LAS VEGAS — One way or another, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton’s story figured to be one worth following this season. His early success has been stalled by an unexpected plot twist in the form of a positive COVID-19 test.
Newton and the Tennessee Titans have become case studies for the coronavirus concerns and hypothetical questions posed during the NFL’s offseason: What would happen if a star quarterback was sidelined by the virus, and how would the league handle a team experiencing an outbreak?
The first signs of COVID chaos were apparent Sunday when the NFL made major modifications to the schedule that impacted eight teams over a seven-week span. The fallout is far-reaching, leaving football bettors and bookmakers confused by the status of a schedule that is essentially day-to-day.
“Whatever the league says, it’s just written in pencil anyway,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said.
It was apparent in August that college football and NFL schedules would be a fluid situation this season, and a handful of college games have been canceled or postponed each week. As for the NFL, it was anticipated that at some point positive coronavirus tests with players and coaches would become problematic, and that point is now.
The Broncos-Patriots game scheduled for Sunday in Week 5 was first moved to Monday before the NFL changed plans a second time and shifted the game to Sunday in Week 6, wiping out the bye weeks for Denver and New England.
A virus outbreak among several Tennessee players and staff members caused the postponement of the Steelers-Titans game in Week 4 and forced the league to move Bills-Titans in Week 5 from Sunday to Tuesday. The domino effect kicked in, and the Chiefs-Bills game that was scheduled for Thursday is now moved to Monday, Oct. 19.
Bookmakers have been quick to take COVID-related games off the betting board and repost the lines only when the NFL announces new dates, although it’s becoming evident even the new dates are tentative.
“It’s definitely a headache,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said. “But this is just another wrinkle we have to deal with now, and you have got to be ready to pivot. When we get together to make the next week’s opening lines on Sunday, we say, ‘Is that game off the board because of COVID or because of a quarterback injury?
“The one positive is we get more games on weekdays and that’s good for the wagering handle. Instead of having nine or 10 games on Sunday morning, we have more games on Monday or Tuesday, and it’s good for business.”
Newton’s uncertain status makes it impossible to post a line on New England’s next game. The point-spread adjustment from Newton to backups Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham is significant.
The schedule changes will benefit some teams and create adversity for others.
The Chiefs, who suffered their first loss Sunday to the Raiders, initially faced a quick turnaround on Thursday in Buffalo but now get seven days off before facing the Bills in Week 6.
The Dolphins, who won at San Francisco on Sunday, no longer are playing at Denver this week. Instead, Miami will host the Jets in Week 6, get a bye in Week 7 and host the Rams in Week 8, meaning the Dolphins will benefit by staying home for nearly a month.
In addition to self-inflicted misery, the Jets face a new scheduling dilemma with the elimination of their bye in Week 11, when they will go to Los Angeles to face the Chargers. The Jets also play at Seattle in Week 14 and at the L.A. Rams in Week 15, making for three West Coast trips in five weeks. On the bright side, a more difficult schedule should make it easier for the Jets to land the No. 1 overall draft pick.
Pittsburgh also drew a bad hand, beginning with an impromptu bye that has passed. The Steelers are set to play three consecutive road games from Weeks 7 through 9 at Tennessee, Baltimore and Dallas.
This might also be the start of a potential scheduling mess. What happens if more teams must deal with positive virus tests and additional games need to be moved? The NFL could create a Week 18 scenario to extend the regular season and push back the playoffs and Super Bowl, which is scheduled for Feb. 7 in Tampa, Fla.
Stay tuned for more announcements because the only constant in 2020 is widespread confusion.
The wagering handle has remained strong, with bettors and bookmakers simply happy to have NFL action as an option. A chaotic season is obviously better than no season.
“The league wants to play all of the games, and we don’t want any games canceled,” Andrews said. “It sucks for the players. I’m not complaining. Compared to what 95 percent of the country is going through, it’s a small problem.”
The Cowboys move forward without Dak Prescott, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury Sunday. Veteran Andy Dalton led the winning drive in the final minute of 37-34 victory over the Giants. Andrews said the adjustment from Prescott to Dalton is two points to the betting line. Dalton rated among the top backups in the league.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that much of a drop-off to Dalton, and when you watched that game you could see why,” Andrews said.
The Cowboys opened as 2.5-point home underdogs to Arizona next Monday. With a 2-3 record and seemingly destined to stay under its posted preseason win total of 10, Dallas is one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams.