NFL will have less parity with COVID, College Saturdays and more


The 2020 NFL season will be unlike many we’ve ever seen, and it may lead to teams with history together racing out of the blocks.

I have a theory on this season.

Typically, half the playoff teams change over on an annual basis. While we could see a figure close to that, my expectation is the top teams from 2019 who have enjoyed continuity — think Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks — will enjoy a massive advantage.

Teams with new quarterbacks and/or coaches didn’t have OTAs and minicamps. Now, they won’t have a single preseason snap either or even a typical training camp. Getting in sync may literally take a month and by then, winning the division or earning a top seed will be a pipe dream in some cases.

Teams with rookie quarterbacks expected to start immediately or soon thereafter — the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals — have a long road ahead. Both Miami and Cincinnati have talent, but September is going to be when chemistry is formed, not August.

For those with new, veteran quarterbacks such as the New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts, it will be fascinating to see how them adjust and who does it quickest.

The Patriots have the luxury of a bad division, but even so, Cam Newton has plenty on his proverbial plate. Head coach Bill Belichick is arguably the greatest fo all-time, but limited snaps and a league-high seven opt-outs will give him a great challenge.

With Tom Brady, how does the 43-year-old adjust in Tampa? He’s surrounded by a great cast including receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, along with an old friend in tight end Rob Gronkowski. Still, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians runs a much different system than anything Brady has been in. Can the future first-ballot Hall of Famer make the adjustment?

Almost every year, we see teams go from doormat to dominant. Last year, the San Francisco 49ers vaulted from the No. 2 overall pick to the Super Bowl. Such a meteoric rise in these circumstances would be all the more impressive, and all the more improbable.

If there’s a team capable of it, look for a group who returns its coach and quarterback and also has ample upside.

Give me the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons.

Arizona has second-year men Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray, and added veteran talent in receiver DeAndre Hopkins and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips. The Cardinals have the detriment of being in the league’s best division, but the potential is evident.

Meanwhile, Atlanta is loaded with playmakers and after the defense was taken over by Raheem Morris in last season’s second half, it was one of the NFL’s top units. Factor in veteran quarterback Matt Ryan and a staff which knows the players, and there’s reason to see Atlanta as a real sleeper.

Yet for the aforementioned top teams returning most impact players from a year ago, they come into the campaign with confidence and sans the challenges.

Baltimore and Kansas City are clearly the AFC’s best. While either could be knocked from their perch, each enjoys great quarterback play and has a phenomenal head coach working with experienced rosters. As importantly, neither lost a single assistant coach during the cycle in January and February.

Expect both to get off to a fast start before clashing Week 3 on Monday Night Football in Baltimore.

In the NFC, New Orleans and Seattle stand apart as well. The Saints and Seahawks will need to fend off a tougher conference, and the case can certainly be made for the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles to be included among teams with excellent coaches and stable quarterbacks.

However, New Orleans and Seattle boast Hall of Fame quarterbacks and coaches with rings. Additionally, Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers enter their second year together. Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson are in their ninth, while Drew Brees and Sean Payton are in their 15th.

Ultimately, the NFL season is unlike any other. There is no grace period.

In that vein, contenders with history together have a sizable advantage.

Power rankings

Top 10 Super Bowl efforts by players not named MVP

1. Super Bowl LII – Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (28-48, 505 yards, 3 TDs)
2. Super Bowl XXIII – Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco 49ers (23-36, 357 yards, 2 TDs)
3. Super Bowl XXIX – Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers (10 rec., 149 yards, 3 TDs)
3A. Super Bowl XXIV – Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers (7 rec., 148 yards, 3 TDs)
4. Super Bowl XV – Rod Martin, LB, Oakland Raiders (3 INTs)
5. Super Bowl XXII – Timmy Smith, RB, Washington (202 rushing yards, TD)
6. Super Bowl XXXII – Antonio Freeman, WR, Green Bay Packers (9 rec., 126 yards, 2 TDs)
7. Super Bowl XXVII – Michael Irvin, WR, Dallas Cowboys (6 rec., 114 yards, 2 TDs)
8. Super Bowl XIII – John Stallworth, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (3 rec., 115 yards, 2 TDs)
9. Super Bowl XLIII – Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona Cardinals (31-43, 377 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT)
10. Super Bowl XXXIV – Isaac Bruce, WR, St. Louis Rams (6 rec., 162 yards, 1 TD)


"“I’ve watched him throw a couple times this week. He has the Ben-like velocity. I’m still looking for the super tight spiral. There’s still some ground to cover, but we still have time. I’m excited to see him doing what he does, stepping out of the phone booth, so to speak, with a cape on and being the guy he has been for us and facing the challenges that this season will present.”"

– Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Ben Roethlisberger’s return from major elbow surgery

Roethlisberger’s right arm is the biggest wild card in the AFC. If healthy, the 38-year-old quarterback makes Pittsburgh a power in the weaker conference, and perhaps the main concern of favorites Baltimore and Kansas City.

If Roethlisberger can’t recapture old glories, the Steelers likely sink without a suitable backup, making them a prime candidate to take a quarterback in the first round of the 2021 Draft.


Random stat

The Associated Press has awarded the NFL MVP every season since 1957.

Surprisingly, six teams are still without a winner including the New York Jets, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals.

Info learned this week

1. COVID cases slowing considerably in NFL circles

On Saturday, there were zero new cases of the coronavirus, an encouraging sign for those putting plans in place for the 32 teams.

While it’s impossible to believe there won’t be flare-ups, the hardest part of this season was getting it going. The teams have been in camps for two weeks now, and although there have been a few cases and 69 opt-outs, the campaign looks a good bet to start on Sept. 10 when the Texans and Chiefs kick off at Arrowhead Stadium.

Of course, the main upcoming hurdle will start in 10 days or so, when padded practices begin. Once players begin hitting, any existing, undetected COVID cases could spread rapidly. Yet with the current data, there’s reason to believe we won’t see a huge surge considering the league appears on its way to curtailing the coronavirus within camps.

The NFL doesn’t have a bubble like the NBA and NHL, so players making wise choices is the ultimate key. We’ll see if they fare better than MLB, which has seen cancellations galore early on.

2. Could NFL take over Saturdays in 2020?

While pro football seems well on its way to playing games, college football is on the brink.

Multiple high-profile reporters have said major college football could be either cancelled or moved to the spring for this season, creating a huge void on Saturdays. Forever, the NFL has left Friday nights and Saturdays alone, vowing not to compete with high school football and the college game.

However, with some conferences already shutting down and others moving towards the idea, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could be thinking about a temporary shift in the schedule.

The league could own the weekend, spreading out across two days to enjoy massive ratings with fewer games competing against each other. Additionally, the Saturday night primetime slot would be a huge draw, with COVID keeping more people home than ever before.

3. Former Giants’ cornerback DeAndre Baker facing prison time

After only one season, the New York Giants are forced to essentially move on from a first-round pick.

Cornerback DeAndre Baker has been charged with four counts of robbery with a firearm stemming from an incident in May. Baker and Seahawks corner Quinton Dunbar were both out on warrants for armed robbery, although Dunbar was never charged due to a lack of evidence.

As Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News first reported, Baker is looking at 10 years to life for each count.

Baker hasn’t been released by the Giants, but considering the legal ramifications he faces, it’s hard to envision a quick return. Even if he’s exonerated, the NFL may still suspend him based off the charges.

Between Baker’s situation and cornerback Sam Beal’s decision to opt out, the Giants are facing a crisis on their depth chart behind star James Bradberry.

4. Washington changing culture in unmistakeable way

Derrius Guice is the latest indication Ron Rivera isn’t messing around in Washington.

In a league which has long proven talent trumps all, Rivera released his young running back after his arrest on domestic violence charges. After clearing waivers on Sunday, it’s likely he’s waiting awhile before his next shot.

Many teams would have waited for the facts to play out, and perhaps rightfully so. After all, the legal system is set up for innocence until guilt. However, Rivera is sending a clear message. Washington won’t condone or excuse nonsense under his watch.

In a city where football has taken a backseat to chaos for 20 years, Rivera is looking to establish order.

5. Ample officials opting out would be a problem for NFL

Remember the Fail Mary? Not ideal for the NFL. It’s hoping the chaos of replacement officials doesn’t repeat itself.

The NFL Referee Association brokered a deal with the league, allowing its members to opt out by Aug. 13 and be paid $30,000. While it’s unclear how many — if any — officials plan to sit the season out, a large number would force a significant issue. While replacements would have almost a full month to be trained, that’s little substitute for years or decades.

It’s a small consideration during the pandemic with players rightfully at the forefront, but don’t overlook the officials when one call can change an entire season.

History lesson

Only two times in NFL history did four teams from the same division make the postseason. Oddly, it was the NFC Central on both occasions, doing so in 1994 and ’97 campaigns.

In ’94, the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and Packers all qualified. Ironically, all four were eliminated before the NFC Championship Game.

In ’97, it was Chicago as the odd team out. This time, Green Bay advanced to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year, only to be upset by the Denver Broncos.

With the league realigning to eight, four-team divisions in 2002, it was impossible to have such an occurrence again. However, with the playoff system expanding, an entire division could now reach the postseason in the same year.

Parting shot

A quick Stacking The Box update to finish off this week’s edition.

Starting this week, we’ll be back to doing weekly podcasts for Stacking The Box. If you haven’t already, please consider subscribing on iTunes or Google Play. Additionally, if you’d be so kind, leave a review and rating. It really helps.

Finally, this column will continue being a Monday morning staple as always. I plan to add a few sections starting next week, hoping to provide more entertainment and insight. I’ll read the comments as usual (I genuinely appreciate you guys very much and love the banter) so let me know what hits, and what misses in your eyes.

Alright, enough about all that. Onward!