On Thursday the NFL will return, with Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson squaring off in prime time, with (some) fans in the stands. Imperfect as it is, the league arrived at this moment after a virtual draft, lots of COVID-19 testing and no preseason games. Heading into the first week of action, here are 20 story lines to follow throughout the 2020 season:
1) How will COVID-19 shape the season?
As experts predict an uptick in COVID-19 infections peaking in late autumn, the NFL is barreling head-on into its regular season. The league decided against the bubble approach and is instead relying on social distancing and frequent testing, like MLB. So far the number of positive cases has remained low—eight out of 8,739 players and personnel tested positive from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5—and teams have avoided widespread outbreaks through five weeks of training camps.
Unlike MLB, the NFL has less flexibility to reschedule games and is inviting more risk as some stadiums will host fans at limited capacity at season’s start. NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said in August that the league expects cases during the season. Competitive equality and a full 16-game slate of games might not be achievable. The unwelcome reality is that for this season to happen, it’s going to be different.
2) How will owners respond to ongoing calls for racial justice and equality?
Police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, igniting a wave of sit-outs across professional sports in response to continued injustice and police brutality. That’s a national conversation the league has strayed away from before, but the NFL has recently circled back and attempted to hear players out and take a more active public role. When games, not practices, are at risk, are owners ready for what comes next? The issues extend beyond the outside world and exist within the NFL, which only has four Black head coaches while Black players comprise roughly 70% of the league. The Ravens and Texans’ statements calling for change feel like outliers rather than harbingers of league-wide transformation.
3) Tom Brady in Tampa
Did you hear? Tom Brady left New England and brought his old teammate, Rob Gronkowski, along for the ride in Tampa. Brady can put yet another notch in the GOAT debate by doing something Montana couldn’t: winning a ring with a second team. Bolstered by an uber-talented receiving corps featuring Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Brady is positioned with his best supporting cast in years. Even a 36-year-old Carson Palmer guided the Cardinals to the league’s second-best offense in 2015 with Bruce Arians at the helm.
4) Cam Newton in New England
Now that the Brady era is over, Newton is the face of New England’s offense. He found new digs, bringing his 2015 MVP to Foxboro, and beat out Jarrett Stidham while earning the praise of Bill Belichick. But the last time Superman took the field, it wasn’t pretty. Newton, coming off right shoulder surgery and hobbled by a left-foot-sprain-turned-Lisfranc injury, tossed the league’s highest percentage of uncatchable passes (34.2%) through the first two weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. The Patriots are counting on Newton of old to make up for a less-than-stellar offensive ensemble.
5) Will Lamar Jackson repeat his 2019 success?
Lamar Jackson rushed for more yards than all but five running backs, was the only rusher to total 1,000-plus yards on fewer than 200 carries and, oh, also led the league in passing touchdowns (36) in his revolutionary MVP season. Jackson still has room for growth as a passer if he improves on his 33.3% deep ball completion rate (23rd in the NFL last season), which would lessen the impact of the Ravens’ hyper-efficient ground game taking a step back. That seems possible with a healthy Marquise Brown. The league will be working to figure out how to stop Jackson and how to copy him, which brings us to …
6) Who tries to become this year’s version of the Ravens?
Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman designed a ground game that broke the NFL’s single-season rushing record and generated the largest point differential (+249) in 12 seasons. Enter the copycats, the Chargers chief among them. The Bills led the league in rushing in 2015 and ‘16 with a Roman-installed offense, Anthony Lynn as an assistant and Tyrod Taylor as its signal-caller. The pieces are back for a redux in L.A. The problem? There’s only one Lamar Jackson.
7) Dak’s contract situation
Deshaun Watson secured a four-year, $156 million payday, which eclipsed Mahomes’ megadeal in average annual value throughout the length of the contract. Up next: Dak Prescott, who’s playing on a franchise tender after the Cowboys failed to agree on an extension. The 27-year-old quarterback balled out in 2019 with career highs in passing yards (4,902) and touchdowns (30) under first-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. If Prescott replicates that success, Dallas finds itself in a sticky cap situation with the market reset.
8) One more star season left or a passing of the torch for Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees?
At least one of Big Ben, Rivers and Brees has ranked top two in passing yards in nine of the last 10 seasons. All will be 38 years old or over when Week 1 starts. Banking on a late-career renaissance for any seems unlikely. Roethlisberger is returning after tearing three of five flexor tendons in his throwing elbow. Rivers is moving to an offense that wants to hammer its opponents with the run. And Drew Brees's arm strength has waned, completing one pass that traveled 35 yards or more past the line of scrimmage since 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Each is a more than capable starter but the video game numbers might be best left to Jackson, Mahomes, Watson and Russell Wilson.
9) Dysfunction in Washington
In early July, Sports Illustrated reported Washington’s contributions to Native American communities had dried up. Later that month the team announced it would change its racist team name and go by the Washington Football Team for 2020. The same week, 15 former employees told the Washington Post they were sexually harassed while working for the team. Washington hired a law firm to launch an internal investigation, which has since been taken over by the NFL after the Post uncovered further allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior (owner Dan Snyder denied his involvement). The organization’s reckoning doesn’t appear to be reaching its conclusion any time soon.
The league’s most embattled franchise has few fortunes to find on the field, where Washington scored the league’s fewest points and allowed the sixth-most last year. The Washington Football Team hasn’t reached the postseason in four seasons and, even with No. 2 overall pick Chase Young and Year 2 of Dwayne Haskins and Terry McLaurin, is far from ending its drought.
10) Mile High hopes
After John Elway stumbled with a series of quarterbacks who had the build and attributes of ... John Elway ... a glimmer of hope appeared: Second-round pick Drew Lock piloted the Broncos to a 4-1 record after taking over in Week 13. Denver responded by investing around Lock, signing Melvin Gordon and drafting wideouts Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler with its first two selections, and oddsmakers placed the Broncos' Super Bowl odds (40/1) on equal footing as the Patriots and Titans. There’s reason for optimism, and perhaps more so on the defensive end if linebacker Bradley Chubb returns to form, but the team was dealt a blow with Von Miller's injury on the eve of the season.
11) The legend of Joe Burrow
After Joe Burrow completed the greatest college season by a quarterback, the hype didn’t stop when he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Bengals. Tight end C.J. Uzomah labeled Burrow “an absolute beast” while his teammates and coaches have praised his leadership and confidence. He walks into an offense stocked with talent, from a now-healthy A.J. Green to Tyler Boyd to training camp standout Auden Tate at receiver, Joe Mixon in the backfield and 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams returning on the offensive line. All eyes will be on Burrow in Cincinnati as the only rookie signal-caller to earn a Week 1 starting job.
12) When does Tua take over?
Tank for Tua took a detour when the Dolphins started winning, going 5-4 after an 0-7 start, but reached its prescribed destination when Miami selected Tagovailoa with the fifth pick. Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, 37, earned starting duties. The future, though, rests in the franchise’s 22-year-old rookie. Tagovailoa receives the benefit of time and patience as he waits to play his first game in at least 10 months.
13) Rookie rust
The refrain has been the same all summer: Abbreviated training camps and a lack of preseason games harm rookies ahead of Week 1, and teams with continuity have an advantage. Is that real, though? The closest analogy is 2011, when the lockout crept into late July with players barred from team facilities. As rookies, Newton hurled 850 yards in his first two games, A.J. Green and Julio Jones each finished the season with 950-plus receiving yards and seven touchdowns, and Von Miller totaled 11.5 sacks. Sure, all four players are generational talents, but maybe the narrative is a bit exaggerated.
14) New deals for familiar backs
Nearly half of the running backs who rank top-20 in yards from scrimmage since 2018—Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones, Phillip Lindsay, Leonard Fournette, James Conner, Marlon Mack and Kenyan Drake—are set to become free agents next offseason. There are obvious extension candidates within that group, but 2021 backfields could look quite different as teams increasingly turn to backfield committees and a new standard is set for running back contracts.
15) Adam Gase’s hot seat
There might not be a coach who has done less with more (or less with players who would achieve more) than Adam Gase. Le’Veon Bell posted a career-worst 42% rushing success rate according to Football Outsiders in his first year under Gase and complaints about Bell’s usage still arose after garnering 311 touches. The two have gushed about each other this offseason, so the worst could be behind them. Although when someone has to say, “We actually like each other," as Bell said of Gase, that doesn’t inspire confidence. The Jets offense needs to show some signs of life to keep Gase out of the New York media fire.
16) Belichick tyranny
There’s been much made of the Belichick coaching tree producing less-than-stellar results beyond Foxboro. But maybe the league is on the cusp of searching for something else: the Belichick family tree. Belichick’s youngest son, Brian, will take over as safeties coach for his oldest son, Steve, who will be the team’s outside linebackers coach. More so than any sport, the league enjoys a good patriarchal lineage. See: Mike and Kyle Shanahan; Marty and Brian Schottenheimer; Norv and Scott Turner. The league could use a more diverse group of coaching hires before enabling a perpetual Belichick family reign.
17) Retreading the DeAndre Hopkins–David Johnson trade
David Johnson averaged fewer than 17 snaps per game after returning from an ankle injury in Week 10, and the Cardinals managed to turn his remaining $20-million-plus owed into the AFC’s top wideout, DeAndre Hopkins. That feels like next-level trickery. Arizona then made Hopkins the highest-paid wideout ever, reportedly signing him to a two-year, $54.5 million extension. Texans head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien drew widespread ire for the trade and the comparisons are likely to continue if A) Hopkins clicks with Kyler Murray; B) Johnson disappoints; C) The Texans take a step back in any way. We might not have to wait longer than Thursday night for that to happen.
18) Limited capacity blues
Lonely mascots? Awkward cutaways to cheerleaders performing off of the field? Apocalyptic wide shots of stadiums with no fans, or stands that look like high school games? No more home field advantage? It’s a different season, nowhere else more apparent than the look and sound of the game. Plays akin to the Beast Quake and Minneapolis Miracle will be more readily registered by neighbors—both next door and downstairs—than they would be by a seismograph.
19) Super Bowl rescheduling
Springtime for a Super Bowl? Maybe not that late, as the league year starts in mid-March, but the postseason affords one of the few avenues of flexibility if games need to be rescheduled. Slashing the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl bye week was floated as a contingency plan back in April, according to the Sports Business Journal. Now that the Oscars are out of the way, Feb. 28—the last Sunday of the month—remains the latest, most reasonable day Super Bowl LV could be pushed to. Reason hasn’t always had its day in 2020, though.
20) Extra playoff spot madness
NFL owners expanded the playoff format in March to include 14 teams, adding one wild-card spot to each conference and eschewing close to three decades of a 12-team field. The new bracket would’ve brought the 9-7 Rams and the 8-8 Steelers into the fold last season. More parity and chaos should ensue, especially if a shortened season slims already-tight tiebreakers.