With the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans partially reporting on Monday, the weirdest NFL season of all time has begun.
The 2020 NFL season is officially underway, with rookies and quarterbacks of the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs reporting to their respective teams on Monday. The other 30 NFL teams will get underway over the next eight days, culminating in all players beginning training camp on July 28.
At least that’s the plan, anyway.
However, legions of star players took to Twitter in a coordinated effort on Sunday to raise concerns over the NFL’s plan to deal with COVID-19 this summer. FanSided communicated with numerous sources with knowledge of the situation over the weekend, and the issues are many.
The concerns are largely over the following topics: safety, money — both present and future — and protocols.
On safety, multiple sources talked of testing schedules. It remains unclear how often the NFL will test players. Additionally, if a player does test positive, how will the other members of his position group be dealt with? Are they treated the same as every other member of the organization? Is there a period of intense testing? Quarantine?
Finally, how will this be handled in season? Everyone can seemingly agree close quarters are going to facilitate the spread of coronavirus when it’s present. Football, whether on the field or in a locker room, doesn’t lend itself to such spacial situations.
The other problem is the players’ size and background. Coronavirus data says those with health conditions including weight-related issues are at a higher risk. There are dozens of 300-pounders in the NFL, and approximately 70 percent of the players are people of color, who have been disproportionately impacted in comparison to whites.
As for money, the talking points are twofold.
The biggest immediate problem centers on the league wanting two preseason games played this summer, with the NFLPA wanting them all cancelled. The NFL is attempting to garner television money from said contests, while the players prefer to stay in their respective team facilities until Week 1.
Another financial question is how to mitigate the damage of lost revenue. Last week, there were headlines suggesting the salary cap would plummet in 2021, causing significant cuts across all 32 rosters. Neither side wants the worst-case scenario to become a reality and, frankly, that can’t be considered a scenario at all.
Then there’s the ultimate question: What happens if a player opts out? The NFL can talk about not paying the player, but the NFLPA isn’t going to allow that. Does the player get partial pay or full salary? How does it all work towards free agency? The questions are endless.
“What if a guy’s wife has underlying conditions, or his mother?,” one source opined. “Then what happens? It’s the wild, wild West.”
With new television deals coming in over the next year, look for an influx in cash to help smooth losses, albeit hurting the initial internal projection of a $400 million cap by decade’s end.
So what can be done, and what will be done?
One source believes the league should delay and prepare better for the long haul, still getting in a full season but beginning in October or November. For now, the league has no plans to halt camps or the season.
Another said he believes an intelligent common ground would be one preseason game and testing five days per week, with financial losses spread over the next 10 years of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
My take? I lean towards the latter thought. Money will need to be borrowed from future years of the CBA to make the next season or two more palatable from a financial standpoint. The league should test at least 4-5 times per week, ensuring quick results. Without a bubble such as the NBA model, players shouldn’t be worrying if they are infecting their families.
Finally, one last note to watch. Should the NFL and NFLPA continue squabbling until the 28th, veterans who don’t show up to camp are taking a risk.
Under the new CBA, a player under his second contract who doesn’t report on time faces a mandatory fine. If the player decides to stay away for five or more days, he loses a year toward accrued free agency.
Because of the unique circumstances — and the reason for absence clearly not being financially motivated — this might be rendered moot, but the league could try to put pressure through this avenue.
We have eight days until the ultimate summer deadline. We’ll see if the two sides come together.
Top 10 head coach-quarterback combinations (minimum five seasons)
1. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady — New England Patriots
2. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana — San Francisco 49ers
3. Paul Brown and Otto Graham — Cleveland Browns
4. Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr — Green Bay Packers
5. Tom Landry and Roger Staubach — Dallas Cowboys
6. George Halas and Sid Luckman — Chicago Bears
7. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw — Pittsburgh Steelers
8. Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman — Dallas Cowboys
9. Don Shula and Dan Marino — Miami Dolphins
10. Bud Grant and Fran Tarkenton — Minnesota Vikings
"“As a player, you always want to see what it is like somewhere else. (I) thought of that before, definitely after playing nine years in the NFL and I also thought about it when I came out of retirement. I loved my time in New England, no doubt about it. But it was another opportunity that presented.”"
– Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski on playing elsewhere as motivation
It’s no secret Gronkowski was running out of time in New England even before retiring last spring. He was almost traded to the Detroit Lions before the 2018 season, only to threaten walking away before the Patriots took him back.
It’ll be one of the more fascinating subplots of 2020 to see how Gronkowski returns. Is he washed up or refreshed? Cases can be made on both sides. The Buccaneers have loads of offensive talent, and Gronkowski might be the most versatile piece of the bunch if healthy.
Since 2015, the Chiefs are 27-3 in games against AFC West opponents.
Info learned this week
1. Chiefs, Texans report and highlight differences in strategy
As aforementioned, the Chiefs and Texans’ rookies and quarterbacks report on Monday. It’s safe to say the starting signal-callers feel very differently about their respective offseasons.
In one corner, Patrick Mahomes. The 24-year-old was given a record-setting extension of 10 years and $450 million, making his current deal worth more than a half-billion dollars. Mahomes also saw more talent put around him in first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Finally, Kansas City retained star defensive lineman Chris Jones on a four-year deal signed last week.
Speaking of Jones, a quick sidebar.
The Chiefs’ front office deserves praise here. Earlier this spring, general manager Brett Veach had $177 in cap space. Not a typo. Somehow, that turned into extensions for Mahomes and Jones totaling upwards of $500 million.
According to one league source, the flexibility and creativity of both deals is striking. In Mahomes’ case, he got rolling guarantees and a minimal signing bonus. In Jones’ case, there is no signing bonus at all, helping to manage the cap hits. Credit here to both agents — Chris Cabott with Mahomes and the Katz Brothers with Jones — and Kansas City’s braintrust for making it all work.
As was reported at FanSided repeatedly over the past 14 months, the Chiefs wanted to keep Jones, and Jones wanted to stay. It all worked out.
Now, onto Houston and Deshaun Watson.
Despite being eligible for an extension this spring, Watson remains on his rookie deal. He watched head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien trade DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for cents on the dollar, before adding an aging Randall Cobb and injury-ladened Brandin Cooks on large contracts.
This, all while allowing a porous defense to get worse with the defection of nose tackle D.J. Reader to the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency.
While the Chiefs have done everything imaginable to support Mahomes, it’s as though Houston wants to see how much Watson can take.
2. Washington still without name, and could be for 2020
The Washington franchise hasn’t decided on a name. Don’t expect a full rebranding soon.
While Dan Snyder’s club needs a nickname to replace its old one at some juncture, there’s a belief the team will need to essentially play as “Washington” in 2020. It makes sense when you consider the different challenges involved, including trademarks, merchandise production, branding efforts and more.
While the temptation is to rush and make sure there’s a new logo by September, it may not be feasible. Washington waited for decades to make the move, and only did so once it was financially squeezed by FedEx and Nike.
In a season of oddities and firsts, this could be another. The only other team to ever play without a nickname? CARD-PITT in 1944, which was the combination of the Chicago Cardinals and Steelers during World War II.
3. Peters’ return to Eagles a key move for Wentz
Landing Peters was an enormous move, especially with him kicking inside. The Eagles have to protect and keep Carson Went upright, with the young star having had his share of injuries including a concussion in last season’s NFC Wild Card loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
With Peters at guard, Philadelphia now has a fantastic unit including center Jason Kelce and tackles Lane Johnson and Andre Dillard.
Wentz should be afforded some of the league’s best protection.
4. Titans, Derrick Henry both got terrific deal
Outside of Kansas City’s Chris Jones, Henry was the only franchise-tagged player to sign long-term. While few expected he and the Tennessee Titans to find common ground, they did so on a four-year, $50 million with $25.5 million guaranteed.
Much like Jones and the Chiefs, both sides should feel like winners.
For Henry, he gets life-changing money and security. At minimum, he’s going to be in Tennessee for two more seasons and if his production remains high, perhaps three or four.
For the Titans, they keep their bellcow who led them to the AFC Championship Game in January. They also send an important message to their team: produce and get paid. And, if things go bad or Henry slows over time, they can move on without major issue after 2021.
Tennessee is one of the rare teams which runs its offense through the ground game. Henry is a punisher and has long been used to carrying 300+ times, dating back to his time at Alabama. With general manager Jon Robinson investing in Ryan Tannehill earlier this offseason, the offense will continue to be about attrition and play-action passing.
5. How will Vegas adjust lines for fan-less games?
This isn’t something learned, but something pondered this week.
If you gamble — or even if you enjoy looking at the lines — you’re aware home-field advantage counts for three points. This has long been the case and typically, Vegas is factoring in travel and crowd noise for the visitor’s offense to contend with.
Of course this year, there will either be little or no crowd noise. So what happens with the lines? For example, the Ravens host the Chiefs in Week 3 on Monday Night Football. If the oddsmakers see the teams as even, normally Baltimore would be laying three points. Now, is it a PICK’EM? Two points?
The guess here is 1.5 points due to travel, but who knows?
Either way, we’re going to find out plenty this season about how much crowd noise truly impacts the road team. We’re also going to find out how much Vegas thinks fans are worth in the early lines.
Weeb Ewbank is the only coach in history to win NFL titles with two different teams. Oddly enough, he won in 1958 and ’59 coaching the Baltimore Colts, each time defeating the New York Giants.
In 1968, Ewbank helped engineer the greatest upset in pro football history, leading the American Football League’s New York Jets over his old Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
With both teams, Ewbank coached a Hall of Fame quarterback from Pennsylvania whose first name began with the letter “J” in Johnny Unitas, and Joe Namath. In high school, Namath wore the No. 19 in honor of Unitas, his boyhood hero.
Every summer, I take a two-week vacation. This year, it begins on Thursday.
A native New Yorker, I head back to the Empire State from current Chicagoland home to see family and friends. It means plenty of lake time, some golf and a trip to Cooperstown.
So often, I write about football and little else here because, well, it’s an NFL column. It’s not about me. In this moment, though, you get a little insight for better or worse.
It all starts with a 14-hour ride in the RAV4 with my wife and 2-year-old daughter. Maisy, the little one, is the only person alive who talks more than me, so pray for my better half. It’s going to be a fight for oxygen.
I moved to Chicago in June 2015, and while I love the area, I always miss New York. Don’t think a day will come where I don’t. Outside of Christmas, this vacation is my favorite time of the year.
Of course, I’ll write Stacking The Box and do our bi-weekly offseason podcast while I’m away. Haven’t missed one in three years, and won’t start now. I’ll also have a feature coming out this Tuesday I hope you all will check out.
Take care, and hopefully you get a little time off yourself soon!