NFL Trends and Storylines to Watch in 2020

With this year almost complete, let’s pull out our crystal ball and examine what could be making waves across the league next season. When if feels like every player is wearing some sort of custom mouthguard... you heard it here first.

It’s the end of another football season. We laughed, we cried, we threw stadium nachos on the field when the Raiders lost their final game in Oakland to Gardner Minshew and the Jaguars. We saw good offenses return to the mean, and we saw middling offenses get a clever makeover and explode. We (hopefully) saw the trend of hiring anyone associated with a newly successful head coach sour. We wept with officiating crews who had to wake up every Sunday and reconsider what a truly egregious and overturn-able pass interference call might look like.

And the amazing thing is that very little of it will matter. The bad teams in the NFL will spend the offseason trying to mimic what the good teams are doing while the good teams will remain a step ahead by studying and implementing things that no one is doing. The NFL will deep-six reviewable pass interference and bury the evidence with the Monday Night Football broadcast tapes featuring Dennis Miller.

This is a chance to guess at what we might be talking about next year happen based on the evidence at hand. While it’s safe to say that trends are hard to predict and understand—JNCO’s cost more than $200 now, by the way—the NFL tends to leave us a few more breadcrumbs despite its overall unpredictability.

Without further ado, here it goes:

Jacoby Brissett

Jacoby Brissett stepped in as the Colts’ starting quarterback after Andrew Luck retired just days before the start of the season.

• No more hiding behind quarterback issues

This season, we saw teams making legitimate playoff pushes (or at least winning a handful of games) with the likes of Minshew, Jacoby Brissett, Kyle Allen, Duck Hodges, Mason Rudolph and Brandon Allen under center.

If 2019 exposed anything in offensive coaching circles, it was the difference between those who subscribe to the old coaching platitude that you’re basically dead in the water without a solid QB1 (there are some more colorful ways to say it) and those who can engineer something on the fly to make it work. Over the course of three seasons, Broncos offensive coordinator (and former 49ers QB coach) Rich Scangarello has won games with Allen, Drew Lock, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard.

While the ultimate fantasy here is to realize that there are only a handful of players like Drew Brees on the earth at a given time, and that coaches should be more fluid and experimental at the quarterback position, that revolution may be a few eras away. At some point down the road, we may see a coach try and spectacularly fail to create a quarterback agnostic system that opts to spend more money on surrounding pieces with a much lower market cost and invest more in schematic advantages to elevate a supposed mid to low-tier starting quarterback. Eventually, though, it will represent freedom from the insane growth of the quarterback market.

• A long, pragmatic push toward sky judge

We’re going to see the NFL quietly pivot away from reviewable pass interference rule and, hopefully, convene this winter with the ultimate goal of creating something more sensible and sustainable. Sky judge, which allows an official in the booth to view the game with the same crystal precision of a pizza-ingesting fantasy football entrepreneur sitting in front of their 4K television, will speed the game along and add an element of transparency that we haven’t had before to the process.

Detractors of sky judge worry that there may not be enough qualified officials to fill the seats, or that it completely saps the game of its human element. However, the league is quickly confronting the reality that if they do not make the officiating position more tenable (and financially rewarding), they’re going to continue to lose their best and brightest, mostly to television networks who hire former officials to further magnify the on-field mistakes. While I’m sure some referees on the ground are going to bristle at a suggestion being piped into their ear from someone who isn’t in the trenches, the league has to decide what is more preferable:

Scenario 1: Invest now in the technology, increase referee pay and wade through the difficult transition period, the bellyaching and the positing. Weed out the people who aren’t on board and in three years, emerge with something fluid and sensible.

Scenario 2: Allow officiating to continue its rapid deterioration under the thumb of steamed head coaches who know what they want but don’t have the time and political finesse to create it.

Dan Mullen

Florida head coach Dan Mullen has coached the Gators to a 20-5 record over the last two seasons.

• The breakdown of the college/NFL coaching barrier

On The Weak Side™ podcast earlier this week, I predicted that two college football coaches would be hired this cycle. The likely pool includes Urban Meyer, Matt Rhule, Dan Mullen and Lincoln Riley. Kliff Kingsbury didn’t achieve Chip Kelly-like success in his first year but when the roster catches up to the offense it appears he’ll at least be a formidable presence in the league for a few years. His hiring will not be prohibitive in the way that Kelly’s firing was for at least a few seasons.

When the idea gap between college and the NFL closes like it has over the past few seasons, it’s only sensible that the coaching gap closes as well. There are more FBS programs. There are more teams with marked disadvantages that need to come up with good ideas to survive against a massive talent disparity. And thus, there is a bigger pool of bright minds from which to choose. In college football, some coaches, like Reilly, simultaneously have a schematic and recruiting edge which ultimately helps a coach get noticed to the point where he’s considered for an NFL job.

Teams that realize that the ultimate weapon is unpredictability are typically the ones we see in the playoffs on a regular basis. It’s harder for an opposing coach to stop you if he hasn’t got a foundation of plays to study.

The reason I think this is a big deal is because college coaches have already figured this out, and good ideas seem to filter upward these days. Take, for example, Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State. His offense needed an edge and so what did he do? Get in line for the next quarterbacks coach to materialize at a Power 5 school and pluck him at a high price? No, he hired Mike Yurcich, who was lighting it up at Shippensburg University. And when Yurcich was taken by Ohio State, Gundy hired….Sean Gleeson from Princeton.

Once you realize that the pieces are all the same at any level, it gets easier to accept ideas from anywhere.

• The explosion of league-regulated “pieces of flare”

Odell Beckham’s Richard Mille watch was probably not the last we’ve seen of unorthodox, wearable flare. The NFL saw one of its most high-profile stars wearing a wristwatch that they could not monetize, and they shook like Old Man Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life when he finds out he can’t buy the Building and Loan.

The difference here, of course, is that the league can stomp out individuality at an alarmingly fast rate and replace it with something that puts money back in their pocket.

Another example: Seahawks’ D.K. Metcalf sports the wildly popular Battle Sports pacifier mouthpiece and Steelers’ Benny Snell wears one that spins when he breathes into it. These fun things start at the youth level, but one could imagine just how popular they could become when discussed by Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the Sunday Night Football broadcast.

This time next holiday season, when you’re at the Nike store frantically trying to find the last remaining on-field Salute To Service Jay-Z State Farm™ sports watch that not only gives you fantasy football updates but tracks your every move with GPS precision desired by nebulous back-room software vampires... just remember that you heard it here first.

Man, I wish I was kidding.

• The insistence that you are (or definitely are not) analytics-minded

If you noticed the vibe from both Panthers owner David Tepper and former head coach Mike McCarthy these past few weeks, it appears “analytics” has finally gone from vomit-inducing anti-football rhetoric to corporate buzzword that everyone must embrace in order to get a job.

You know how Indeed and filter out your resume if they don’t include certain terms (and that you’d probably just be better off copy and pasting the job description into the cover letter field)? That’s going to be the NFL hiring cycle this offseason if you don’t mention some kind of data driven approach.

Owner: Hello coach. Do you analytics?

Coach: Yes, I have always analytics. I have the best analytics.

Owner: Great, you are hired.

It should be noted that John Harbaugh didn’t start the analytics trend in football. He talks about it more than other coaches and his success has helped mainstream some of the concepts so that they eventually rose to the level of digestible-tidbit-my-owner-might-see-in-the-Financial-Times. And that is where all good and fun things go to die.

The analytics revolution won’t stop the majority of football coaches from being maniacal and control-obsessed. This is interesting because a big part of a true analytical revolution is being able to understand that someone knows things better than you and to delegate certain powers and decisions to those people. You have a fourth down formula? Ok, you are the captain now. 

The most grating part about this process is that it will not be unlike when Sashi Brown was hired in Cleveland and writers treated him like a space alien who only wanted to select players off Pro Football Focus grades. That isn’t analytics. But after these next few weeks when everyone who had sworn off data driven approaches only to now embrace them in order to get a head coaching job, maybe we’ll all have a hard time understanding what analytics really are.

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