With the COVID pandemic picking up steam in certain areas of the country recently, the NFL announced yesterday that it was preemptively shortening the preseason from four games (or five for some teams) to two. It was the first sign of retreat this offseason from the NFL, which has steadfastly maintained its belief that the regular season will kick off on time despite the uncertainty surrounding this virus.
That very well may still happen. There's even talk of how the NFL will have some fans in the stands for the regular season. However, longtime ESPN personality and NFL buff Trey Wingo believes there will be no preseason games this year as the NFL focuses instead on ensuring the Chiefs-Texans season kickoff goes off without a hitch on September 10 at 8:20 p.m. Having no preseason would be a major issue for the NFL (more on that in a minute), but this is what Wingo said.
The NFL will certainly prioritize the regular season over the preseason. But preseason will be critical for a number of reasons, chief among them (from a health standpoint) providing a litmus test for how widely coronavirus will spread (hopefully not much) once players from different teams start smashing into each other.
It's one thing to isolate as a team and have your teammate's blood, sweat and spit get on you, which is just a byproduct of playing a sport this physical. It's another to expose yourself to a totally new set of players and then a new set the week after that, so on and so forth.
As Wingo mentioned, preseason is critical in terms of shaking the dust off and getting yourself in game shape, which is even more critical now with summer practices featuring less and less physical contact. But it will be even more crucial this year as the players, teams and league evaluate if/how the disease spreads from one team to another when the games start.
It's not the worst-case scenario, but a pretty-bad-case scenario is if the NFL starts the season and then has to cancel it because two teams spread the disease to each other and don't have enough time to put a new team together while their first-team players isolate. Perhaps they would postpone in that case, but regardless, seeing how things unfold in preseason would give the NFL a little more of a buffer. It's probably why they canceled Week 4 of the preseason and not Week 2 or 3.
Of course, all of this is hyperbole right now because we don't know where we'll be as a country in August and September. Who knows, there could be a cure or vaccine by then (fingers crossed). If not, the NFL will need some form of preseason games to see what happens when two teams that have been isolating interact on the field. Otherwise, the regular season will be even more at risk.