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Professional sports just had their worst week of COVID since the beginning

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Brad Marchand, Immanuel Quickley, Baker Mayfield

The NFL has rescheduled three games. The NHL has put three teams on ice through the holidays. COVID-19 is back in sports. And it’s as bad as ever.

The NFL’s hand was forced on Friday afternoon as a result of the sheer number of positive cases within the Browns, Rams and Washington organizations. The league moved this week’s Raiders-Browns matchup to Monday at 5 p.m. ET and slotted both Seahawks-Rams and Washington-Eagles for 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

That prompted outcry from the Raiders, with owner Mark Davis telling ESPN that moving the game back is a “competitive disadvantage to the Raiders.” Multiple players took to Twitter to accuse the NFL of bending its own rules.

“I’m sure the NFLPA president [center J.C. Tretter] playing for the Browns didn’t have any effect on these negotiations,” cornerback Casey Hayward tweeted.

In a memo to all 32 teams, commissioner Roger Goodell wrote, “The emergence of the Omicron variant is precisely the kind of change that warrants a flexible response.”

At the same time, the NHL was announcing that the Flames, Avalanche and Panthers would be shut down through the league’s holiday break, with some Canadian teams returning to reduced capacity.

Brad Marchand, Immanuel Quickley, Baker Mayfield
Getty (3)

Montreal played its Thursday night game in front of an empty Bell Centre. The Ontario government also curtailed capacity to 50 percent at Raptors, Maple Leafs and Senators games, as well as banning the sale of food or drink at venues. In British Columbia, the Canucks will reportedly be limited to 50 percent capacity as well.

Closer to home, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy brought up the possibility of limiting crowds at a press event on Friday.

“My fear is, we’re going to be getting back to capacity limits at some point,” Murphy told reporters.

It’s been such a disastrous week of COVID-19 in sports that multiple figures in the NFL are advocating for letting players who test positive play if asymptomatic and vaccinated.

Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones both brought up that approach on Friday as a way of avoiding the explosion of players unavailable this week.

“If you’re asymptomatic, you should be allowed to play,” Arians told reporters.

“I think we will get to a point, probably this week, that we’ll only test if symptomatic, that’s if you’ve been vaccinated,” Jones told 105.3 The Fan. “That’s a good thing. Test when you’re symptomatic and that’s it.”

Both Bruce Arians (left) and Jerry Jones (right) have mentioned the idea of allowing asymptomatic vaccinated players to play.
Both Bruce Arians (left) and Jerry Jones (right) have mentioned the idea of allowing asymptomatic vaccinated players to play.
Getty (2)

It doesn’t seem like the NFLPA will be on board with such a plan. Though it agreed to let vaccinated asymptomatic players return sooner, the union still wants daily testing, which would not be conducive to the laissez-faire approach Arians and Jones are pushing for.

That such a system is now being advocated for, though, underscores the state of sports right now.

If there’s been a week comparable to March 2020, this is it.

Across the board, COVID-19 has ripped through the three American professional leagues currently playing, college basketball and European soccer. All have postponed games as a result of positive cases this week, and with the Omicron variant on the rise, it’s unclear when things will get better.

The Browns seem as good a place to start as any — they’ve had 20 positive tests including starting quarterback Baker Mayfield and backup Case Keenum. Mayfield tweeted his discontent with the NFL’s COVID protocols on Thursday, writing: “Actually caring about player safety would mean delaying the game with this continuing at the rate it is. … but to say you won’t test vaccinated players if they don’t have symptoms, then to pull this randomly. Doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Browns
Baker Mayfield was unhappy with the NFL’s COVID protocols.
AP

Prior to their respective postponements, the Browns and Washington were both down to third-string quarterbacks. Whether that will be alleviated by postponing to Monday and Tuesday isn’t yet clear.

In the NBA, the Bulls are the only team to have games postponed thus far, but the Nets were on the border earlier this week. They played against the Raptors with just eight active players, the minimum for a game to be played.

The NBA, as well as other leagues, has returned to more intensive protocols. Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are among the slew of players to test positive this week. Both local teams have been hit hard, with the Knicks down Immanuel Quickley, Kevin Knox, Quentin Grimes, R.J. Barrett and Obi Toppin. The Nets are missing Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre’ Bembry, Bruce Brown, Jevon Carter, James Johnson and Paul Millsap.

The hardest-hit team in all of sports, though, is the Calgary Flames.

As of Friday morning, the Flames had 19 players and 32 total members of the organization in protocols — with just five players avoiding the virus. Four of their games have been postponed so far, with more looking likely. The Bruins also had their game against Montreal postponed following a raft of positives, including Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, though they did play against the Islanders on Thursday night with just 17 skaters. They weren’t the only NHL team to play with an undermanned roster on Thursday — the Hurricanes beat Detroit with just 16 skaters, with star Sebastian Aho among the players missing.

At the college level, UCLA and Ohio State both had marquee games postponed due to positive tests. The Bruins’ Wednesday night game against Alabama State was canceled less than an hour before tip, with coach Mick Cronin among the positive tests. Saturday’s scheduled game against North Carolina was also called off.

Knicks
Immanuel Quickley is one of now five Knicks out with COVID-19
Getty Images

Across the pond, the English Premier League postponed seven games this week and clubs are reportedly pushing for a temporary shutdown.

A March 2020-style shutdown seems unlikely in American sports right now. The NFL finally gave in to postponements, but it seems impossible that the league would shut down. Discussion around the NBA has centered on more intensive protocols. Ditto for the NHL, which reportedly hasn’t discussed shutting down the season (though pulling its players out of the Olympics feels more likely by the day).

What is clear, though, is that the current situation isn’t sustainable. The virus is decimating teams and the thresholds for postponement seem unclear at best. Following five players being entered into protocol on Thursday night, for example, the Colorado Avalanche were reportedly given the option of playing but voted to do so.

After losing to Nashville, 5-2, Colorado was among the teams shut down on Friday.

Though booster shots are widely available, leagues have been slow to get personnel the third shot. In the case of the Islanders, who suffered a COVID outbreak last month and had Mat Barzal go into protocol this week, coach Barry Trotz said Thursday that the entire team had been boosted. Later that afternoon, the organization sent out a statement walking back the claim.

“That statement is not true,” it said. “The organization has offered the booster shot to the entire team and will continue to educate and recommend that everyone consider receiving.”

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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