As the NFL season opens tonight, I am offering eight storylines to follow closely, particularly in September.
And this is not about predicting a champion. Or even a New England-Tampa Bay Super Bowl (but it could happen).
This is about dealing with COVID-19 and the possible advantages and issues facing coaches, players and even fans.
It’s going to be different for a lot of people.
It all begins on Thursday night. Here are eight storylines fans will want to follow closely in the first month:
A year ago, on Week 17, the Colts were favored by 5.5 points over the home team, the Jaguars. It was a meaningless game. The Jaguars won in a blowout, substitutes everywhere, 38-20. Fast forward to this weekend and the Colts return to Jacksonville for Game 1 of the 2020 season, this time favored by 7.5 points. Both point spreads seem legit. But are they? One had fans and other didn’t. Is there a homefield advantage, without fans? Is travel a factor? You know what? Nobody knows. The first few weeks of the NFL season will be an adjustment for bookmakers. It will be interesting seeing how they adjust in big homefield advantages like Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores talked about how much practice time has been missed, referring to mini-camps and longer training camps, referring to the amount of time players, particularly young players, have missed. You know what that means? In a sport where coaching is king, coaching is more important than ever before the reduced teaching time. Advantage to Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh and Andy Reid, etc. These guys have been through the ringer, all Super Bowl champs, and their guidance in this season will be more important than ever.
If coaching experience, especially at the top, will be the most important thing on a team’s resume this season, the amount of superstars might be a close second. Team with the most elite talent, as in self-coached and self-motivated, will have an advantage with so many question marks among young players this season. Great players provide better instincts and less adjustments at key times. Teams with three, four or five superstars will be at an advantage.
Rookies on call
It’s tough playing as a rookie in the NFL. Typically. Think about 2020. No mini-camps. No one-on-one workouts with coaches. No personal film sessions with Belichick. No scrimmages with opponents. And, worst of all, no preseason games. Rookies are going to have to wait their turn, a bit, in this fall. Remember, the NFL might be more mental than it is physical. And without the reps in practice and preseason games, it’s anybody’s game. The rookies, for the most part, won’t be as electric as usual. It could mean a surprise Rookie of the Year.
It’s going to be weird, almost as weird as seeing cardboard fans (MLB) or virtual fans (NBA) – the piped in crowd noise. Football, as much as any sport, thrives on fan participation, particularly being a road team on third down in the fourth quarter. The crowd noise does add to the experience on TV, but it’s not the same.
Lamar Jackson blueprint
Lamar Jackson figured out the NFL in 2019, all the way to the MVP Award. With COVID-19 ruining off-season workouts for all teams, it left some time for a coach like Bill Belichick to work on extra stuff, like slowing down Jackson. The NFL is notorious for figuring guys out, forcing adjustments. Jackson, the odds are, will not be successful statistically this fall. AFC Central coaches in particular probably worked on Jackson the most and could offer blueprints for the rest of the NFL.
Here’s the question I have about the Chiefs: Did they commit, in the off-season, to winning another Super Bowl. If they did – I sort of doubt it – they will run away with things in 2020, to the tune of 14-2 and a ring. But back to back champs just don’t happen like they used to. The Patriots in 2003 and 2004 are the last group to pull it off. The Chiefs have the best QB on the planet in Patrick Mahomes. They are the most talented group, especially on offense. But that doesn’t win two in a row. Grit does.
New Brady Bunch
Tom Brady has toys. Fancy ones. Great ones. And good ones. Mike Evans (67 rec., 1,157 yards, 8 TDs in 13 games), Chris Godwin (86 rec., 1,333 yards, 9 TDs in 14 games) and Leonard Fornette (1,152 yards rushing and 522 yards receiving) give Brady everything he needs to confuse defense. Oh yes, I forgot to mention a key newbie as well, Rob Gronkowski, who should be a double-digit TD guy with those guys around him. While stats will be harder to come by, due to the number of talented guys around, the Bucs are built, at least on offense, like a 12-win team, five more than 2019.