Even before NFL owners approved of expanding the regular season to 17 games beginning with the 2021 campaign, rumors emerged that the highly-anticipated schedule release for the upcoming season wouldn't take place until some point in May and after the NFL Draft that opens April 29.
ESPN's Adam Schefter confirmed the news on Thursday:
For the second straight year, the 2021 NFL schedule will be released after the draft, per source. Not that there was much of a question about it, but it’s now official. Draft, then schedule.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 15, 2021
The delay theoretically allows for more football fans to receive COVID-19 vaccine shots and for infection rates to hopefully drop before the league can boast of plans to have thousands of people gather inside stadiums and potentially travel for road matchups. On Wednesday, the NFL announced that two million COVID-19 vaccine shots have been administered at league vaccination sites this year.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills have declared they intend to make fans prove they're vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend games in 2021. It's expected at least some other teams will embrace versions of so-called "vaccine passports" between now and August preseason contests.
The NFL pushing schedule releases past the draft could become an annual occurrence in an attempt to offer football fans a significant event at a time when the country's most popular sport is often out of sight and out of mind.