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STEVE DeSHAZO: Thanks to COVID-19, football season is nearing Hail Mary status

STEVE DeSHAZO: Thanks to COVID-19, football season is nearing Hail Mary status

Giants Eagles Football

The Giants’ Daniel Jones stumbles untouched near the goal line on an 80-yard run on Oct. 22.

IF YOU NEED a metaphor for the 2020 football season, look no further than Daniel Jones’ run on Oct. 22.

Certainly you’ve seen the replay by now. The New York Giants’ quarterback broke through Philadelphia’s defense, seemingly destined for an 88-yard touchdown. Instead, he tripped over the turf at Lincoln Financial Field and fell, untouched, 8 yards short of the end zone.

There have been some bizarre and memorable highlights at both the college and pro levels, including Rice University’s field goal attempt that hit both uprights and the crossbar (twice) before falling short. And it’s tempting to look at the Arizona Cardinals’ game-winning Hail Mary pass against Buffalo last Sunday for inspiration.

But we’ll stick with Jones. Just like his stumble, it seems harder and harder to believe that the football season—begun with such preparation, high hopes and determination—will reach its conclusion.

Super Bowl LV? College Football Playoff? Don’t hold your breath—especially if you’re wearing a mask.

It’s hard to overstate football’s importance, both in terms of revenue to the schools and pro franchises that play it and the networks that televise it, and to a nation that’s been enduring COVID-19 cabin fever for nine months. But the ice below us is cracking.

Fifteen college games were postponed of canceled last week. Sixteen more have been called off this week. Maryland’s games were included in each list, and now head coach Mike Locksley has contracted COVID-19, making you wonder if the Terrapins will play again in 2020. Less than a week before Thanksgiving, Utah has yet to take the field.

As of Friday afternoon, Virginia Tech’s scheduled game at Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon was still on. But following a mandate from Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, players from both teams will be required to wear face coverings on the field as well as on the sideline.

Penn State released a statement Friday saying its players (which include local starters Devyn Ford and Brandon Smith) will not be required to wear masks on the field against Iowa Saturday, due to an exception in the mandate “for when a face covering would either cause a medical condition, or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues than impede breathing ...”

The NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, who play at Jacksonville Sunday, also claim to be exempt for their next home game, on Thanksgiving night against Baltimore, although a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf disputed that assertion.

Regardless, it’s not hard to see where this is going.

This shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but masks work, and they’re even more essential now that coronavirus cases keep rising exponentially nationwide. They’re effective (if not foolproof) in stopping transmission, but they’re less than ideal for top-flight competition. It’s hard to believe Jones would have made it 80 yards against the Eagles had be been wearing a mask.

The NFL hammered teams with substantial fines early in the season when coaches were shown with their masks around their chins during games. This week, the league tightened protocols, requiring players and coaches to wear face coverings even during practice.

Has it helped? Not as much as was hoped. This week alone, Cleveland Browns star defensive end Myles Garrett tested positive for COVID-19. Practically every member of the Las Vegas Raiders’ starting defense was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list for contact tracing this week after being exposed to defensive end Cleland Ferrell, who tested positive. (Ferrell’s teammates may be cleared to play Sunday night against Kansas City.)

Among the NFL stars who have spent time on the COVID-reserve list this season are quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford. College football’s two biggest names—Alabama coach Nick Saban and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence—have both tested positive. And this comes after many key pros and college stars opted out of the season.

Pennsylvania won’t be the last state to require players to wear masks during games, not as skyrocketing COVID numbers dovetail with flu season. The level of play will take a hit, both in terms of limited numbers of players available and receivers who need to catch their breath after running a fly pattern while wearing a mask.

As necessary as it is, this mask mandate feels a little like the desperation pass Kyler Murray threw and DeAndre Hopkins caught between three Buffalo defenders Sunday. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I just don’t see this one ending as happily.

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

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