It is a season unlike any other, one that will test not only the outer limits of football excellence, but medical science as well.
NFL 2020 is set against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as the league attempts to stage a complete season in the face of the worst worldwide health crisis in a century. Commissioner Roger Goodell has expressed confidence from the early moments of the coronavirus outbreak, adopting a business-as-usual mindset with free agency and the draft. And now that the league has successfully staged training camp with only a handful of positive cases, there is growing optimism that they can really pull this off.
“We’re looking to start and complete the season on time,” Goodell said. “We have to put ourselves in the best possible position to complete the season. We will remain vigilant and adapt to circumstances as needed.”
That the NFL has gotten this far is a testament to its detailed planning in cooperation with the NFL Players Association, in cooperation with medical experts who have suggested elaborate protocols designed to keep the players safe and keep the league running. Daily testing was a major component, and social distancing – even in a sport where that is simply impossible during practice and games – during non-football related activities contributed to minimal positive cases over the summer. From Aug. 12-29, just four players tested positive for the virus.
And now comes the hard part.
After the teams set up shop in 32 mini-bubbles during training camp, they will now travel for games. Not only that, but the players will have more free time now that they’ve returned to their homes after staying mostly sequestered during camp. “It will not be easy, and it will be different," Goodell said, "but we are prepared."
Many stadiums – including MetLife Stadium, home to the Giants and Jets – won’t have fans, while others – including Dallas, Kansas City and Indianapolis – will offer limited capacity seating. Either way, game days will be like never before and will certainly take some getting used to. But given how baseball, basketball and hockey have resumed their seasons without fans, NFL viewers will undoubtedly overcome the weirdness of it all and settle in for what they hope will be a thrilling season.
And if the teams can successfully navigate life in a pandemic, then the football itself should be spectacular.
Kansas City comes in as the clear favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champion, with virtually all its key players back. Reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes was rewarded with a new contract worth upward of half a billion – that’s right, billion – dollars. And star defensive tackle Chris Jones is back on a new long-term contract of his own. With an exceptional group of skill position players featuring tight end Travis Kelce and receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, and now promising rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the fold, Mahomes, coach Andy Reid & Co. have everything going their way.
But the one player who will likely draw the most attention is the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history. At age 43, Tom Brady will be playing for someone other than the Patriots for the first time, as the new Tampa Bay passer looks to start anew. The Bucs are exponentially better with Brady, as well as his former Patriots buddy, tight end Rob Gronkowski. And while it’s asking an awful lot for a player – even as great a player as Brady – to seamlessly adjust to his new surroundings, especially without the benefit of an offseason program due to the pandemic – the six-time Super Bowl winning quarterback believes he’ll be up to the challenge.
“Changing teams after a long period of time has given me an opportunity to really look at myself and what I want to continue to achieve in my career and think that I can bring to a team,” Brady said. “I have to work at it pretty hard physically still, but mentally, that’s been the thing that obviously had its challenges. I think you couple that with the coronavirus situation, and it became even more difficult.”
Tampa turns its lonely eyes to you, Tom.
The NFL wasted no time getting Brady’s newest rivalry going, as the Bucs open the season against NFC South foe New Orleans, where fellow fortysomething Drew Brees returns for what he hopes will be a Super Bowl run. Brees, 41, missed five games last year with a thumb injury, but is optimistic he can enjoy one more – and possibly final – championship season.
It won’t be easy. Not only is Brady now in the division with a much-improved Bucs team, but the NFC is loaded at the top. Defending conference champion San Francisco returns all its key players, and the Seahawks, who added former Jets star Jamal Adams after a blockbuster trade, believe it’s their time again. Dak Prescott is back in Dallas on a one-year contract as the team’s franchise designation, and the Cowboys have beefed up the defense in a bid to make a championship run with new coach Mike McCarthy.
The Eagles have legitimate playoff aspirations, with Carson Wentz hoping to remain healthy after injury problems in recent years, and perhaps Arizona and second-year quarterback Kyler Murray can jump into the category of surprise teams making a postseason run. Won’t be easy in the NFC West, though.
Aaron Rodgers hasn’t lost anything off his fastball, but this might still be the beginning of the end of his run in Green Bay after the Packers traded up for Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. It’s a remarkably similar scenario to Rodgers’ early years in the NFL, when he backed up legendary Brett Favre before the Packers moved on and anointed Rodgers as their long-time starter.
Yes, there are intriguing storylines wherever you look.
Here’s hoping we get to see them play out uninterrupted in these challenging times.