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What would happen if a tragedy killed or disabled part of an NFL team’s roster?

Every now and again a sports team is involved in a travel tragedy. Does the NFL have a plan for such events? And if so, what is it?

Chicago Blackhawks v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Jason Halstead /Getty Images

Travel can be an inherently risky proposition. Fortunately, it’s relatively safe in the modern world. But tragedies do sometimes happen. Sometimes, they happen to sports teams.

Just over a month ago, a bus full of young hockey players collided with a semi truck in Saskatchewan, killing 15 players and coaches. The entire nation of Canada, and the entire sport of hockey, rallied around the Humboldt Broncos amidst their tragedy. Supporters left hockey sticks on their front porches in tribute, and a GoFundMe campaign organized for the team exceeded $15 million in donations.

Unfortunately, they were far from the first team to suffer such a massive loss.

1970 was a particularly bad year for American football transportation. On Oct. 2, one of two planes carrying the Wichita State University football team crashed in Clear Creek County, Colorado. Coach Ben Wilson and 14 players lost their lives. And barely more than a month later, Marshall University suffered an even greater tragedy when the team’s DC-9 hit a tree while landing and exploded, killing 37 players and nine coaches. It was the highest casualty total suffered by any American sports team.

Oklahoma State University is one of few American organizations to encounter multiple such tragedies, with crashes in 2001 and 2011 killing coaches and other members of their men’s and women’s basketball teams respectively. Fortunately, NFL teams have not shared OSU’s bad luck.

But what if the Denver Broncos, for example, had the misfortune to encounter a tragedy like the ones that overtook the Humboldt Broncos or these other teams? Does the NFL have a plan for that?

There is absolutely a plan. It’s a plan that no one ever wants to use, but it’s there if that day should come.

The NFL, due to its large roster size, actually divides such accidents into two categories:

  • A “near disaster” is an accident that kills or otherwise incapacitates fewer than 15 players.
  • A “disaster” is an accident that kills 15 or more players.

There isn’t any provision mentioned for the loss of coaches or front office personnel, which seems a bit odd. I’d presume that the Commissioner would handle a major loss of those personnel in a manner based on that particular situation.

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

So what happens if a “near-disaster” or “disaster” strikes?

After a near-disaster, the team that suffered the loss must continue its season. They would be given priority for waiver claims and would be able to poach players off of other teams’ practice squads in order to re-fill the gaps in their roster. The other teams’ 53-man rosters would be safe, with the exception of one very specific situation - If a quarterback is among the dead/disabled players, the team will be given the opportunity to “draft” up to two quarterbacks from other teams’ rosters. But this “draft” comes with two caveats: 1) only third-string QBs are eligible. Starters and primary backups are safe. And 2) the quarterback(s) return to their original team at the end of the season.

The one other concession the NFL would make to the stricken team after a near-disaster is a big one - that team automatically gets the first overall pick in the next year’s draft. Sources I’ve found aren’t clear on whether they would simply move up in the normal 32 pick order or if there would then be 33 first round picks including two for that team. It’s notable that this is either the only, or one of very few, situations in which the normal NFL draft order is superseded.

If 15 or more players are killed or disabled, then the response to the disaster is in the Commissioner’s hands. He will choose whether the team’s season will continue or not. If their season continues, then the near-disaster procedures apply. But if the team is so damaged that the Commissioner decides to cancel their season, then the recovery process begins to look more like the establishment of an expansion team.

Like with the near-disaster procedure, the damaged team will receive the number one overall pick in the next year’s draft. But there will also be a restocking draft that takes place after the end of the season. The other 31 teams would be able to select 32 players to protect each, leaving the remaining 22 members of their roster available for the restocking draft. The team would then choose from among the 682 total players available until their 53 man roster is complete.

It’s good to have contingencies in place in case a team plane crashes or some other disaster strikes, but let’s hope that this particular plan never needs to be dusted off.