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How does the NFL handle a suspended game?

The NFL has never suspended a game to resume at a later date.



An unimaginable, but always really possible, situation has confronted the league for the first time when Bills safety Damar Hamlin experienced a medical emergency and collapsed in the first quarter of the Bills-Bengals game. The game was suspended in the first quarter and not resumed. Obviously all of the concern is on Hamlin’s health and well-being and for his family, his teammates, and even his opponents who witnessed this chilling scene.

As uncomfortable as it is, there are next steps and there are many questions on how the league proceeds. The league’s policy manuals and governing documents give NFL commissioner Roger Goodell the ultimate authority to determine what happens to the suspended game.

Despite all of the contingencies that were documented in advance, Goodell is in uncharted territory. According to Quirky Research, no NFL game has been suspended and resumed at a later date. (Preseason games have been terminated early or canceled outright, and regular season games through the years have been rescheduled prior to kickoff.)

The league’s Gameday Operations Manual states the following:

Games should be suspended, cancelled, postponed, or terminated … when circumstances exist such that commencement or continuation of play would pose a threat to the safety of participants or spectators or would unduly affect the ability of a community to deal with the effects of a local catastrophe or similarly disruptive event.

In determining whether a game should be rescheduled or relocated, public safety, community relations, and competitive integrity should be key determining factors. …

Authority to cancel, postpone, or terminate games is vested solely in the Commissioner. … If possible, the Commissioner’s-office representative should consult with authorized representatives of the two participating clubs before any decision involving cancellation, postponement, or termination is made by the Commissioner.

Rule 17 in the NFL rulebook contains much of the same general information on resuming a suspended game.

The policies do outline a few things the commissioner cannot do. He cannot unilaterally declare a forfeit, and he essentially lacks any authority to do so except in a very limited circumstance of a team refusing to take the field. This game in particular cannot be terminated early — in other words, declaring a 7-3 Bengals win — because games may only be terminated if “it is reasonable to project that its resumption (a) would not change its ultimate result or (b) would not adversely affect any other inter-team competitive issue.” The playoff seedings are definitely affected by the outcome of this game. Similarly, the commissioner cannot outright cancel the game — nullify everything from the game and have it uncontested — except as a last resort. Some have also suggested that the game be declared a tie. There is no provision for the commissioner to do so, and the half-win in the standings also presents the “inter-team competitive issue” that the league would avoid.

Essentially all of the guidance forges a clear path to completing the game as soon as possible. The Bills buses departed Cincinnati early Tuesday morning local time, so a Tuesday night game would have been the least disruptive, but it is out of the question. The policy manuals state that “for regular-season postponements, the Commissioner will make every effort to set the game for no later than two days after its originally scheduled date and at the same site.” This provision was adhered to as close as possible during the 2020 and 2021 seasons due to coronavirus outbreaks, but there were several concessions that had to be made. Not a single game was lost in either season.

In the end, the game was suspended because the shock and the intense humanity of the situation was overwhelming. That was the right call to make for Monday night. But, despite Hamlin’s path to recovery, the reality is that the game has to be played no matter what. The Bengals fans are aware of this, as their team took the field two days after receiver Chris Henry died in 2009.

Update 2 p.m., ET: The NFL announced that the Week 18 schedule has not been changed. This could be seen as locking the Week 18 schedule to give teams adequate time to prepare, but it did not exactly state that. The suspended game will not be resumed prior to the Week 18 games. The NFL statement is as follows:

The NFL continues to be in regular contact with the medical team caring for Damar Hamlin, and also the Bills and Bengals organizations and the NFL Players Association.

After speaking with both teams and NFLPA leadership, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell informed the clubs today that the Bills-Bengals game will not be resumed this week.

The NFL has made no decision regarding the possible resumption of the game at a later date.

The league has not made any changes to the Week 18 regular season schedule.

We will continue to provide additional information as it becomes available. 

[The original post continues below.]

One possible remedy is to push the playoffs out one week and removing the week off prior to the Super Bowl so that the Bills and Bengals would play a “Week 19” game. While that seems easy, it creates potential network conflicts by moving the playoff games that air in primetime slots. The extra week was a possibility during the 2020 season, but the league did several schedule moves to avoid doing that.

When the playoffs are scheduled, the league will not place a team in a game with less than 6 days’ rest. When introducing the Monday night wild card game in 2021, that meant that a team could not play that game and then be scheduled for a Saturday divisional playoff game. There could be some quick changes to the Ravens-Bengals and Patriots-Bills games to move them up to Friday, resuming the suspended game on Tuesday, and scheduling one or two wild card games (as needed, depending if the Bills clinch the #1 seed) on Monday.

What if the game is cancelled?

[This section was added to the post at 5 p.m. ET]

While there are very few options to schedule a resumption of the game, not scheduling a resumption of the game seems to be very unlikely. But there is one scenario in which the game might be cancelled.

In the Tuesday afternoon statement above, the league referenced a “possible resumption” which indicates that a cancellation is still under consideration. And any possible resumption would be after the Week 18 games are completed.

If the Chiefs, Patriots, and Bengals all win their Week 18 games, then the suspended game would only determine the #2 and #3 seeds. That makes it possible to consider abandoning the suspended game, and the Bengals get the #2 seed based on the fourth tiebreaker, strength of victory. (Currently the Bengals have an insurmountable lead for that tiebreaker.) For purposes of wild card games, it could mean that the both teams rematch their division foes or not. Although there is no provision for it, it is possible that the commissioner could propose that as a concession for abandoning the game, the Bills would hold home-field advantage over the Bengals if the two teams meet in the divisional playoffs or the conference championship or that such a matchup is a neutral site game (with several nonplayoff venues between both cities). There is a precedent for making playoff structural changes, as commissioner Pete Rozelle reworked the playoffs in the 1982 season that was shortened by a players’ strike.

But don’t the policies and procedures indicate the game must be resumed? Throughout the documentation, there is a common theme to avoid competitive inequities. In this particular outcome, it is possible that Goodell decides that no scenario is devoid of competitive inequities, and that wiping the game out is the lesser inequity. The only way this seems to be the viable path is if the suspended game only affects the Bills and Bengals (and tangentially, their postseason opponents) which happens only if the Chiefs, Bengals, and Patriots win in Week 18.

If the game is not resumed, standings for the playoff seeds would be calculated on win percentage as usual. Any statistics that would affect a player’s contracted performance bonus or position in the statistical rankings would be prorated to 16 games.

The one time this happened before

While there have been several severe injuries on the NFL field and the game continued, there was one other time where a significant medical event occurred similar to Hamlin’s collapse. On Oct. 24, 1971, Lions receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed from a heart attack and resuscitation attempts were made. Hughes is the only player to die on the field. There was only one minute remaining in the fourth quarter, and both teams just quickly played out the remainder of the game, as recorded by the official scorekeeper.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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