NFL’s concerns over an on-time start are growing amid rise in coronavirus cases

“Anything is possible,” one of those people said in recent days, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions.

The league and owners of its 32 teams must decide whether to veer from their often-stated plan to open training camps on time — meaning July 28 for most teams — with an eye toward beginning the regular season as scheduled Sept. 10. Those issues are expected to be discussed when owners speak Friday by conference call. Other potential changes, such as the possibility of relocating teams, also are being mentioned by some within the sport.

According to data posted on the NFLPA’s website, there were 72 known coronavirus cases among NFL players as of last Friday. That represents about 2.5 percent of all players, with offseason rosters set at 90 players per team. The NFLPA also posted data about the number of coronavirus cases among the general population in each NFL market, with the highest caseloads being in those of the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans.

One potential issue with a postponement of training camps and the season is that many health experts predict worsening conditions nationwide in the fall and winter. When the league decided to proceed with the NFL draft as a remote event in the spring despite some calls for it to be postponed, one of the reasons cited was the lack of assurances that a delay would result in improved conditions.

“The issue with the NFL is this,” Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive, wrote on Twitter, “back in March/April/May we (I) said ‘The NFL has the luxury of time; they can sit back and watch. This thing will definitely be better by July/August!’ But the reality is …’this thing’ is worse. Much worse.”

Relocating teams also would present challenges. Teams have been told to conduct their training camps at their regular season training facilities and have been instructed to put the league’s detailed health protocols into effect there. Any relocation of a team would entail making such preparations at a different venue.

The owners’ planned conference call Friday comes as the league continues to deliberate with the NFLPA over key unresolved issues such as testing frequency, the length of the preseason, the structure of training camps, the rules by which players can opt out of playing this season, the sport’s economics related to the salary cap system and a potential drop in revenue this season, and a possible mandate that players wear face shields attached to their helmets to limit on-field transmission of the virus.

Two people with knowledge of the NFL’s planning said in recent days that the league’s hope, at least for now, is to remain on schedule with training camps opening July 28 and the season slated to begin Sept. 10 with the Houston Texans-Kansas City Chiefs game in Kansas City, Mo. But that is subject to modification, they said. One of those people acknowledged concern, called the country’s coronavirus response lacking and said the moves by some college football conferences to cancel or limit fall seasons are ominous.

The other person said the league remains hopeful that its coronavirus-related health protocols will work but intends to remain flexible. Adjustments are possible, that person said, adding that the league previously had been evaluating potential alternative sites if certain teams were forced to relocate.

Any postponement to the opening of training camps would make it less likely that the regular season begins on time.

The NFL said in a written statement this week that its “primary focus is on the health and safety of the public, the players and team personnel.” The league said it continues to work with the NFLPA and health experts and added: “We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season.”

The NFL’s plan is for teams to play games in their home cities and stadiums, potentially with fans present if that is permitted under local health guidelines. The league has not taken an NBA-like approach, with all teams gathered at a single site in a “bubble” environment. But those familiar with the NFL’s planning say the league’s hope is that its protocols will create, in effect, bubbles at individual teams’ facilities that will prevent outbreaks of cases that could force teams to shut down.

“We keep talking,” a person familiar with the discussions said.