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League holds firm on opening 2020 season in September

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NFL officials say the season will start as scheduled — likely including a Chiefs home game on September 10. But in the face of the pandemic, what could change?

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-San Francisco 49ers vs Kansas City Chiefs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After a conference call among league officials on Tuesday, the NFL said it still intends to open the 2020 regular season on time in September — and play a full 16-game schedule — despite the COVID-19 pandemic. If things go as we have previously expected, the Kansas City Chiefs will open their title defense at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday, September 10.

On Tuesday, NFL.com’s Judy Battista reported that the league is monitoring the developing situation closely.

Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president, general counsel, said the league’s medical executives, who are consulting with the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network, have been shown models of the course of the pandemic in other countries and how different interventions have been effective. The NFL has the luxury of time to alter the season if projections change. But the message from the NFL was clear Tuesday: The information the league has right now has led it to focus on planning to start the season as scheduled. The schedule of games will likely be released on or around May 9.

We had previously expected the NFL schedule to be released sometime in mid-April.

The next question is whether the league will consider adjusting the schedule in order to give them more flexibility in the event circumstances do not allow the season to start on time. Simply postponing the beginning of the season is not likely to be a viable option; as it is, the league’s schedule is too dependent on factors beyond its control.

One option would be to schedule each team’s non-conference opponents in the first part of the season, so that the more critical matchups between conference and divisional opponents are concentrated in the later part of the season. Then if the league is forced to cancel a few weeks of the season, it will have the smallest effect on postseason tiebreakers.

Setting up the schedule this way wouldn’t be easy to do. The normal parameters the league must satisfy on order to construct the schedule are already so complex that it requires the assistance of supercomputers, so adding another large requirement would make it even more difficult. But such a schedule would give the NFL some room to maneuver during what could conceivably be a very uncertain time.

And who knows? If such a schedule is played from beginning to end, we might learn it is a better way to do it. Most teams end up with early-season losses that loom large as the postseason approaches. Even without the threat of a pandemic, it might be better for games in the early part of the season to be less significant than those at the end.

It may be that this is one of the options the league will be considering — and might be part of the reason the schedule release is being moved back.