Chiefs general manager Brett Veach won’t pretend that he planned for the NFL offseason to unfold the way it has, with COVID-19 shutting down team facilities for three months and canceling offseason workouts.
“I don’t think it was our intention to get this [pandemic] and then say, ‘All right, let’s just go after our guys and [have] continuity,’ ” Veach said in April. “Our intention was, 'Let’s retain our guys, let’s keep continuity,’ and then this format, which is now real, just happened to fall into line with being a very workable format for us.”
Veach, like many across the NFL, believes that the best way to succeed in an unusual 2020 is with continuity. With practice time cut drastically short and the entire way of NFL life thrown topsy-turvy, “the more guys you have around that are familiar with how we do things, the playbook, what's expected of them, certainly that's beneficial,” Veach said.
The last time the NFL had an abnormal offseason, the 2011 lockout, the Super Bowl featured two teams with total continuity — the Patriots and Giants.
Let’s take a look at which teams are best suited to handle an unusual 2020 season, and which are worst:
Chiefs — The defending champions bring the whole gang back: Andy Reid, all three coordinators, the best quarterback on the planet, the same receivers, the same offensive line, and the same players on defense. Usually that’s a recipe for a team getting old and stale, but the Chiefs may have what it takes to run it back.
Saints — Sean Payton, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, and quarterback Drew Brees are on to their 15th year together running the offense. Dennis Allen is back for his sixth straight year at defensive coordinator. And the only major change on either side of the ball is new receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who should fit in easily.
Ravens — The Ravens will be hard-pressed to match last year’s success of 14-2 and an MVP season for Lamar Jackson, but they have the continuity to still be a top contender. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman not getting a head coaching job elsewhere is a big win for Jackson and the Ravens’ offense.
Seahawks — Seattle enters Year 11 under Pete Carroll, Year 9 with Russell Wilson, and Year 3 with both of their coordinators. The NFC West could be the toughest division in the NFL, but the Seahawks will be contenders again.
49ers — The Niners made the Super Bowl perhaps a year ahead of schedule and should have the pieces in place to make another deep playoff run. The 49ers made a few notable changes on both sides, but coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh are back for their fourth years, Jimmy Garoppolo will be back after a full 2019 season and a healthy offseason, and the team’s core remains the same.
Patriots — Losing Tom Brady is obviously big, and so is losing Dante Scarnecchia. But the Patriots are bringing back a lot of familiar faces. Bill Belichick is still running the show, and he still has Josh McDaniels and most of the coaching staff. The offensive line could return all five starters. The running backs and receivers will all return. And the defense returns most of its top players.
Bills — The Bills have been steadily building under coach Sean McDermott and hope Year 4 is when it all comes together. No excuses for quarterback Josh Allen, entering his third year as the starter and third with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. The Bills made very few changes on either side, other than adding receiver Stefon Diggs.
Titans — Defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired, but coach Mike Vrabel was heavily involved on that side of the ball. Otherwise, the Titans, who made a surprise run to the AFC Championship game, are bringing back just about every key piece from last year, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry, and receiver A.J. Brown.
Eagles — Coach Doug Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwarz are entering their fifth seasons in Philadelphia, as is quarterback Carson Wentz. The biggest question for the Eagles is whether they can stay healthy.
Steelers — Entering their 14th year with Mike Tomlin and 17th with Ben Roethlisberger. Coming back from an elbow injury won’t be easy for Big Ben, but he’s familiar with his teammates and knows the scheme.
Panthers — Owner Dave Tepper may have made terrific moves in hiring coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady, and signing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But expectations should be tempered this year as the Panthers incorporate a new coach, new quarterback, and two new coordinators.
Browns — The Browns at least return quarterback Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham, et al. But Kevin Stefanski will be Mayfield’s third head coach in three years, Alex Van Pelt his third offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator Joe Woods is also new. The Browns also have a new right tackle (Jack Conklin) and tight end (Austin Hooper).
Giants — Hopefully, the Giants’ owners have some patience. They have a 37-year-old, first-time head coach (Joe Judge), two new coordinators (Jason Garrett, Patrick Graham), and a second-year quarterback (Daniel Jones). At least most of the pieces around Jones return.
Rams — Coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff are back, but this isn’t the best offseason to be renovating your schemes on both sides. The Rams have new coordinators on offense (Kevin O’Connell), defense (Brandon Short), and special teams (John Bonamego).
Redskins — Another team with new faces across the board: coach Ron Rivera, offensive coordinator Scott Turner, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, and a second-year quarterback in Dwayne Haskins. At least Rivera and his coaching staff have worked together for a long time.
Broncos — The Broncos have run the same type of offensive system for much of the last 30 years, so the concepts won’t be different under new coordinator Pat Shurmur. But the Broncos have a lot of unfamiliar faces: second-year coach Vic Fangio, second-year quarterback Drew Lock, Shurmur, and new QB coach Mike Shula.
Bears — Not the year to be holding a quarterback competition. The Bears will have much less time to decide whether Mitchell Trubisky or Nick Foles deserves to be the starter. The Bears also have a new offensive coordinator in Bill Lazor.
Brees’s reputation has taken major hit
Drew Brees signed with the Saints in 2006 and quickly became the king of New Orleans. He made the Saints relevant for the first time in decades and helped win and won the franchise’s only Super Bowl. He became the face of the region’s Hurricane Katrina recovery movement and won several sports humanitarian awards. He rides in Mardi Gras floats, eats at the local spots, and donated $5 million to the state of Louisiana to deliver meals during the pandemic.
And so it was fascinating to see Brees’s reputation in New Orleans tank so swiftly this past week following his comments to Yahoo! Finance about players who might take a knee during the national anthem this season.
With one comment — “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country” — Brees turned his teammates, most of New Orleans, and most of the sports world against him.
Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins released several impassioned videos expressing disappointment and anger with Brees. Teammates Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Terron Armstead were among those who publicly called out their leader. Celebrities such as Aaron Rodgers, LeBron James, Ed Reed, and actor Wendell Pierce fired back at Brees on social media. And in the streets of New Orleans, people chanted “[expletive] Brees!” throughout Wednesday night.
Brees first responded with a clarification of his quote to ESPN. Then on Thursday he posted a long apology on Instagram. Later Thursday, he posted another apology to Instagram, this one on video.
“I know there’s not much I can say that would make things better right now, but I just want you to see in my eyes how sorry I am for the comments I made yesterday,” Brees said. “I am sorry, and I will do better, and I will be part of the solution, and I am your ally.”
Brees’s teammates, including Jenkins and captain Demario Davis, have accepted Brees’s apologies and want to move on. But Brees certainly created a huge mess for himself with his teammates and fans, and may still have some work to do to earn back his reputation.
Events personal for Wilkins
Of all of the poignant and passionate messages being shared by NFL players and teams, one that stood out to me was an Instagram post from Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, the team’s 2019 first-round pick.
Wilkins, a Springfield native who spent his middle school years in Framingham, shared a long post Wednesday explaining how “what’s happening in our country right now will always be personal for me.”
Wilkins spoke about his grandfather, Eurie Stamps, who in 2011 was accidentally killed by a SWAT team in his own living room in Framingham. Stamps, 68, was watching TV when the SWAT team came bursting in looking for his nephew on a drug charge. An officer forced Stamps to lie on his stomach and put a gun to the back of his head, and the gun accidentally discharged, killing Stamps instantly.
Wilkins, 24, doesn’t share the story of his grandfather lightly. Last year I went down to Miami during training camp to write a profile of Wilkins, and he was open and thoughtful about every topic except his grandfather, which he politely declined to discuss. He had spoken about Stamps in the past, but it was not a topic he liked repeating.
“George Floyd’s murder took place last week & stirred up many old feelings of pain & heartache,” Wilkins wrote on Instagram. “People may ask me how I am able to strive, but the truth is it’s a struggle. I battle daily for success, because I’m doing it for him … For me, it’s honoring the memory of my granddad. I carry the pain of my family & other black victims of police brutality.
“The country is on fire. Instead of adding fuel to the fire, let that fire fuel you. Rise above & overcome & show the world that our lives matter.”
QB market has dried up
One of the more interesting subplots to this offseason was how tough the market was for quarterbacks outside of the top few free agents. Jameis Winston had to sign for the minimum as a backup in New Orleans and Cam Newton is still out of work.
Joe Flacco signed a one-year deal with the Jets, and he’s basically getting the minimum, as well. His $1.05 million salary is the veteran minimum, only half of it is guaranteed for injury ($550,000), and he can make up to $450,000 for being active on game days.
I certainly understand why Winston, only 26, would take a minimum salary in order to stay in the NFL and learn under Sean Payton and Drew Brees. But I am surprised, and somewhat impressed, that Flacco, 35, would play this year for peanuts. Flacco has earned more than $167 million in his 12-year career, and certainly has no need for his minimum salary. And given the neck injury that has plagued him for several seasons, it seems like a good time for Flacco to ride off.
Flacco was never a good “body language” guy, either, and you never quite could tell how much he actually enjoyed playing. But he is certainly proving his love now. Flacco probably won’t be a starter again, but he can be Sam Darnold’s backup for a few years and perhaps transition into coaching. Some guys just love the locker room, and Flacco apparently is one of them.
Defensive help is still available
While offensive free agency mostly has slim pickings left — featuring only Newton, Devonta Freeman, and a handful of linemen — there are still several good defensive players available.
Among those still looking for jobs are pass rushers Jadeveon Clowney, Everson Griffen, Markus Golden, Jabaal Sheard, and Vinny Curry, tackles Damon Harrison and Timmy Jernigan, and defensive backs Logan Ryan, Eric Reid, Brandon Carr, Aqib Talib, and Darqueze Dennard.
And with teams facing a salary-cap crunch in the near future because of the pandemic, don’t be surprised if more veterans become cap cuts than usual during training camp.
This didn’t make big news considering everything going on, but the NCAA made a significant and important exception to its rules this past week. It granted Arizona State punter Michael Turk his final two years of eligibility even though Turk declared for this year’s NFL Draft and hired an agent. But Turk didn’t get drafted or sign right away, and the NCAA granted Turk an exception to return because of the pandemic. Hopefully this is a step to the NCAA permanently allowing players who don’t get drafted to return to school, a right that players have long been fighting for … Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said this past week that in light of the offseason program getting canceled, teams may report for training camp a week earlier than usual, and quarterbacks may report two weeks early. “A few extra days would help,” Arians said … The NFL quickly and smartly abandoned its idea to reward teams with better draft picks for hiring a minority head coach or coordinator. But NFL vice president of football operations Troy Vincent suggested once again that the league will try to reward teams that lose a minority coach to a promotion with draft picks — i.e. rewarding the team that developed the coach, not the team that hires the coach. “Coach [Tony] Dungy said it right: We should not be rewarding people or have a system that rewards people for doing the right thing,” Vincent told Forbes. “But we do believe there’s merit in rewarding people for identifying and developing minority coaching talent.” … The Raiders unveiled for the first time this past week an 85-foot torch at Allegiant Stadium that will be lit before every home game as a tribute to former owner Al Davis. Per the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it is the largest structure in the world built by a 3D printer. “You haven’t seen anything like it anyplace else,” Allegiant Stadium chief operating officer Don Webb said … Associate Justice Frank Gaziano, appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2016, joined all seven justices this past week to pen a long letter urging judges to work with the Black community to “look afresh at what we are doing, or failing to do, to root out any conscious and unconscious bias in our courtrooms.” Gaziano’s son will battle for a roster spot with the Chargers this summer as an undrafted rookie free agent. Joe Gaziano is a 6-foot-4-inch, 280-pound defensive lineman who starred at Xaverian and Northwestern.