thing in common, neither would be stopped, regardless of how hard everyone tried.
Nine games (out of 256) throughout the year were to be reshuffled, almost always within the same week, to the Tuesday or Wednesday after the round to ensure that the season stayed on track.
It seemed that the NFL had this all under control.
It relied on its testing and tracing protocols and the fact that more than $3b was on the line for its players, owners, and members.
It was notable that Tennessee, Kansas City, and New England had games delayed because of outbreaks, whereas Baltimore, and more notably and starkly, Denver and Cleveland were forced to play their games despite COVID-19 outbreaks within their team.
This was explained as being a result of the first-mentioned teams had followed the NFL protocols around mask-wearing and meetings, while the later teams had not.
This caused a particular stir when Denver took the field against New Orleans in Week 12, with no recognized quarterback not in isolation protocols.
It resulted in college quarterback turned wide receiver Kendall Hinton taking the field and attempting to run the offense.
Needless to say, it was pretty quickly recognized that playing without a quarterback isn’t helpful to winning games, and Denver was summarily dismissed 31-3.
Cleveland found themselves in a similar situation in Week 16 taking on the New York Jets without a wide receiver after an outbreak knocked out the entire position group. Cleveland lost to the lowly Jets but found a way into the playoffs anyway, where they were struck again with an outbreak.
This outbreak led to one of the stories of the season.
The Cleveland Browns, after breaking the longest playoff drought in the NFL found themselves with their head coach, and their longest-tenured player and a key offensive player were sidelined.
In an incredible story, Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland’s head coach ran his team during the week from his basement, knowing that NFL rules meant that he would not be able to communicate with his team during the game.
More remarkably, was the story of Blake Hance. A journeyman by every definition, and a practice squad member (not even on the roster), at the New York Jets.
Hance had been in the Jets testing protocol, which meant he could join a team without sitting out four days for testing.
He’d never taken part in an actual NFL play. On the Monday before the playoffs, he was signed to the Browns as a reserve, replacing a key player who had tested positive for COVID-19.
To prevent further spread, the Browns were fully remote for the entire week. Hance participated in meetings until Sunday, game day.
But that was ok, he was just the reserve, for the guy who was previously a reserve and had been pressed into action. Until about 10 minutes to play, when the reserve Michael Dunn was injured, in came Blake Hance.
He had literally just introduced himself to some of his teammates in the pre-game warmup and was now tasked with helping seal the game.
As Baker Mayfield, Browns captain and quarterback noted in the post-game interview, “a guy named Blake I introduced myself to in the locker room before the game stepped up in the fourth quarter” as the Browns went on to win.
Unfortunately for the Browns, they ran into Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs a week later, and there ended Blake’s fairy tale.
But Blake is emblematic of how the NFL has handled this season. A season with twists and turns, and flexibility never thought possible.
The players in the Super Bowl will have been tested twice daily for the week leading up to the game.
One of the great storylines in the game is that Tampa Bay will be the first team to ever play in a Super Bowl at home, but nobody will feel it.
With just 22,000 fans in attendance, about a third capacity, the Buccaneers will not feel the true home-field advantage.
7500 of those tickets have been given to vaccinated healthcare workers from around Tampa Bay and selected by the 32 NFL teams.
Only one thing is certain, whatever happens, with COVID-19 and the NFL, the game will go on.