NFL to stick to 18-week schedule, teams could forfeit due to COVID outbreaks in 2021

As part of the NFL’s continuing effort to convince its players to get the COVID-19 vaccine and improve team vaccination rates, the league dropped a pretty big incentive Thursday. Teams that can’t play a game within the 18-game schedule because of an outbreak within its organization will forfeit that game — a development that could cost teams home-field advantage and even a playoff spot.

And the pain will be shared. The league also plans to dock every player on both teams a week’s salary for a canceled game.

NFL sticking to an 18-week schedule in 2021

“Every club is obligated under the Constitution and Bylaws to have its team ready to play at the scheduled time and place,” the NFL wrote. “A failure to do so is deemed conduct detrimental. There is no right to postpone a game.”

The NFL made arrangements for teams that had widespread infections in 2020, most notably the Baltimore Ravens. However, that was before the vaccine was available. Now that it is, the league has adopted what appears to be nearly a zero-tolerance policy.

Roger Goodell seems determined to have the new 17-game regular season completed in 18 weeks. Moving playoff games or even the Super Bowl back a week simply is not an option.

Teams will forfeit their games for any COVID-19 outbreaks

Teams learned of the rule change in a memo first obtained by NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and later by PFN.

And that memo included some pretty dramatic directives.

Along with being credited with a loss, teams that cannot play due to a COVID-19 outbreak within its locker room or coaching staff will also be on the hook for any financial losses and could even face disciplinary action.

Imagine the double whammy — missing out on the playoffs and losing a draft pick.

Plus the league took steps to ensure a team’s draft order will not be improved by the forfeit. The games that are actually played will only count toward draft position for teams that are forced to miss a game due to outbreaks among their unvaccinated.

If a team cannot play due to widespread infections among its vaccinated, the league said it “will attempt to minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams.”

NFL team vaccination rates

The best way to finish on time, in the league’s view, is by having as many players vaccinated as possible. As of Thursday, more than three-quarters of NFL players have either been or are in the process of being vaccinated, the league announced. More than half of the league’s 32 teams have vaccination rates of 80 percent or higher.

The league’s rationale for Thursday’s explosive announcement:

“We know that vaccines are safe and effective and the best step anyone can take to be safe from the coronavirus. The vaccines continue to provide strong immunity against variants of the coronavirus, including the Delta variant. Even with recent increases, new cases remain far below the peak levels of earlier this year.

“Both the CDC and major hospital systems throughout the country have reported that 97 percent or more of the new cases and virtually all hospitalizations are seen in unvaccinated individuals. While there have been ‘breakthrough’ infections — cases where a vaccinated individual has been infected — those cases tend to be mild and people recover from the infection relatively quickly.”

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