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Business of Football: 10 Predictions for the 2021 Season

Will the Bucs win it all again? Will Deshaun Watson play? Will unvaccinated players eventually get the shot? How many rookie QBs will become starters in the first few weeks?

1. Run it back … not

The Super Bowl champion Bucs not only celebrated a storybook season but also had a perfect (on paper) offseason. They wrangled team-friendly deals with defensive stars Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David, players who could have easily made more elsewhere. They applied the franchise tag to Chris Godwin, ensuring his presence for another year. And they brought back Tom Brady’s band of veteran imports Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown, even adding Gio Bernard to the mix. So they’ll win it all again, right? 

Wrong. One thing I have learned from three decades around the NFL is that team dynamics are a fragile thing. There is no carryover—none—from one season to the next, even with the exact same group of people. That is true in business and in life as well: Chemistry, connection and synergy can be fleeting. The Bucs rode a magical wave last year, especially in the playoffs. Despite being a talented and seasoned group led by Brady, I don’t see them winning the Super Bowl, nor the NFC championship this year. Run it back sounds better than it works.

Tom Brady, Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers

2. Deshaun Watson will play as much as you and I will

I wrote about this here. As a lawyer, precedent is everything, and NFL precedent tells me that there is no way on God’s green Earth that Deshaun Watson takes a snap in an NFL uniform in 2021. Again, star players such as Ben Roethlisberger and Ezekiel Elliott received six-game suspensions for sexual or domestic misconduct with one woman and no criminal charges. Watson has 22 civil suits alleging sexual misconduct and multiple criminal complaints against him. The NFL is still run by the same commissioner who levied those penalties against Roethlisberger and Elliott. I am not sure why the league nor the Texans have acted yet, but you can be sure there are communications between Texans ownership and the NFL to make sure Watson is not on a field this year while the NFL tries to appeal to a broad fan base. 

And as for other teams trying to be opportunistic and acquire Watson? Good luck selling that to your fan base. Watson may be playing somewhere besides Houston in 2022, but he is not playing anywhere in '21.

3. The Carolina Panthers will be better than you think

I am not a guy who analyzes personnel or X’s and O’s; scouting is not my thing, there are plenty of people in that lane. However, I do know from experience that a track record matters, especially one of taking organizations from one level to another. That, to me, is a strong indicator of success, and is why Panthers coach Matt Rhule was in such high demand last year. He made Temple—yes, Temple—a nationally relevant football program. He then took over scandal-rocked Baylor and restored integrity while making them successful on the field. The Panthers lost a lot of close games last year, and I believe in the coach and the program, one backed by one of the richest owners in all of sports. They will ascend in Year 2 of Rhule’s leadership.

4. Most unvaccinated players, although not all, will become vaccinated

The NFL, perhaps in order to keep the peace with the NFL Players Association, did not mandate vaccinations for players and staff as many businesses and universities have. While not doing that, it did the next best thing: making life very difficult for the unvaccinated. There are still some holdouts, however, including quarterbacks Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz and (now unemployed) Cam Newton. These players have their reasons and that should be respected, but the potential consequences to their actions (inactions) extend beyond themselves and to teammates and team performance. For that reason, my sense is many of the presently unvaccinated players will relent on this issue in the best interests of the team. This is not tennis or golf; football is the ultimate team sport. And refusal to vaccinate can have some real consequences.

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5. All five first-round quarterbacks will be playing by the end of September

I have been standing on this lonely hill for a while. I just don’t get the “placeholder” quarterback idea once an investment of a high first-round quarterback has been made. Three of the five teams in that position have now come around to my thinking: The Jaguars (Trevor Lawrence), Jets (Zach Wilson) and now Patriots (Mac Jones) are getting on with their future. The two holdouts, the 49ers and Bears, will play Jimmy Garoppolo and Andy Dalton for now, but that won’t last long. With a recurring drumbeat from fans and media at every interception or poor throw by those players, the pressure—internal and external—to get Trey Lance and Justin Fields on the field will mount. And, of course, the teams want them to play; they are just trying to make sure they are ready. But growing pains will happen and they should just get on with it. Both teams not only used the precious resource of a first-round pick on these players but traded future first-round pick(s) as well. They will play sooner rather than later.

6. Aaron Rodgers will have (another) MVP season

Throughout the drama of the offseason, there was no doubt in my mind that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers would peacefully coexist for six more months before turning the keys over to Jordan Love. I now have no doubt that he will play well, even perhaps better than he has played in Matt LaFleur’s system before because, well, he is Aaron Rodgers. Beyond his on-field skills, he is a true pro, and admirably able to compartmentalize, be a leader for the team and a good teammate despite not being happy with the front office. I believe both he and the Packers know this is the “last dance” and they will successfully coexist—with realistic Super Bowl aspirations—for the season and deep postseason run (again).

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7. The Chargers will ascend

No team is due for a reversal of fortune more than the Chargers. Their decades-long home of San Diego wasn’t willing to publicly support keeping them; they played in a soccer stadium bandbox for a while; they pay rent to the other Los Angeles franchise; their starting quarterback last year had his lung punctured by a team doctor and they have found ways to lose that seemed unimaginable. Beyond all of this, however, hope floats. They are an extremely talented team with the most precious asset in the sport: a franchise-level quarterback starting in his second year on a rookie contract. And perhaps most importantly, they have upgraded their coaching; Brandon Staley is seen as a rising star in the league. This team will be very good; their players and fans—the few that there are—will be rewarded in 2021.

8. Seventeen games will feel different, then normal

There are several new normals in the NFL in 2021. There are ubiquitous references and embraces of sports betting, something completely taboo a few short years ago. There are players of all positions wearing single-digit numbers. There are COVID-19 protocols for players, staff, media, fans, etc. But the new normal with the most impact is coming in the first week of '22: the 17th game. Readers of this space know how critical I was of the NFLPA giving up this precious inventory in the recent CBA; and the NFL is never going back to 16 games; only forward to 18. 

Further, remember when the talk of 17 games included protection that players would actually play in only 16 games? That talk never materialized into action. Player attrition for the playoffs, of course, will increase; more star players will be lost and more playoff-bound teams will treat both the 16th and 17th games as preseason games. The new normal of 17 games will create other new normals in player protection strategies.

9. The Eagles will be better than you think

I’m not quite sure why the Eagles are predicted to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. Yes, they played poorly last year and finished last in the weakest division in the league. But they have removed a big part of the reason they were unsuccessful last season: the starting quarterback. Carson Wentz has left the premises, albeit with disastrous cap consequences. And the Eagles move forward with an ascending quarterback in Jalen Hurts and their continued strengths—the offensive and (especially) defensive lines—along with more explosive firepower at the skill positions. And if they are not much better, they’ll simply trade their multiple first-round picks next year for Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers. I’m kidding … maybe.

10. The NFL still will be the undisputed king of U.S. sports

Remember when players' kneeling was going to cause the decline of NFL popularity? Remember when the brutality of the game and lasting effects of concussions were going to cause people to turn away from football? Remember when a run of domestic violence cases was going to alienate fans from the NFL? Remember when a slight ratings decline questioned the continuing prosperity of the league? And remember when COVID-19 was going to force cancellations of games and possibly even the entire 2020 season? 

Yeah, I do, too. Despite more content options for fans of all ages and negative barbs that are always thrown at the league by the Twitterati (myself included), the NFL is in a stronger position now than ever before. The league, like every business, has challenges but is highly secure with a second consecutive 10-year team-friendly CBA with the players and new media contracts totaling $110 billion over the next 12 years. Thus, as you and I complain throughout the season about the officiating, the hubris of owners, the actions or lack thereof by the league office, and who knows what else, remember that it is all part of the plan. Other leagues can only wish for such attention paid to them. The NFL, through it all, will flex again in 2021.

The business of sports always wins.

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