Watch Now: Tiki and Tierney: Several Cowboys players test positive for the coronavirus (2:09)

With news of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott being one of several players who’ve recently tested positive for COVID-19, allow me to paint a picture for you many aren’t yet discussing. Flash forward to a tumultuous 2020 NFL season marred by the pandemic having finally approached it’s apex — the playoffs. As clubs ready to clash for the right to hoist the all-important Lombardi trophy, something happens to one or more of them that sends shockwaves throughout the bracket. 

Several players across the board test positive for coronavirus, potentially including a quarterback(s) and/or other key players. 

Clubs scramble to bring backups up to speed, but that’s easier in theory than in a real life application, depending on who the depth guy is being tasked with replacing; and who the backup is in the first place. With the entire season’s worth of work on the line, said players who test positive would then have to be quarantined for upwards of two weeks, listed on the injury report with an ‘illness’ designation, even if they’re asymptomatic (as Elliott is currently). Meanwhile, everyone who’s been in contact with them must be immediately tested as well, and the respective team can only hope for good news. 

If by now you’re secretly hyperventilating as an NFL fan, imagine what owners, general managers, coaches and players must feel like — knowing this nightmare scenario is quite possible in 2020 and could create absolute bedlam in the postseason. This is the new reality in the NFL though, at least for this year, a contact sport facing an unprecedented set of challenges it could not have possibly planned for in advance, hoping to prevent the spread of a disease that thrives on human contact and lack of distancing.

Distancing while playing football is literally impossible, by the way, as noted by coaches Jim Harbaugh and Sean McVay. Positive tests seem like an inevitability, and that’s why this coming season could unfortunately be tainted when it’s all said-and-done, regardless of how entertaining it might be.

Let’s first be clear in that the NFL has a leg up on every other major sports league on the planet though, mostly because its regular season isn’t slated to begin until September. So while others were forced to close shop and are just now reopening (or at least trying to), the NFL has the luxury of time. Despite being forced into a virtual offseason with no minicamp, training camps are still potentially a go for mid- to late-July and, if camps get an even later start, the league could easily shave down the preseason by multiple games to ensure a timely kickoff in September. 

That said, while there is still optimism there will be “definitely” be a season this year, challenges are abound that could derail several random teams’ bid for an appearance in Super Bowl LV. One of the biggest would be how to handle players who test positive in-season, and the inevitability of it creating a competitive disadvantage. The longstanding timeframe for a person mandated to coronavirus quarantine is 14 days, which could equate to upwards of two games in the NFL. 

Should that land on the back end of the season, teams could be without their best player(s) as they scratch and claw for either a playoff seat or seeding therein. And if it were to occur in the playoffs, their season could end prematurely at the hands of a backup(s). By the way, I have a myriad of possible troubling scenarios I could list here to truly drive home my point, but I’ll refrain from naming specific players in hypotheticals, because superstition.

So use your imagination.

Now, you could argue this is all no different from the player suffering a physical injury, only you’d be wrong. When someone sprains an MCL, for example, no one around them needs to immediately be hauled off and tested for the same ailment. With COVID-19, seemingly everyone in the locker room — including those for the opposing team who came into contact with the player the week prior — would need to be swabbed. That could result in a disastrous worst-case scenario for both teams, and even the best-case outcome isn’t great. 

Imagine Elliott tested positive in January instead of June, for example. What if the other Cowboys who were in that lot of positives with him included one or two other cornerstone guys and/or those tasked with backing him up? 

It would force Dallas to dig deep into their depth, and though possibly expanding the practice squad roster would help — along with having a proven head coach in Mike McCarthy — such sideline roster expansion impacts the backup slots far more than the player who needs to be replaced at the starting post of his respective position. Stepping outside of North Texas to drive home the point, what if it happened with the Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs or any of the other several clubs primed to make a deep run in the playoffs? 

Or … gulp … what if it happened one week before the Super Bowl??

You get the point, in that competitive disadvantage will likely run rampant in 2020 and, in the end, it’s possible this year’s champion could find an asterisk etched next to its name in the history books — depending on who it did not have to face en route to planting its flag atop Mount Everest.