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Opinion: Bills-Bengals neutral-site criticisms lack key context

Didn’t this all happen barely two weeks ago?

Cincinnati Bengals v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals were unable to finish their scheduled Monday Night Football game against one another on January 2, 2023, after Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and needed on-field resuscitation to survive.

In the immediate aftermath, NFL talking heads rightfully focused their discourse first and foremost on Hamlin’s health and well-being, with the ramifications of the league calling the suspended game a “no contest” taking a back seat. And, more importantly, much of the initial rhetoric on that latter point had to do with the NFL being in a no-win situation. The NFL lacked a perfect way to resolve all of the potential scenarios branching out from its no-contest decision.

Not playing that Week 17 game was the right call from a human perspective. But just over two weeks later, as the Bills and the Bengals prepare to play each other in the divisional round of the playoffs — not just in a rematch of the game that wasn’t, but in the first game truly affected by the NFL’s so-called, equity-minded rule changes following the no-contest declaration — the narratives around the changes are starting to warp a bit.

Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk started the discourse last week, specifically pertaining to a (then-potential) Bills-Bengals playoff game, by asking: “What happened to the divisional round?” Other ensuing arguments have remained focused on when during the postseason this game would happen, rather than the actual issue the NFL tried to address.

That would be the first problem with the current discourse on this surprisingly touchy subject: the NFL was pretty clear on the criteria for changing the rules — that being the number of games played, and not when any conceivable matchup could occur within the playoff bracket. Yet this fact is largely ignored in favor of further expanding on the alternative.

The second, and bigger, point that the neutral-site Bills-Bengals game discourse is missing: the NFL also told us why it wouldn’t happen right after the rules changes were announced, and that the league’s competition committee had actually discussed the possibility “at length.” Their reasoning? The logistics wouldn’t work out.

That logic is, at least, relatively easy to call BS on. If the Bills could have a home game against the Cleveland Browns moved to Ford Field in Detroit, MI on just four days’ notice, then the league could have pulled off a neutral-site option for a divisional-round playoff game in 16 days’ time, should they have so chosen. The league announced the neutral-site location for the AFC championship game on January 12, six days after the rules changes were finalized, and 17 days before the game is scheduled to be played. It’s possible (though maybe not particularly likely) that there were, indeed, additional logistical hurdles to clear for a playoff game that the Bills-Browns game was not subject to, but with the right motivation, there was plenty of time here.

But the fact that the NFL discussed it still appears to be omitted from the current conversations about the game’s venue.

A third, and considerably more minor, point that the discourse leaves out: the league office didn’t simply foist these rules onto an unsuspecting football populace. That’s because the one-time measure was voted into place by the league’s owners. There was a chance that it could be vetoed by ownership, and the measure did, in fact, receive “no” votes. This was no random act; it was considered at multiple levels over a period of several days.

In a no-win situation, the league decided to make changes, and different fan populations and supposedly objective commentators will obviously have different reactions to those changes. I understand that. In effect, the league chose to take action, alienating one team involved that didn’t deserve blowback after acting with honor in the heat of the moment. The league did this instead of doing nothing, which was a real option — one with pre-established rules to follow (that would have yielded the Bengals visiting the Bills, by the way, as they will do this weekend), but one that also might have made the league seem especially callous in a critical PR moment. They already have that reputation, so it’s not particularly surprising they went in a different direction.

The Bills, at least, were ready to accept the consequences of not finishing their game against Cincinnati. They saw the bigger picture. Per left tackle Dion Dawkins, in a piece written last week for The Players’ Tribune, on Bills head coach Sean McDermott in the wake of the Hamlin incident (bolded emphasis mine):

Like there’s this part of you in the moment that’s still keeping your game face tight, still keeping your focus on the #1 seed. But then there’s this other part of you that’s feeling shock and terror, because they just drove a body off the field, and it’s your brother. So it’s like these two wires crossing — and I think a lot of guys were feeling that without even knowing it. But McDermott stepped up, man, he did. He got in front of the team, and he said we’re not playing, period. He said no matter what the outcome is, we’re not playing. And that might not sound like a lot, but it’s a lot. Because right then, that’s permission to be a person. Not a player — a person. Trust me there’s a difference.

I’m not here to be an NFL apologist. An unprecedented thing happened, and the NFL made an unprecedented move to react to it. Some people’s feelings were hurt along the way, and others are being critical of the plan after saying there was no good plan to begin with. The league may have had good intentions with their decision, but there undoubtedly were other less-than-rosy factors that went into it.

All of this is to say, this entire neutral-site Bills versus Bengals conversation is a huge, convoluted mess, and has been from the beginning. The same is true for the entirety of the one-time rule changes put into effect. Attempts to simplify the conversation down to, “why didn’t the league do X” miss the mark for this reason: none of this was even remotely simple. While we’re being critical of the decisions made by the parties involved, it’s important that we keep a full-picture perspective on what was done, why, and that we don’t lose sight of the fact that none of this was supposed to happen — and ideally, none of it will need to happen again.