What happens when games are canceled?

Tennessee’s virus outbreak is no surprise. It was inevitable that teams would have problems as the NFL pressed to play. It’s why we thought the NFL should sit out 2020.

But, the season has started, made it to the quarter pole with only one game (TEN-PIT) pushed to another week, and now the league has to figure out how to finish. While Tennessee faces TBD consequences for breaking league COVID rules, along with an uncertain playing future this week and beyond, the schedule is starting to become a topic that needs to be addressed (it should have been before the season started, but the reactive NFL doesn’t work like that).

Due to issues in Tennessee and New England, those teams’ games tentatively have been bumped to early next week – with next Thursday’s game also possibly affected.

This is just the first major issue of what always figured to be a significant concern. And the question is now at hand: What happens if teams end up playing different numbers of games due to the inevitable cancellations?

One option on the table, as we expected it might be, is to qualify teams for the playoffs based on win percentage.

Seems like a fair idea, on the surface. But there are some issues. For one, there’s no way you can let, say, an 8-3 team ace out a 10-6 club. Or a 9-2 franchise knock out an 11-5 crew.

The fair way to do it would be to require a minimum number of games be played – say 80% of the maximum played by any team. So, if most teams played all 16, no team that played under 13 would be eligible for the playoffs. Of course, there would need to be an exception: Games canceled due to opponent COVID outbreaks could not count against teams who had no fault in the cancellations.

So, in the above example, if the 9-2 club had three games canceled due to other teams’ COVID outbreaks, that 9-2 franchise still would be considered to have played 14 games (87.5% of the games) and thus qualify for playoff consideration at the .818 win percentage. If that 9-2 club was at fault for four missed games, though, it would count as having played just 12 games and not qualify under the 80% rule.

Also, real wins would trump forfeit wins, in the case of identical win percentages. So, if two teams were 9-2 but one team had gotten two victories via forfeits (i.e., other teams not following COVID rules), the team that had actually earned nine wins would win the tiebreaker.

As for forfeits, which are now in the NFL rules for breaking COVID guidelines: If a team faces more than one forfeit due to not following protocols, its season should be canceled and it should forfeit the rest of its games. Basically, two strikes and you’re out.

The Titans seem poised to take the first forfeit of the season, based on multiple violations of COVID rules. We’ll see whether other teams learn from that and avoid breaking the rules and facing penalties.

But, even without the blatant violations, there will continue to be positive tests – as the Patriots and Chiefs have experienced – and games will be canceled along the way. It is inevitable. That’s why the league needs to quickly decide how to deal with an uneven number of games.

Another option being bandied about is tacking on missed games to the end of the season, thus allowing byes for more than one playoff team (as the new seven-team playoff structure now has it). But that would work only if each team has no more than one or two missed games – and none of their cancellations double up with other teams’ opponents. That could get real messy.

If the win-percentage plan is used, it should include the qualifiers we mentioned here. If it is not used, the playoffs will end up being a battle of attrition – whichever teams were able to play the most games will have the best chance of making it. Maybe that is as fair as it gets in this unfair COVID year.

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