NFL approves a contingency plan to expand the playoffs

By Colleen Kane
Chicago Tribune

The NFL on Tuesday approved a resolution that would expand the playoffs from 14 to 16 teams should regular-season games have to be canceled because of COVID-19.

The contingency plan would go into effect only if the NFL cannot complete its full 16-game schedule in 17 or 18 weeks.

The league first would add an 18th week before moving to expanded playoffs, which would consist of four division winners and four wild-card teams in each conference. All qualifying teams would play in the first round, and the playoffs would be completed in four rounds. Traditional seeding would apply, meaning the division winners would receive the top four seeds.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the potential action on a conference call with national media after a virtual league meeting. He stressed that the league is not at the point of taking that action.

"This season our objective is for all teams to safely and responsibly complete the regular season within our 17-week schedule and have a full postseason, culminating with the Super Bowl with fans in the stands on Feb. 17 in Tampa," Goodell said. "We are committed to completing the season as scheduled. Today's resolution was part of our contingency plan should it be needed."

In March, NFL owners expanded the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams, adding an extra wild-card team in each conference.

The NFL so far has avoided adding an 18th week. Since rearranging eight games Oct. 11, it hasn't rescheduled another. But the league's COVID-19 numbers are on the rise as most of the country experiences a surge.

The NFL reported 15 players and 41 staff members tested positive the week of Nov. 1-7. NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said many of the staff members who tested positive last week were personnel who don't have daily interactions with players.

Since Aug. 1, 78 players and 140 staff members have tested positive, so last week's numbers represent 19% of player positives and 29% of staff positives.

"That's very reflective of what's going on in the country as a whole," Sills said. "We've said consistently that our players, coaches and staff are exposed to what's happening in their individual communities, so it's not a surprise for us. It's something we've been preparing for and in fact predicting."

The NFL has evolved its approach to contact tracing to place an emphasis on "high-risk close contacts," which is determined by the proximity to and time spent with an infected person, the location of that interaction and whether masks were worn. High-risk close contacts must isolate for five days, and Sills said in the last two weeks the NFL found three individuals who were high-risk close contacts who later tested positive for the virus while in quarantine.

The league is using such examples to encourage following its protocols. But the isolation policy also might result in more players missing games if teams don't follow those rules.

Sills said the NFL has found one encouraging set of data: It has not recorded any instances of on-field transmission of the virus between teams during games.

"It's premature to say it can't occur, but we're all pleased to see thus far we have not seen it occur," Sills said.

The NFL also passed a resolution to reward teams that develop minority scouting and coaching candidates. Teams that develop minority candidates who are hired as head coaches or general managers will be awarded two third-round compensatory draft picks.