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Joe Starkey: NFL should lower the boom on Titans

Joe Starkey: NFL should lower the boom on Titans

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Titans back at work, not talking about COVID-19 outbreak

FILE - In this Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, file photo, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel watches from the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Nashville, Tenn. Vrabel’s debut as an NFL head coach came in the league’s longest game because of lightning delays, and now he’s guiding the Tennessee Titans through the league’s first COVID-19 outbreak.

Excuse me. Quick question here: How long is the NFL going to compromise other teams in order to benefit the brazen Tennessee Titans?

One team, the Titans, is causing all the COVID chaos. They have become the NFL's equivalent of baseball's St. Louis Cardinals. I'm not necessarily blaming them for their outbreak, which reached 23 combined players and staffers as of Thursday afternoon. The league is investigating that part of the story. We might never know how it began.

I am blaming the Titans for spitting in the league's face Sept. 30 by reportedly holding a secret, players-only workout against NFL orders. That's the kind of defiance coach Mike Vrabel's old boss - Bill Belichick - has displayed from time to time.

See: Spygate.

This wasn't the Titans violating a league-wide edict. This was an order issued directly to them a day earlier.

According to reporter Paul Kuharsky, who broke the workout story, "once the Titans building was closed down on Sept. 29, the franchise was told there were to be 'no in-person meetings, workouts or activities at the facility or elsewhere.' "

More than defiance, the workout constituted a gross violation of COVID protocol. I don't need an epidemiologist to tell me that when a sports team is experiencing a COVID outbreak - still unsure if the virus might manifest in a given individual on a given day - it's probably a bad idea to gather in a group, outdoors or not (this was reportedly outdoors).

I don't need Dr. Fauci to tell me the virus can spread outdoors, either. All I need is video of a certain recent White House lawn reception.

The priority here of course is the health of those in the Titans organization who have contracted the virus or who still might. Too bad the Titans themselves weren't thinking that way when they presumably permitted the secret workout.

If the Titans are able to move ahead with their schedule, starting with Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills, the league should drop the hammer in the form of suspensions (starting with Vrabel) and forfeited draft picks. If they are not able to play the Bills, the league should instead make them forfeit something else: the game.

- Why not make the Titans forfeit the Steelers game, as well? The violation, after all, took place that week - and why should the Bills get the benefit of a free win if the Steelers don't? That could ultimately hurt the Steelers if they are battling Buffalo for a wild-card spot.

One answer from Kuharsky and others: The league had not yet threatened forfeits as of the Sept. 30 workout, so it wouldn't be right to go back and issue one.

That sounds reasonable, although I wouldn't rip Commissioner Roger Goodell if he made the Titans forfeit twice. This is that serious.

As for the Steelers possibly losing a spot to the Bills on account of a Bills' forfeit win, well, the Steelers could just as easily lose out to Tennessee, especially if the league keeps making concessions to the Titans. They already have, of course, by rescheduling the Week 4 game and putting the Steelers in the predicament of facing Tennessee and Baltimore back-to-back weeks with the Ravens coming off a bye.

- What about all the AFC teams that could be compromised by the Steelers and Bills getting free wins?

Good question - but again, what about all the teams being compromised by Titans' concessions?

- What about financial obligations to television networks and players? Would they get paid?

Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio addressed this question and came to this conclusion:

"Absent a forfeit, the league has a mess on its hands. Since the Titans had an unscheduled bye in Week 4, there's no open week for Tennessee to play the game later in the year. Moving the game to Monday isn't an option, since the Bills play the Chiefs next Thursday night."

They could always move Bills-Chiefs to Saturday, but then those two teams would have the unique advantage of no Thursday night games this season.

The permutations go on and on. The NFL should have come into the season with buffer week for makeup games. They should still create one - but it should be reserved for teams that didn't break league rules.

The Titans did, defiantly and secretly, and they should be made to pay.

Make them forfeit a game. Or two.

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