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Coller: Vikings in the middle of NFL's first major COVID challenge

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
Rick Spielman

Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

The NFL has its first major COVID challenge on its hands.

With numerous Tennessee Titans testing positive for COVID this week, including one player that was on the field Sunday against the Vikings for 51 snaps, the Vikings are holding their breath that they do not see an outbreak. While testing from Monday and Tuesday came back without a positive case, it can take anywhere from several days to two weeks for a positive result to show up if someone has contracted the virus, according to trainer Eric Sugarman.

The league announced Thursday that they will be postponing the Titans-Steelers. The Titans’ building is shut down until Saturday while the Vikings plan to open things back up for practice on Thursday.

But what if more positive tests show up in Minnesota? What if the Vikings arrive in Houston and then learn that a position group has been decimated by COVID or if both quarterbacks register positive tests? What if this is just the beginning of COVID outbreaks around the NFL and not simply a blip on the radar?

Would the NFL be OK with some teams having 14 or 15 games and others having 16 or would they force teams to skip bye weeks?

The Vikings are already in a difficult position having to travel to Houston, play a game in a stadium expected to have fans inside and now change their practice schedule for the week.

“It's what we're dealing with, you don't have a choice, but I also know there's no excuses,” Spielman said. “The players know what we have to do to get ready, the coaches know what we have to do to get ready, and we'll get prepared and go down there and play the game and do the best we can, but it's the situation. There are things you can't control during the season, but it's also the responsibility of us to get our team ready, and Coach Zim's going to have this team ready to play on Sunday. I have no doubt about that.”

Yes, there’s no excuses in football. But circumstances affect things in football. This set of circumstances could affect the Vikings in significant and/or subtle ways.

The Vikings are in a position to either get themselves back in the race with a win or at very least evaluate a bunch of players for the future as the season unfolds. Playing at an empty US Bank Stadium without the benefit of a full offseason or preseason has already proven challenging enough for a team stocked with young talent. With no noise last Sunday, the Titans didn’t have that shaken look that we’re used to when they were trailing late in the game. Tennessee also took advantage of miscommunications on multiple plays that are atypical of Mike Zimmer defenses. Missing a midweek practice -- maybe more if positive tests crop up -- just adds to the hurdles.

Sugarman couldn’t say exactly how many positive tests it would take to keep the facility closed for another day.

Everyone in the NFL is, of course, dealing with some type of COVID challenge. The Vikings, however, could be in a tough spot when answering questions about how this season went compared to expectations. Do we toss out many of the results because they were under such a bizarre situation or would we still look at an 0-4 start as a significant failure? Is the answer somewhere in between?

The Vikings have a decision to make on the third day of the 2021 league year on quarterback Kirk Cousins. If there are stops and starts and players missing games due to COVID, would the team take a down season from him with a grain of salt? The same applies for Mike Zimmer and Spielman. Will they face pressure in 2021 if they miss the postseason this year or will everyone throw up their hands and call it a lost year?

Everyone is hoping that we don’t have to find out. And the Vikings are taking extreme measures to protect against that situation. Sugarman said the team is implementing even more strict guidelines for players and personnel this week.

“Enhanced protocols, enhanced health screenings, enhanced temperature checks and certainly enhanced PPE with masks at all times as well as social distancing at all times,” he said.

This week’s events have shown us that the NFL is not immune to being impacted by COVID and it has been walking a tightrope by trying to create individual team bubbles. The league has taken extreme measures, right down to having players wear contact tracing devices even when they’re on the field. But COVID has proven that only a true bubble like the WNBA, NBA or NHL can completely keep the virus out.

With full understanding that there’s far more important COVID-related things in the world, the other question the NFL is hoping not to answer is: If the next few months see teams playing short handed or moving games around because of COVID, what is the threshold for this season being considered fair?

Major League Baseball was able to make up lost ground for teams that battled COVID outbreaks but the NFL has little wiggle room to work with, especially with the playoffs set to be expanded this year. Would they go by winning percentage if a team only played, say, 14 games? If that team had less mileage on many of their players and won the Super Bowl (in a bubble where home field advantage was washed away) would that be the same as other teams that played 16 games?

For the first few weeks of the season, we lived in COVID-less NFL bliss. That ended this week. Now we are forced to revisit the worst case scenarios that we put in the back of our minds as soon as the first football was kicked off. All the NFL can hope is that the Titans/Vikings situation is the outlier and that we never have to ask these questions. 

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