Attacks lead to first stop in play. No decision on whether NFL games will be rescheduled.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001
TAMPA -- The NFL called off games this weekend for the first time, saying it would be inappropriate to play after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
The league's announcement came Thursday morning after a conference call with commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the 31 owners. The move was in accord with the wishes of players.
"It's just not a good time to play," Bucs defensive end Warren Sapp said. "Just to talk about it is difficult. It's been three days and they are still digging for people and trying to get this country back to where we want it to be. To go out and play football? Nah, it's not right."
The Bucs were to play the Philadelphia Eagles in the home opener Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, a rematch with the team that ended the Bucs' 2000 season.
"We in the NFL have decided that our priorities for this weekend are to pause, grieve and reflect," Tagliabue said. "It's a time to tend to families and neighbors and all those wounded by these horrific acts of terrorism."
The league has not decided whether to reschedule the games or reduce the regular season to 15 games. If the league reschedules the Week 2 games, they will be played the first weekend in January, which normally is reserved for wild-card playoff games.
That would mean three conference champions and one wild-card team from each conference would qualify for the playoffs. Under that format, neither the Bucs nor the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens would have reached the postseason a year ago.
Because Tampa Bay's bye week is Sept. 23, it will go 21 days between games before resuming its season Sept. 30 at Minnesota.
General manager Rich McKay said he does not believe the Bucs face a competitive disadvantage not playing for three weeks. The break will help several players overcome injuries, such as center Jeff Christy and receiver Keyshawn Johnson.
"I don't think it has any effect competitively if you put the game back in place and you play it at the end," McKay said. "If you don't, then you've just got some minor tweaking to do to try and get it as competitively fair as it is. I don't think anybody is going to get real concerned even at the end of the year that somehow the playoff teams went from 12 to eight. Whatever it is, it is. We'll all play by it."
Thursday's decision ended a week in which teams tried to prepare for games while voicing concerns about safety in 70,000-seat stadiums as well as the logistical problems of chartering planes.
"I know my perspective changed last night," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "Because at first I thought we would play, so I was trying to condition myself. But then when I went home and saw the rescue efforts, the excavation and talked about how long it was going to go on, to realize that we'd be out there playing football while they were still searching for maybe possibly living people, maybe that's something that changed my perspective a little."
The NFL Players Association scheduled a conference call for Thursday night to discuss making a monetary donation to the relief efforts. "I would think across the league, guys are going to get together and talk about ways to put together money and donations, to kind of do our part to help the victims' families in those towns," said Bucs punter Mark Royals, the team's NFLPA representative.
Bucs players agreed Wednesday to play this weekend if the league decided to do so. Privately, most said it would be hard to concentrate on football.
"I think there's a lot of obvious reasons: the security factors, wondering if a Monday night venue is a nice target for somebody," Royals said. "And that might not go away. There's Monday night games next week and the week after that. Guys just weren't comfortable, especially the teams from New York.
"It's tough on the Jets and the Giants. Their representatives were saying they go out every single day and see the towers are not there, and they see the smoke and they hear the sirens. The last thing they can think about is football."
Until Thursday the NFL had never canceled games because of national catastrophes, including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
On a day of national mourning after the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President Kennedy, the American Football League postponed its games but the NFL played. Pete Rozelle, commissioner at the time, later called it a mistake.
"I think some of the owners that have been in this league that long -- Mr. (Wellington) Mara, Mr. (Art) Modell and owners like that -- I think they did voice their opinions that maybe this game shouldn't be played based on their prior experience," McKay said. "But I think there were a lot of factors going into it."
After learning of the decision during their walk-through just before noon, the Bucs cut short their afternoon workout by a half hour. Players will have a 90-minute practice today before getting three of the next four days off.
The Bucs will not have a game at Raymond James Stadium until they host Green Bay on Oct. 7. But McKay applauded the decision not to play this weekend.
"I'm very comfortable with the decision because I think the issues we face are not issues that we've ever faced before in any instance," McKay said. "So to me, this is the way to go. I certainly respect the other way. But I felt like it was appropriate to go this direction. And I think in the end, that's the way the league felt."