The 2020 NFL season certainly has been weird enough thanks to COVID-19. Games played in empty stadiums. Coaches wearing surgical masks on the sideline. Players removed from their teams at a moment’s notice, even when they aren’t experiencing any symptoms of the virus.
Well, brace yourself. The final 2½ months of the season are about to get a whole lot weirder.
The pandemic is raging across the country, and is expected to get even worse this coming week because of Thanksgiving. The NFL has miraculously played all 148 of its scheduled games so far without a cancellation, but commissioner Roger Goodell and his medical experts know that the league’s protocols have to be tightened up to finish the season on time in early February.
Any type of meeting done in person — team meetings, position meetings, coach meetings, film sessions — will have to be done virtually instead. Players will be encouraged to spend as little time in the team facility as possible, even if it means showering at home. These guidelines are part of the initiatives that Goodell announced on Wednesday.
“The upcoming holidays, beginning with Thanksgiving next week, will introduce new risks of exposure that we need to address now,” Goodell said in a memo sent to all 32 teams. “Flexibility and adaptability have been critical to our success to date and we must continue with that approach. I am convinced that if we remain focused and committed to adhering to our protocols, and to adjusting them as experience requires, we can play a full 2020 season that is not simply normal, but extraordinary.”
Goodell’s memo mandated that all teams must adopt the NFL’s “intensive protocols” starting on Saturday and maintain them through the rest of the season. These were developed mid-season in wake of the Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak and the Patriots’ “close contact” issues in October, and previously were only used when teams feared an outbreak.
These intensive protocols may have saved the season. They reduce time together at the team facility as much as possible, which the NFL says has reduced the number of close contacts by 50 percent.
Among the rules required by the intensive protocols:
▪ All meetings must be held virtually or in a large, outdoor space, but only the few warm-weather teams will be able to hold meetings outside.
▪ Locker room use is “strongly discouraged,” and players cannot be there for more than 15 minutes.
▪ No more than 10 players at a time are allowed in the weight room.
▪ Masks are required at all times at the facility, even during practices.
The Patriots are one of 28 teams that have had to use the intensive protocols this season, though not since mid-October.
“For the last few weeks, it’s been pretty close to normal,” coach Bill Belichick said Friday. “The intensive protocol changes it a little bit, our distancing and so forth, but hopefully we’ll be able to maintain the bulk of our routine.”
But not everyone is so understanding of the changes. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers lamented recently that he can’t sit with a teammate in the cafeteria for lunch, that lockers now have plexiglass dividers, and that the players can’t do team-building events outside of football.
“It definitely puts a strain on that locker-room conversation and camaraderie,” Rodgers told SiriusXM NFL. “Obviously the proponents of all that say it’s necessary to get us to the finish line and to the season. I think there’s a lot of questions about — are we doing all this based on science? And it’s all necessary?”
Packers coach Matt LaFleur echoed a similar message.
“I worry about everybody in this year, just being isolated. It’s been a weird year,” LaFleur said this past week.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Health recently mandated that athletes must wear face coverings during competition, but the governor’s office said Friday that the Steelers and Eagles were granted an exception.
“We have received guidance from the governor’s office that our players are exempt from wearing masks during an NFL game,” Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten previously said in a statement on Wednesday. “All other personnel working at an NFL game are required to wear masks. In addition, we will continue to enforce our protocols that require all fans entering Heinz Field to wear a mask.”
The Pennsylvania mask mandate states that athletes can remove their mask “if wearing a face covering would either cause a medical condition or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues that impede breathing, a mental health condition or a disability.”
No matter how this gets resolved, changes are coming. Several teams, such as the Broncos, announced this past week they won’t be hosting any more fans at games after this weekend. And the NFL may have to add a week to the season or even create a bubble for the postseason, though it seems unlikely.
The pandemic is only going to get worse, but the NFL’s resolve to finish the season on time remains as strong as ever, and it will do whatever it takes to get it done.
“Reaching this point with no games being missed is a testament to the work that each of you, and so many others at the 32 clubs, have done,” Goodell wrote. “As we continue through the season, it will likely be necessary to take further steps to address broader conditions.”
There might be eight openings
There may be seven weeks of football to go, but several teams and coaches are simultaneously preparing for the upcoming hiring cycle for coaches and general managers. We already know of two teams that will be looking for a new coach and GM (Houston, Atlanta), and several more teams should have openings come the beginning of January.
A few pieces of buzz I am hearing:
▪ One league source predicted there will be as many as eight head coach openings this year. Adam Gase is all but done with the Jets, while the Lions’ Matt Patricia and Bears’ Matt Nagy are clearly on the hot seat. The Jaguars’ Doug Marrone, Broncos’ Vic Fangio, and Chargers’ Anthony Lynn also have their futures in doubt.
▪ General managers on the hot seat include Denver’s John Elway, Jacksonville’s Dave Caldwell, Detroit’s Bob Quinn, Chicago’s Ryan Pace, and the Giants’ Dave Gettleman. The source said Washington is expected to hire a GM to take some workload away from Ron Rivera, who has been dealing with cancer treatments this year. And that the Panthers already have put out feelers to agents about hiring a new GM to replace Marty Hurney.
▪ Nick Caserio signed a two-year deal with the Patriots in the spring, but they still didn’t give him the GM title, and he can leave for a promotion if another team offers it. The Giants, Texans, and Panthers are all intriguing fits.
▪ The Bills’ success the last few years might lead to their dismantling this offseason. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is getting pushed hard as a head coaching candidate, and his work this year with quarterback Josh Allen may put him over the top. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the Vikings’ head coach from 2010-13, also should get interviews this offseason, and has the strong backing of Bills owner Kim Pegula. And assistant GM Joe Schoen is a young up-and-comer who should get interviews, especially in Carolina.
▪ The Chiefs may also lose a few key people. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has been building his résumé for years and may have his choice of jobs this year. Defensive coordinator and Grafton native Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams’ head coach from 2009-11, likely will be a top candidate after turning around the Chiefs’ defense en route to a Super Bowl. And director of player personnel Mike Borgonzi, an Everett native, is also expected to get GM interviews.
▪ Other top assistant coaches that should get interviews: Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
▪ Interim Falcons coach Raheem Morris has a chance to earn the full-time job, but the Texans are very likely to find a new coach to replace Romeo Crennel, per the source. In Jacksonville, if coach Marrone is fired, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is highly regarded by ownership and has a chance to get the head job.
Researching stats answers questions
Watching two prime-time games this past week sent me down a researching wormhole that turned out to be fascinating.
▪ My thought during Monday’s Bears-Vikings game: “Why haven’t the Bears been able to find a quarterback in, like, 40 years?” So I logged into the STATS LLC databases, searched for the combined team-by-team quarterback stats during the post-merger era (1970-2020), and lo and behold, the Bears rank dead last of all 32 teams in passer rating over the last 50 years (71.9).
That also got me wondering: “What kind of effect did Tom Brady have on the Patriots?” In the pre-Brady era (1970-2000), the Patriots ranked 28th out of 31 teams in passer rating, 29th in completion percentage, and threw 76 more interceptions than touchdown passes.
When you add in the Brady years (1970-2019), the Patriots jump to eighth out of 32 teams in passer rating, 17th in completion percentage, and have now thrown 301 more touchdown passes than interceptions. The Patriots also improved from 28th to 10th in interceptions.
Brady had this effect despite only starting 36.4 percent of the Patriots’ games over the 50 years (283 of 776).
▪ Then on Thursday night, while watching Cardinals-Seahawks, my thought was, “The NFL sure seems to have a lot of running quarterbacks these days.”
So I logged back in to STATS, looked up year-by-year rushing stats by quarterbacks, and lo and behold, 2020 appears to be the best QB rushing season in NFL history. Quarterbacks are rushing for 36.3 yards per game, higher than the 31.6 yards in 2018, 30.8 in 2000, and 30.1 in 2019.
In 2009, quarterbacks were only averaging 16.8 yards per game, but the numbers have steadily increased this past decade. The NFL has had a handful of dynamic rushing QBs in the past — Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick, Bobby Douglass — but in the last decade the NFL has clearly trended away from the classic pocket passer to better runners and athletes.
This year, nine quarterbacks are averaging at least 20 rushing yards per game — Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Daniel Jones, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, and Justin Herbert. In today’s NFL, any team that doesn’t have a mobile QB is playing shorthanded.
Law and order from Giants’ Judge
Giants coach Joe Judge is certainly getting tested in his first season. His Giants started the season 0-5 and 1-7, and Judge had to abruptly fire offensive line coach Marc Colombo this past week after the two got into a heated and reportedly ugly disagreement.
Colombo, who was brought on by offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and had no prior relationship with Judge, reportedly took great exception to Judge stepping on his toes. Judge began working individually with offensive linemen in practice and disagreed with the technique that Colombo was teaching. Colombo also didn’t appreciate Judge wanting to bring in Dave DeGuglielmo, a former Patriots offensive line coach, as an assistant coach.
Colombo snapped at Judge, and the coach fired Colombo on the spot on Wednesday during the team’s bye week, installing DeGuglielmo in his place.
Meanwhile, the Giants have actually won two games in a row, have a decent shot at winning the NFC East despite their 3-7 record, and Judge has a big fan in Bill Parcells.
“I’m fired up about them,” Parcells told Newsday. “They’re getting better. They’re improving. I like their coach. I just know he has established some law and order, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Home-field advantage is far less significant this year, which shouldn’t be surprising given the lack of fans at stadiums. Through Thursday’s game, home teams are 77-70-1, for a .520 win percentage that ranks as the second-lowest since the 2002 expansion to 32 teams. Home teams had a .602 win percentage in 2018, and the league average from 2002-19 was .570. Interestingly, the worst home-field win percentage came in 2019, when there were fans in the stands (.518). Maybe teams have just gotten better at playing on the road … How much is the NFL spending on its daily COVID-19 testing? The NFL said it conducted about 645,000 tests between Aug. 1 and Nov. 14, and one league source said each test costs about $150, an expense of $96.75 million. That sounds like a lot, but amounts to about $3 million per team, with perhaps $2 million more for the rest of the season. Considering the NFL should still collect $12 billion-$14 billion in revenue this year, the money it is spending on testing is well worth it … Washington coach Ron Rivera made an interesting admission this past week, telling reporters he would have drafted quarterback Joe Burrow No. 2 overall had he somehow fallen past the Bengals, even though Washington had used a first-round pick on Dwayne Haskins in 2019. But Rivera obviously didn’t like Haskins, as we see with his demotion to No. 3 on the depth chart. And Washington still should have drafted Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert at No. 2 instead of defensive end Chase Young … Color me shocked: The Chiefs take another gamble on a guy with questionable character. This time it’s cornerback DeAndre Baker, the Giants’ 2019 first-round pick who was released in September after he was charged in Broward County (Fla.) with armed robbery and aggravated assault. The charges against Baker were dropped this past week, and the Chiefs promptly signed him to their practice squad … Jaguars running back James Robinson is 83 scrimmage yards away from becoming the fifth undrafted rookie in NFL history to record 1,000 total yards in his first season. It was most recently accomplished by Phillip Lindsay in 2018 and LeGarrette Blount in 2010 … I agree wholeheartedly with Reggie Bush: Give the man his Heisman Trophy back already … Sunday marks the 57th anniversary of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. The NFL played its full slate of 11 games two days later, though the games were not televised because of round-the-clock news coverage. Former commissioner Pete Rozelle later called it “the worst decision I ever made.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.