During the summer, with baseball just returning from its hiatus and the NHL and NBA scrambling to build “bubbles” to complete their interrupted seasons, many scoffed at the prospect of the NFL going through a four-month schedule on time.
Without cancellations or significant delays, too, likely even to the staging of the Super Bowl.
It's now 2021, and while the league isn't gloating about getting every regular-season game played in an NFL stadium, maybe it should. When the Eagles host Washington for the season finale, a sense of achievement and relief would be natural.
“It's been a tremendous accomplishment by our players and clubs, all personnel who have worked on this, and certainly our relationship with the players association,” says Jeff Miller, the league's executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy. “As we are thinking about Feb. 7 and getting to the Super Bowl, we all think about the many weeks it has taken to get here with an appreciation and gratitude.”
Miller is understating the timeline. The NFL began formulating its plans and protocols to mitigate COVID-19 even before the 2020 business year began in March. Virtual reality became, well, virtual reality when such events as free agency, the draft, and all offseason activities went remote. A series of protocols, updated throughout the year, were designed to make team practice facilities and stadiums as safe as possible during the pandemic.
Preseason games were canceled — a four-game exhibition schedule would seem a thing of the past — and the schedule kicked off on time in September. Stadiums generally were empty of fans, creating an eerie environment in places such as Lambeau Field and the Linc that usually rock with noise and enthusiasm from the stands. Eventually, enough places allowed socially distanced fans in some buildings, and the NFL reached 1 million in attendance, something it approaches in one full week of regular-season games under normal circumstances.
The financial hit has been enormous, estimated at $2 billion in revenue losses. No, that doesn't mean franchises will beg poverty or disappear. Broadcast contracts make up for much of the negative impact. But the lack of ticket sales and spending at games and at the draft that was planned for last April in Las Vegas, plus a scaled-down Super Bowl week, affects everything from the profit line to the salary cap — which could be stagnant for 2021, forcing most every team to scramble.
Scrambling became a necessity for the clubs experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks (Baltimore, Tennessee, Denver, New England, Cleveland) and even some of their opponents as games were delayed and moved. For the first time in the modern era, the NFL played on every day of the week, with a juicy Thanksgiving night matchup between Baltimore and Pittsburgh winding up hitting the field the following Wednesday.
Denver used a converted wide receiver at quarterback when its entire QB group was barred for a game against New Orleans. Cleveland saw its top four wideouts sidelined for a game, too. Both the Broncos and Browns were beaten in those contests.
“It’s kind of the times that we’re living in right now,” Lions interim head coach Darrell Bevell said when he was forced to sit out a matchup with Tampa Bay. Detroit lost, too.
Along with the Lions' Matt Patricia, head coaches losing their jobs during the season were Dan Quinn in Atlanta and Bill O'Brien in Houston, where he also was general manager. Fellow GMs Bob Quinn in Detroit, Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta and Dave Caldwell in Jacksonville were fired.
Also gone: Redskins. The Washington franchise, after years of social and racial protests about the nickname, ditched it in a year of social and racial reckoning.
Players and franchises across the pro football landscape launched or took part in initiatives emphasizing equality, education, voter registration, police and prison reform, and economic irregularities. They donated time and money — lots of both — to those programs, even during the pandemic.
“I hope that happens for years and years to come because we know how powerful the shield is and the NFL can be,” Broncos safety Justin Simmons said, “and there could be a lot of good change coming with that support.”
On the field, there was the rise of the Dolphins and Browns, both on the verge of qualifying for the postseason in their finales Sunday. Tampa Bay, with some 43-year-old guy named Tom Brady at quarterback, snapped a 12-season postseason drought.
And the demise of the Texans, Jets, Eagles, Vikings and, most notably, the 2019 NFC champion 49ers, and the Brady-less Patriots.
Rookies made their mark, too, including quarterbacks Justin Herbert of the Chargers and Joe Burrow of the Bengals, whose season was cut short by a knee injury as he was setting first-year QB records that Herbert eventually surpassed. Running backs James Robinson in Jacksonville, Antonio Gibson in Washington, Clyde Edwards-Helaire in Kansas City, Jonathan Taylor in Indianapolis, and J.K. Dobbins in Baltimore were terrific.
So were receivers Justin Jefferson in Minnesota, CeeDee Lamb in Dallas, Brandon Aiyuk in San Francisco and Chase Claypool in Pittsburgh. Offensive linemen went high in the draft, and a few came through right away: Tampa Bay's Tristan Wirfs, the Jets' Mekhi Becton, Cleveland’s Jedrick Wills, Miami’s Austin Jackson and the Giants' Andrew Thomas.
Defensive rookies making their marks ranged from Chase Young in Washington to Jeremy Chinn in Carolina to Patrick Queen in Baltimore to Raekwon Davis in Miami to Julian Blackmon in Indianapolis.
But for every newcomer who turned heads, there were the injuries that sidelined stars. Denver didn't have LB Von Miller all season. Dallas lost QB Dak Prescott, the Giants were without RB Saquon Barkley, Cleveland saw WR Odell Beckham Jr. go down, and Carolina barely had 2019 All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey.
Perennial offensive line dominators Tyron Smith of the Cowboys and Mike Pouncey of the Chargers were absent. So were DE Nick Bosa, LB Chandler Jones, and CB Richard Sherman.
All of that on top of the COVID-19 complications.
“It’s just you never knew when that was going to happen," Jets coach Adam Gase says. "It’s hard to sit there and prepare for it because you never knew where it was coming from and what position group would be affected or what players will be affected. I mean, it was a valuable learning experience, to say the least.”
So here we are, beginning 2021 with a relatively bright outlook. No one can say that was totally expected.
AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton and Dennis Waszak Jr. contributed.
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