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Will coronavirus affect the quality of NFL football this fall?

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Embroiled in coronavirus drama and stuck with limited practice time, can the NFL manage to field an entertaining product come September?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With the NFL and NFLPA agreeing on a plan for the upcoming NFL season, the chances of Week 1 starting on time remains a high possibility. With training camp set to start on time and the preseason cancelled for safety reasons, teams should have enough time to form and acclimate a game-ready roster by their inaugural game.

While the NFL will probably do everything in it’s power to start the season on time, a rushed approach, along with cancelled exhibition games and socially distant practices, could hurt the quality of play for the first few weeks of the season. If the season begins in early September like it is currently scheduled to, will there be more miscues than usual in the opening games?

The most obvious factor in this year’s strange offseason is the lack of a preseason. The NFLPA pushed for the league to to cancel the entire slate of exhibition games which was granted to them in the following negotiations. No preseason lessens the contact between teams, and ultimately it was decided that games which didn’t count on the record weren’t worth the heightened risk of coronavirus exposure.

The biggest story line following the cancellation of the preseason was that fringe roster players would have less of a chance making the final roster than before. There are always a few Cinderella stories that pop up around that time of year, but without a preseason, players with a long-shot chance at the final 53 might not have the opportunity to make it. Even the lucky few that defy the odds and make the roster don’t usually end up starting, though, especially at the beginning of the season. That’s not to downplay the career-ruining change this could be for some players, but rather to point out that it’s not relevant to the NFL’s Week 1 product.

The preseason isn’t for bottom-of-the-roster types only, as it’s often used as a warmup for starters. A lot of teams don’t risk playing their starters a lot in the preseason, however, with most settling for only a couple of drives with them due to injury concerns. Most veterans won’t be affected much by no preseason, and a few may actually be helped, as not having to prepare for preseason games in practice might allow for them to get more attention and reps and not worry as much about newcomers breathing down their necks.

Early season rust will still be a problem, but maybe not as big of an issue as it’s been made out to be.

Rookies will be hurt by this, though. Preseason games give them an early look at the NFL, and give them some practice runs in game-day scenarios before they are put on the field in meaningful situations. Without a preseason, every rookie in a starting role will have their first taste of NFL action in Week 1, rather than easing into it. It will be a rude awakening for teams with rookie-heavy lineups. For franchises like the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins, having rookie starting quarterbacks could lead to a tough start to their seasons.

For Pittsburgh, this doesn’t mean as much. The team doesn’t have many rookies who are expected to see much playing time right away. However, no preseason could hurt free agent additions as they attempt to gel with their new teams. Players like Eric Ebron and Derek Watt have NFL experience, but still won’t be as adjusted to the Steelers way as their teammates.

As BTSC editor Dave Schofield pointed out in his “3 pros and cons of a reduced preseason for the Steelers” article a few days ago, the preseason isn’t just a test run for the players. NFL officiating crews also iron out the kinks in the preseason, and without one, the calls in the NFL’s first few weeks of action could be more painful than usual. Much like everyone else, new officiating crews will be thrown into the fire Week 1, which could have some disastrous results.

The preseason is the main talking point when it comes to the NFL’s tumultuous offseason, but thankfully not having one isn’t exactly the end of the world. No preseason could prevent a coronavirus scare or two, which could otherwise derail an NFL team and have a domino effect into the regular season. From a Steelers angle, Pittsburgh fields a squad quite similar to last year’s, and continuity will be a big advantage in 2020.

Training camps, on the other hand, weren’t affected as much as the preseason, but still will be different than usual due to the virus. Safety precautions will have an impact on practices, even though it’s hard to tell how much this early on.

Besides, months of lockdown have left players with a lot of time to themselves before camp starts, and while we’ve seen a lot of workout videos from stars across the league, not every player will be in as good of shape as they would have been had in-person OTA’s happened, or even if their favorite gym was still open. The Steelers’ own Zach Banner took to Twitter earlier this month to call out some veterans for not working out who “don’t want to be exposed”. Even if every player does show up to camp in the best shape of their life, there will be an acclimation period as teams start up practices, which will be necessary but will also take up a few valuable weeks of practice time.

Even if the two problems listed above end up running smoothly, the threat of a coronavirus outbreak among a team remains a massive possibility. It’s inevitable there will be multiple positive tests throughout the year. This would then result in the quarantine of the positive player, as well as those he was in direct contact with depending on the strictness of the NFL’s virus policies. This will lead to players missing multi-week chunks of practice time, and could possibly sideline entire teams.

Obstacles in already-shortened practice time could lead to teams fielding under-prepared rosters (by NFL standards, that is) throughout the season. Obviously, it will be at it’s worst when the season starts, but it’s not like coronavirus will retire after Week 1.

Long story short, there’s an insanely large list of things that can go wrong throughout this NFL season, and the league’s ‘on-time but still safety-conscious’ approach could lead to underwhelming football this season. This isn’t to say player safety or starting on time are bad ideas, but in the case of coronavirus the two don’t work together especially well.

The league itself has certainly had conversations regarding the quality of the product they will be putting on the field come the regular season, especially in regards to coronavirus. The NFL’s TV ratings should be sky-high no matter what though, with fans stuck at home with little live content to watch. Still, it’s a conversation worth having, as no one wants to watch bad football this fall.

Actually, I take that back.

Just having Steelers football this fall should be enough for me.