The 2020 NFL schedule is designed for change — and shows where we are in the return of sports

You could start writing a dissertation on the NFL’s role in American society and grow old and wrinkly by the time you got close to completion, such are the myriad ways in which it permeates our lives.

Currently, however, the NFL is about to become a barometer reflecting the state of these uncertain times and our ability to either surge or creep back out from them.

Not to overstate the importance of sports amid this unique era that demands perspective more than ever, but what professional football resembles in September will give you a good idea of how America is faring and how much control is being wrested from the grip of the novel coronavirus.

If the league is back in full flow, with fans in some or all stadiums, then life will truly have returned to something close to normal, and the effects of the pandemic will have been assuaged more speedily than is currently suspected.

If there are games taking place under extreme measures of player safety caution, with no fans and only limited personnel permitted inside the stadiums, then that’s how the country will be, too — taking tentative steps to a full recovery but with precaution still paramount.

And if there are no games … yeah, we don’t want to think about that.

Yet don’t be fooled into assuming the NFL isn’t thinking about it. While it takes a certain kind of sports nerd (I’m guilty as charged) to get excited about the formulaic intricacies of putting together a compilation of sporting fixtures, there is far more sophistication to this year’s process than meets the eye.

Restoring normalcy is important, of course; so is the appearance of impending normality, and Thursday’s 2020 season rundown gave that. There are a number of fail safes to guard against a delayed campaign, but they don’t smack you in the face in a way that would further dampen the mood. In fact, it was all nuanced enough that you might not even have noticed.

The trapdoors, as they have begun to be commonly known, are certainly there. Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged as much in a memo sent to teams earlier this week, stating, “It is impossible to project what the next few months will bring.”

On Thursday, after the schedule was announced, the commissioner expanded on the NFL’s approach, saying that the league is prepared to make changes as necessary:

“The release of the NFL schedule is something our fans eagerly anticipate every year, as they look forward with hope and optimism to the season ahead. In preparing to play the season as scheduled, we will continue to make our decisions based on the latest medical and public health advice, in compliance with government regulations, and with appropriate safety protocols to protect the health of our fans, players, club and league personnel, and our communities. We will be prepared to make adjustments as necessary, as we have during this off-season in safely and efficiently conducting key activities such as free agency, the virtual off-season program, and the 2020 NFL Draft.”

Indeed, the NFL has reportedly thought through scenarios up to and including pushing back the Super Bowl, without having to make significant changes to the regular-season matchups. And the evidence is in the schedule. The empty weeks following the championship game, set for Feb. 7 in Tampa, provide an ultimate safety net, but there were other choices that required more intellectual dexterity — and which the NFL seems to have handled with aplomb.

For example, every team has the same bye week as its Week 2 opponent. In Weeks 3 and 4, there are no division games. And all bye weeks, except for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers, will be between Weeks 5 and 11.

Therefore, in the event of a delayed start, a couple of things could happen. The missing group of weeks (say, Weeks 1 through 4) could be slotted neatly in at the back of the slate. And, if the new season opener came on a week where a team had a bye, the matchup against the initial Week 2 opponent could be added instead.

Furthermore, big matchups have been dotted throughout the schedule, so whichever week or weeks needed to be adjusted, you’d get a marquee clash to kick things off. Truly, it feels like the NFL has all contingencies covered.

Thursday was just a schedule release. It wasn’t football — but it felt like a whole lot more than just dates and team names.

It offered a kind of promise, although perhaps not the sort that you would immediately think. The guarantee was not that the NFL is going to start on time or look anything close to what we have come to expect, but it was the strongest of assertions nevertheless.

That the league is going to work firmly towards resuming on time, until it is told otherwise.