What a storyline the NFL stumbled into in February: Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. It was the greatest quarterback of all time against the future of the sport. It was a defending champion against a franchise that had come out of nowhere to achieve greatness.
And even before that, the NFL had breakthrough seasons for the Bills and the Browns; gutsy performances from Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees; and even a battle between Lamar Jackson and Derrick Henry.
But it wasn’t all’s-well-that-ends-well. The pandemic season veered from random to jarring to scary. In the same way that the last global pandemic changed football forever — preceding the start of the NFL in 1920 — this one will alter a lot of aspects of the new national pastime.
Here’s what we learned from the NFL’s strange 2020 journey — and what we still wait to find out.
The preseason isn’t as crucial as we thought …
The Bucs started the regular season with a bunch of new players at key positions, led by a 40-something superstar who had just arrived after two decades in New England — and they won the Super Bowl with basically no preseason at all. Sure, a normal lead-up to September would have helped, but it was not essential. The players figured it out, the coaches figured it out and the league figured it out. Nobody got to January and said, “We would have won the Super Bowl if we had a real training camp.”
The power brokers realized this, as one of the four preseason games has been permanently shelved in favor of a 17th regular-season game. No one will be surprised if (when) another exhibition is canned so the league can move to 18 regular-season games.
There’s another, subtler advantage: The NFL registered only 30 concussions during the preseason last year — fewer than half of the lowest total for any other season since 2012. Obviously, there were no head injuries in 2020 preseason games, but the 30 concussions during practice leaned toward the lower end of the usual range. Meanwhile, regular seasons concussions came in at 142 — down from 192 in 2015.
“By the end of the season, a lot of the guys said they felt fresher,” says Browns center JC Tretter, president of the players’ union. “You get a sense of how many injuries we avoided. We really need to look at those changes.”
… and neither is the combine
Sportswriters publicly lamented the cancellation of the annual pre-draft spectacle in Indianapolis, but the evaluation process itself didn’t seem to suffer irretrievably. Players got tested at their schools (or nearby campuses) for Pro Days — sometimes more than once. If we’re being honest, a lot of the pre-draft process is overhyped. The 40-yard dash, as many know, was originally based on the ability of a player to sprint down the field in punt coverage. And some of the questions asked of the players are either silly or downright insulting. The pandemic revealed that scouts have sufficient information before February rolls around.
The fans do matter … but does the media?
It just wasn’t the same without the crowds. It was sad, and eerie, and a constant reminder of a pandemic that changed lives and took lives. Even the Super Bowl itself — buoyed by vaccinated front-line workers in the stands — just didn’t feel right without a packed house.
There was also very possibly an effect on the field. The Bucs went on the road for all three games leading up to the Super Bowl — in Washington, in Green Bay and in New Orleans — and won in traditionally hostile places. They weren’t the only ones: The Browns won in Pittsburgh (and nearly in Kansas City), the Ravens won in Tennessee and the Rams won in Seattle. Would that have all happened anyway? Maybe. But the game is literally amplified by the noise of the stadium — even if it means we won’t be able to hear some of the choice words that were picked up by field mics last year.
How about the media? Access to interviews was Zoom-only, which had a positive effect in allowing reporters from all over the country to ask questions after games. The “Opening Night” of Super Bowl week traded the silly costumes and gag questions for sober and earnest queries from local scribes and even college students. In a way, it was really nice.
But football thrives in part on the personal journeys of the players, and those accounts don’t shine as brightly without in-person interviews. Surely there were compelling stories that went untold last season. Wouldn’t you have liked to know how Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown interacted with teammates around the locker room?
The NFL is adaptable
No one will ever accuse the league of being avant-garde, but the way the NFL shifted on the fly last season was rather impressive in some respects. The NFL Draft — coming only weeks after most of the nation shut down — was quite a feat of technical ingenuity. And the willingness of the league to play games at different hours on different days (Tuesday afternoon kickoff, anyone?) allowed the season to finish on time.
There were effective COVID protocols at the stadiums. Jacksonville and Kansas City had fans in the stands as early as Week 1, and those affairs did not turn into super-spreader events. The league administered more than a million COVID tests, and it used top-of-the-line tech for contract tracing. Some in the league office were awake before dawn every single day to make sure everything was monitored. Finally, the free tickets for front-line workers at the Super Bowl were a nice touch. Overall, the league walked a precarious line between playing through it and being sensitive to a deadly virus.
“People fear what change will happen, but the game was better than it’s been, too,” Tretter says. “We had the most points scored in NFL history. We had fewer penalties and less missed tackles.”
Ratings were down in some cases, but the league still found ways to be lucrative. This spring, the NFL inked deals with its TV partners worth $10 billion, and that included a “Thursday Night Football” deal with Amazon. Then it struck an agreement with three sports betting outfits: DraftKings, Caesars and FanDuel. That will reportedly bring in a cool billion in revenue over the next five years. Yes, the league trailed the other major sports leagues in shifting into the gambling realm — remember when Tony Romo’s fantasy football convention got shut down in 2015? — but the pandemic sped up a sports betting trend, and the league jumped on it. Will it pay off? Of course. Will it carry unintended consequences? Probably so.
How about another pandemic trend? Players (present and former) seized on the cryptocurrency craze by offering non-fungible tokens to up their own brands and income. And some players — notably Trevor Lawrence and Russell Okung — became faces of crypto. Will that pay off? Well, Bitcoin’s price has more than doubled since Okung shifted his dollars into crypto in late December. So (as of this writing) he’s made more than $6 million just by converting his cash.
The players’ association and the owners collaborated in new and resonant ways. Although efforts at social justice like stenciling “End Racism” on the fields came across as almost comically weak, commissioner Roger Goodell came a little bit closer to understanding the perspective of the black athlete in the 2020s.
The NFL is still a business
You may not know the name Ryquell Armstead. But maybe you should. He had a good shot at a breakout role with the Jaguars after Leonard Fournette moved from Florida’s east coast to its Gulf coast for the Bucs. But Armstead was reportedly hospitalized twice with COVID-19, and his football future is unclear. At the end of the regular season, Armstead’s agent told the Washington Post that the player’s condition was “not something that we would want to discuss at this time.” More than 200 NFL players tested positive for COVID, according to that same article. Most recovered with no major issues, but it’s still too soon to know what if any long-term effects will linger.
Finishing the season will go down in NFL history as a triumph, but it’s important to remember those who couldn’t. And as Tretter points out, we are not out of the pandemic even if full stadiums are a realistic possibility. Risks always remain.
It's better to be lucky *and* good
Let’s be honest: The pandemic struck at a fairly benign time of the year for the NFL. It was months away from the season, on the doorstep of the draft — an event that could work virtually. While other leagues foraged through the unsettling summer, the NFL had time to learn lessons that might have eluded the league had the world shut down closer to August. Still, the relative resilience of the league showed up. There is a chance that Gen Z has shifted over the last year away from live sports and towards Roblox, but if that’s the biggest challenge to the dominance of the NFL after a pandemic, football is doing just fine.