Opinion: NFL’s uneven policy for fan attendance creates unfair divide in 2020 season

No, they don’t make cardboard cutouts that can sling a snowball or curse you out.

Guess the Philadelphia Eagles will just have to deal with it.

The Eagles are the latest NFL team to offer fans the chance to buy cutouts in their likeness to position around an otherwise empty Lincoln Financial Field until further notice. The $100 cost is earmarked for a good cause, benefitting the Eagles Autism Foundation.

Yet this also brings to mind what the Eagles will be missing without some of the league’s most passionate fans in the house. I mean, Philly is the place where they booed Santa Claus and had a jail in the bowels of The Vet to contain the unruliest types. It’s where I saw swaggering, then-Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson get blasted in a hail of snowballs as he ran to the tunnel.

Yeah, there’s your brotherly love. And they sing, too, “Fly, Eagles Fly” after every touchdown.

All of that charm will come back to The Linc someday, maybe within weeks, but in the meantime, the home-field advantage has been neutralized as the NFL ramps up for a season of uncertainty when imbalance will be the ticket. It’s even possible, for one example, that the Eagles could host the NFC East-rival Cowboys in an empty stadium, then play ‘em later in a socially distanced yet relatively packed house – even at 50% capacity, that’s about 40,000 fans – at JerryWorld.

Brace yourself. This 2020 season will be a parody of NFL parity.

FAN ATTENDANCE POLICIES: Which teams will be allowing fans into stadiums?

The New Orleans Saints are among the teams that won't have fans in the stands in Week 1. (Photo: Brett Duke, AP)

It’s no wonder Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott last week blasted the league’s decision not to have a uniform attendance policy, calling the decision “ridiculous.” The Bills, one of 25 NFL teams that already have announced they won’t have fans in the stands for home games as they start the season, will open on Sept. 13 at Miami – with the Dolphins planning to host as many as 13,000 fans.

Tough luck, McDermott. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sees the world through a different lens.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Goodell said, “We do not believe it’s a competitive advantage. We discussed it early on with our competition committee and our clubs.”

C’mon, Roger. Admit it: Some stadiums have an edge, an annoyance, a vibe that can be a factor and force adjustments. I don’t see Miami as intimidating for visitors as, say, the stadiums in Seattle, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Kansas City, to name a few. But ask any coach to break down their silent snap count contingencies and you can’t deny that crowd noise is not created equally.

Then again, maybe it won’t matter in 2020, if these half-to-all empty stadiums extend to the end.

At the moment, it seems that perhaps just seven teams will open the season with fans at their home games. The Bucs have yet to announce intentions, but the smart money says it will be a clean sweep in Florida, as the Jaguars are expecting 25% capacity. Kansas City, where the defending Super Bowl champs will stage the NFL’s kickoff game a week from Thursday, is in at 22%. Indianapolis will cap the crowd at 25%, while, knowing Jerry Jones, Dallas is undoubtedly down for whatever the state of Texas allows. Cleveland is TBD, but last week the Browns unveiled a “mask policy,” and the hope is that Ohio will allow 20,000.

Ridiculous? Well, it’s certainly inconsistent with the manner in which Goodell didn’t allow a single team to re-open headquarters during the offseason until all 32 had clearance from local and/or state authorities. He also ordered every team to conduct the draft with the decision-makers operating from home. He tried to keep it fair and square, guided by the principles of Pete Rozelle’s parity in a league that splits billions of dollars in TV revenues 32 ways.

But hey, they’re trying to pull off an NFL season in the middle of a pandemic. Something’s gotta give.

“Whatever the pandemic brings, whatever the ramifications are, let’s embrace it completely,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said during a recent news conference.

Long before teams reported to training camps, NFL owners agreed that they would have to accept that some things just would not even out this season. The attendance policy is just one example of the thinking that they would have to be flexible and nimble.

As Goodell explained it, the team-by-team attendance plans are primarily driven by public health and governmental officials. The limits will evolve as the season (hopefully) progresses.

“Those are ongoing discussions and they will vary right up to the kickoff game and obviously, beyond that,” Goodell said.

More interesting might be to grasp what conditions exist that would move Goodell — tapping into a newly formed advisory panel for football matters — to postpone or cancel games and how various scenarios compare. Intense debates could loom if, say, one game gets tabled because a COVID-19 outbreak wiped out three starting offensive linemen from a team while another team had to play despite losing four defensive backs.

The league also is considering using winning percentage as the first qualifier for claiming division titles and playoff berths to account for the possibility of teams playing uneven schedules. On the surface, that sounds doable in this first season with a playoff field expanded from 12 teams to 14.

But what happens if this season is so disrupted that an 8-4 team can’t get into the playoffs because a 6-1 team qualifies thanks to a higher winning percentage? Should there be a minimum number of games played to qualify for the playoffs?

That’s one of the competitive issues needing to be hashed out as the clock ticks toward the start of this season of uncertainty. Another one is to establish the precise decibel level that will be used for the pumped-in crowd noise that will be used at NFL stadiums.

Imagine that. What was once a cardinal sin in the NFL will become parody procedure in 2020.

Tom Brady knows. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used fake crowd noise at a practice last week, it seems that he had something of a flashback — or at least some fun with the thought of it all.

“I thought it was one of the old Colts tapes when they used to pump all that sound in the RCA Dome,” Brady cracked.

Ouch. All things being equal or not, maybe he was kidding. The cutouts had to love it.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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