Buffalo's Cole Beasley situation offers NFL teams glimpse into potential nightmare scenario

Cole Beasley will miss Buffalo’s game Sunday against New England. It will likely determine which team wins the AFC East and secures the home playoff game that comes with it.

The Bills receiver is on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list.

Since Beasley is unvaccinated, he’s unavailable for 10 days and thus will miss the clash in Foxborough between the 9-5 Patriots and the 8-6 Bills, who began the season eyeing the Super Bowl but instead could miss the postseason altogether.

And as the year winds down and the playoffs approach, just as the Omicron variant causes cases to spike, Beasley serves as a reminder of the risk — in football terms — of counting on players who, due to being unvaccinated, risk running into harsher protocols from the league.

Missing some September or October game is one thing. Missing this showdown, let alone an elimination game in January, is something else. A Beasley-esque situation could alter the entire NFL season.

Had Beasley been vaccinated, he still might have been able to play against New England. First off, he may never have even been tested. Fully vaccinated players are subject to being tested only if they display “symptoms.” Beasley has said his symptoms are “mild” and perhaps not noticed or easily hidden.

Additionally, even after the positive test, NFL rules would have allowed him to become immediately eligible if he could have produced:

  • Two negative PCR tests that either are negative or produce CT values of 35 or greater.

  • One PCR test that either is negative or produces a CT value of 35 or greater, and a negative Mesa test result taken within 24 hours of the PCR test.

  • Two negative Mesa tests.

Instead the Bills are without a key receiver who has caught 76 passes for 640 yards and keeps defenses honest on teammate Stefon Diggs.

Beasley had the right to make the choice to be unvaccinated. There is no mandate in this country. He did what he believed was best for him. He has been an outspoken critic of the NFL protocols all but forcing players to get the jab. He declared himself neither “anti- or pro-vax.” Instead he said he was “pro-choice.”

Again, his right. At age 32, and in excellent health, he is statistically unlikely to have a serious health issue from the virus — although two of his teammates this year have been hospitalized, including just recently offensive lineman Jonathan Feliciano, who is vaccinated.

Cole Beasley's decision to remain unvaccinated has put his availability for the Buffalo Bills in jeopardy. If such a thing happened to francise quarterback, it would be a nightmare scenario. (Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports)
Cole Beasley's decision to remain unvaccinated has put his availability for the Buffalo Bills in jeopardy. If such a thing happened to francise quarterback, it would be a nightmare scenario. (Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bills decided Beasley was worth the gamble. Not necessarily that he’d get sick from COVID, but that he could be lost at the worst possible time … which is essentially what has happened.

It’s why for plenty of people in the NFL, the vaccine debate wasn’t as much about health as it was about practicality. As the old saying goes, “your best ability is availability.” Right now Beasley isn’t available. And he knows why.

“Just to be clear COVID is not keeping me out of this game,” he wrote on Instagram. “The rules are. Vaxxed players are playing with Covid every week now because they don't test.”

Beasley hates the rules. Yet the rules are the rules. This entire scenario was clear. His union participated in the creation of the protocols. And whether Beasley or anyone else disagrees with the rules, or thinks vaccines don’t work, this is what was set up: Individual rights versus responsibility to the team.

NFL teams weren’t supposed to consider vaccination status when setting their roster — not every player is as good as Beasley and thus worth the risk — but of course they did. It would have been a disservice to the club to not consider it.

“Part of the production [was] … ‘Is he vaccinated or not?’” Urban Meyer, then Jacksonville’s head coach, admitted in August. “Can I say that was a decision-maker? It was certainly in consideration.”

Actually, Meyer couldn’t say that. The NFLPA opened an “investigation” into it. The Jaguars tried to backpedal. Whatever. Meyer was correct. How couldn’t it be? (On a side note: Meyer getting in trouble for telling the truth was a hysterical twist no one saw coming.)

And so here we, predictably, are: Week 16 and the Bills are disadvantaged because of Beasley’s decision. And they likely won’t be the last team in this situation.

It’s not out of the question that an entire season, via a playoff game loss, could hinge on the vaxx status of a key player. A second-option wide receiver is one thing. A starting quarterback is another.

It would be a nightmare for the team and the NFL, but that’s where things appear to be headed as cases increase across the country.

The league is trying to avoid it by relaxing — it calls it "adjusting" – its standards and essentially not testing vaccinated players unless they are under suspicion of displaying symptoms. That's fine. This isn't 2020.

While the NFL will still perform some “strategic, targeted spot testing,” at this point, it seems fairly simple to avoid the protocols. Either get vaccinated or don’t get COVID.

There is still time for the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, of course. There are two more weeks remaining in the regular season, then a month of playoffs. Will the pressure of the calendar push the holdouts? Or will they continue to risk their game status?

It’s a strange side story to the season that football was hoping to leave COVID behind. That didn’t happen. So here we are, even as the calendar barrels toward 2022.