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333 NFL Players Were Placed On The COVID-19 Reserve List This Season, And Other Findings From Our Data Collection

Cam Newton, quarterback, of the New England Patriots, looks on from the sideline wearing a mask and rain jacket during the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The NFL, despite its posturing, is not bigger than an infectious virus. All season, players have been testing positive or in close contact with someone who tested positive. Take Tommy Sweeney, a Buffalo Bills tight end, for example. Sweeney was first placed on the NFL’s COVID-19/Reserve list on Oct. 24 after his teammate Dawson Knox tested positive for the virus. While Knox stayed on the list for 12 days before being reinstated, Sweeney wasn’t so lucky.

Sweeney stayed on the list for 18 days until the Bills reinstated him on Nov. 11. But he still didn’t play. Sweeney started the season with a foot injury, and he stayed on the injured list after being reinstated. Then the Bills placed him back on the COVID list on Nov. 23, citing myocarditis—inflammation of the heart. If his foot hadn’t been hurt, would the Bills have let him on the field the week he was supposedly better? Would anyone have even noticed?

Because so many players have come off and on the COVID-19/Reserve list this season, it’s hard to make sense of how bad the NFL’s outbreak has really been. Every day, NFL reporters tweet updates on who is off and who is on. Every day, the NFL puts out a transactions report saying the same thing. Every week, the NFL releases a data collection of how many players and staff were tested and what the positivity rate is. But all of that data is either so specific that it’s hard to tell what’s happening, or broad enough to obscure an outbreak. So all season, I have been transcribing the NFL transactions reports into a spreadsheet, keeping track of when players go on and off the list, to try and bring a little more clarity to what those numbers mean. Here is what I found:

333 individual players were placed on the NFL’s COVID-19/Reserve list over the course of the season. We don’t know the exact number of NFL players who played this season because of practice squad substitutions, but back of the envelope math (53-man roster times 32 NFL teams) would put this at about 20 percent of the players in the league.

18 players were placed on the list more than once.

147 players spent 7 or fewer days on the list. That’s more than 41 percent of the listed players.

44 players spent 14 days or more on the list. That’s 12 percent.

The average number of days a player spent on the list was 8.86.

The median number of days a player spent on the list was 9.

The player on the list for the longest period of time was Ryan Groy, a guard for the Chargers, at 62 days after testing positive in late October.

5 players were placed on the list for a single day.

The position most likely to be placed on the list was a tie between defensive backs and wide receivers, both with 40 players.

The week with the most additions to the list was NFL Week 16 (Dec. 25 to Jan. 2) with 54 additions. Here is a chart that breaks down players added to the list by week:

The team with the most players placed on the list was the Baltimore Ravens, with 37. Here is a chart of all the teams:

As I reported earlier this season, players were least likely to be placed on the list on a Sunday. That data held true through the rest of the season, though more players were placed on the list on Sundays after our reporting was published. Here is a chart of the days players were most likely to be placed on the list:

Players were also least likely to be taken off of the COVID-19 list on Sundays. The only player to come off the list on a Sunday was Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, who spent two days on the list, was reinstated on Nov. 8, and played 99 percent of offensive snaps that night in his team’s game against the Raiders. Here is a chart of the days players were most likely to be removed from the list:

It can be easy to forget, between the endless sports commentary, the elaborate pregame shows, and unending marketing campaigns, that a football field, or any sports event, is also a workplace. In the NFL, 333 unique players had direct exposure to the COVID-19 virus at their workplace this season. At least one of them developed a very serious medical condition afterward. Next week, the Super Bowl will happen. Inevitably, there will be a lot of back-patting over the fact that this season was able to happen, that only some games were postponed, and that none of them were cancelled even if they probably should have been. And I will be thinking about Tommy Sweeney, about how lucky the NFL was that it wasn’t worse.

Correction (5:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 199 players had spent seven days or fewer on the COVID-19/Reserve list. The correct number is 147.