The COVID-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for pro sports leagues, but there was little doubt that the NFL would find a way to kick off the 2020 season in September.
The hard part would be getting to January.
“We always thought that we could start,” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association. “The challenge was, how do we finish? And now that we’re on the cusp of that, I’m really proud of everybody involved.”
This is probably like celebrating a touchdown on the 1-yard line, but the NFL, amazingly, made it through the regular season. Here we are in Week 17, and the league has played 240 of its 256 games and made it to the final week without having to wreck the schedule or resort to a “bubble.”
“A tremendous accomplishment by our players and clubs, all personnel who have worked on this, to get to this point, to stay on schedule as we have,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs, and policy.
It got messy a few times. Outbreaks on the Titans, Ravens, and Patriots led to several postponements and the introduction of Tuesday and Wednesday night football. Teams were also forced into unique circumstances — the Broncos having to play a game without any quarterbacks, and the Browns playing one without any wide receivers. And the Raiders, Saints, and Ravens had to be punished with the loss of a draft pick and/or fines for not adhering to protocols such as wearing masks or wearing contact-tracing devices.
But the NFL took the virus seriously, kept its incidence rates low, and found a way to pull off an entertaining and surprisingly well-played season. This past week, with the virus raging across the country, the NFL reported its positivity rate was 0.14 percent and its incidence rate was 0.85 percent.
“Every person that walks in that building, I give a ton of credit to this year,” said NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, a center for the Browns. “There wasn’t anything to look to and use as an example of how to go forward. It was a year that caused everybody to do things differently, everybody to change their habits of how they’ve always practiced and always prepared and always worked.”
The NFL’s adaptability certainly was key in getting through the season. The offseason program and preseason games were eliminated for the first time. Meetings were mostly held virtually, and since Thanksgiving access to team facilities has been limited.
And the NFL’s COVID-19 team was flexible and responsive to the problems that unfolded. Travel protocols were tightened throughout the season, as were rules regarding tryouts. Outbreaks with the Titans and Patriots led to the creation of “high-risk close contacts” via contact tracing, which forced healthy players to miss games but prevented outbreaks.
“We knew we were going to have to make those changes and adapt as we learned more about the virus,” Tretter said. “Now we’re at a point where I think we all feel very confident we will finish, as long as the protocols are complied to 100 percent.”
The NFL requires daily COVID-19 testing for everyone, but contact tracing — requiring everyone to wear a device whenever they are at the facility, and creating the category of “high-risk close contact” — is likely what saved the season.
“Certainly the protocols and the testing have allowed us to better understand the virus, but it’s the contact tracing that has taken it to a different level,” Miller said.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said 30 positive COVID-19 cases came from players deemed high-risk close contacts. Those were cases that otherwise would have gone undetected and potentially spread through a team facility.
“I don’t think people have probably given enough credit to the contact tracing and how crucial that’s been,” Sills said. “The tracers will spend time with not only the involved players but with the club’s infection control officer, medical staff, coaches, watching practice footage or facility footage. There’s a lot of data that gets reviewed.”
The NFL also deserves credit for maintaining an entertaining product. Despite the lack of preseason games, the league is on the verge of setting records for points, touchdowns, and passing efficiency.
This season has also been great for players looking to extend their careers. New roster rules and expanded practice squads because of COVID-19 have given teams unprecedented flexibility, and the NFL is on pace to have a record 2,371 players appear in games, 242 more than last season’s record.
“You’ve seen a lot of things this year that were just smarter,” Smith said. “I think a lot of them benefit veteran players, but frankly a lot of it benefited the entire roster. I think that we are going to have good conversations in the offseason about what ones remain in effect.”
The NFL also says it was able to safely welcome at least some fans into games. Miller said 102 of 240 games have had fans, with seven more on tap on Sunday. The NFL, which had more than 17 million fans pass through the gates last season, expects to reach 1 million in attendance.
“We’ve been tracking very closely on a local level the outcome of our fans in the stands, and we’re pleased to report that there are no clusters of positive cases,” Miller said. “And that’s a testament to the fans and mask-wearing and social distancing and the pod concept that were put into place for the safety of the fans.”
It didn’t look promising in October, but the NFL made it to the finish line. All that’s left after this Sunday are 13 postseason games (isn’t this an all-time jinx?), and a full 2020 season will, remarkably, be in the books.
It all comes down to this
A few notes to set up Week 17, which has 11 teams fighting for seven playoff spots:
▪ The season has had some wild twists, but none crazier than the one facing the Rams and backup quarterback John Wolford. The third-year player has never taken an NFL snap, yet Wolford will be the one getting the start Sunday with the Rams’ season on the line after Jared Goff broke his thumb last Sunday. The Rams face the Cardinals in what is essentially a win-or-go-home game (though the Rams could still make the playoffs if the Bears lose).
Who is John Wolford? He was a four-year starter at Wake Forest who earned second-team All-ACC honors in 2017, went undrafted, spent a training camp with the Jets, played for the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football, and spent all of 2019 on the Rams’ practice squad before winning the backup job this season. Wolford is a nephew of former three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Will Wolford of the Bills, Colts, and Steelers. And John Wolford still has a LinkedIn page to find work as a private equity analyst.
“If this Sunday goes well, maybe I’ll just delete it,” he said.
▪ Talk about a wholly unsatisfying conclusion to the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa-Ryan Fitzpatrick debate in Miami. Fitzpatrick contracted COVID-19 this past week, taking him out of the equation for Sunday’s crucial game at Buffalo and letting coach Brian Flores off the hook. Now Flores doesn’t have to worry about pulling Tagovailoa should the Dolphins fall behind on Sunday, and all of the second-guessing that comes with the decision. Hopefully, the Dolphins can beat the Bills and Fitzpatrick can get healthy in time for the playoffs, because I want to see which quarterback Flores plays when the season is on the line.
On an unrelated note, the Dolphins finished last season No. 32 in points allowed, and are currently ranked No. 1. They could become the first team in NFL history to go from worst to first in points allowed.
▪ It’s not surprising that the 6-9 Cowboys (minus-74) and 5-10 Giants (minus-81) have a negative point differential on the season. But the 10-5 Browns are minus-13 on the season, the only other playoff contender on the minus side. The 10-5 Colts, currently the first team out of the AFC playoffs, are plus-45. Even 6-9 Washington is even for the season. The 10-5 Ravens lead the NFL at plus-130, and the 14-1 Chiefs are plus-128.
▪ One thing to keep in mind about the Packers this postseason — they have the NFL’s easiest strength of schedule (.424) and haven’t played many tough opponents. Though they are 12-3, they are just 3-2 against playoff contenders, beating the Saints, Bears, and Titans, and losing to the Buccaneers and Colts. The Packers also have played three teams that have fired their coach (Lions, Falcons, Texans) and two more that probably will (Jaguars, Eagles).
▪ Titans running back Derrick Henry has 1,777 yards and could sit out Sunday’s game and still easily finish as the NFL’s rushing champ. He is set to become the 12th player in NFL history to repeat as rushing champ, and the 11 before him all reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
No move may be the right move
The NFL should see a lot of movement at quarterback this offseason, but perhaps not in San Francisco and Philadelphia.
The 49ers may not be thrilled about the prospect of paying Jimmy Garoppolo $25.5 million next season but probably don’t like their alternatives. The 49ers are 22-8 with a Super Bowl appearance with Garoppolo, and 7-26 during that time with backups. The 49ers could try to draft a quarterback or find a different veteran, but that’s easier said than done.
“I do believe Jimmy’s going to be our quarterback next year,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Look at Jimmy’s record when he’s been here. Jimmy, you can win with. He’s proven that. He’s proven he’s a starting quarterback in this league. We had a couple of other guys who got opportunities this year who played like they have a chance at times to be starting quarterbacks, but they did play like backups overall.”
And Jalen Hurts’s shaky performance last week against Dallas threw cold water on the idea of Hurts taking over the Eagles’ starting job next season.
The Eagles have invested a ton into Carson Wentz — two first-round picks back in 2016, and more than $150 million in contracts. While his play was awful this season, Wentz certainly wasn’t the sole reason for the Eagles’ struggles. Trading or releasing Wentz next season will crush the Eagles’ salary cap. Keeping him and trying to fix him is by far the most prudent solution.
The only real question is which coach will be doing the fixing? Doug Pederson, whose team slipped from a Super Bowl three years ago to 4-10-1 this season, practically begged his bosses this past week to let him keep his job.
“I’ve got a ton of confidence in Carson Wentz and always have,” Pederson said. “Our offseason is going to be geared toward getting things fixed as quarterbacks and obviously as a team. And that falls on my shoulders. That’s going to be our motivation moving into this offseason.”
Reports emerged Saturday that the Eagles do intend to keep Pederson next season. It’s hard to imagine that another 4-10-1 season will be tolerated for either he or Wentz.
Is this the end for Gore?
Time to pay our annual tribute to Jets running back Frank Gore, who hit injured reserve this past week and may have put on his pads for the last time. For a guy who tore his ACL twice in college, Gore has lasted 16 seasons at the NFL’s most injury-prone position, and this Sunday against the Patriots will be just the 11th missed game in his career.
Gore, 37, is third all time in rushing yards (exactly 16,000) behind Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, and fourth in all-purpose yards (19,985) behind Jerry Rice, Smith, and Payton. Gore has 99 touchdowns, nine 1,000-yard seasons, five Pro Bowls, and was a key cog on the 49ers’ 2012 Super Bowl team.
Gore has taken a tour of the old AFC East over the last four seasons, playing for the Colts, Bills, Dolphins, and Jets. C’mon, Bill Belichick, bring Gore to the Patriots.
As the Patriots look to replace quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch and potentially offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, one name to keep an eye on is Jets coach Adam Gase, who is likely to be fired after Sunday’s game. Gase was a name I had heard connected to the Patriots this past week, and that was before Belichick waxed poetic about Gase on Wednesday and how great of a job he is doing with Sam Darnold. Gase’s first football job came as an undergraduate assistant with Michigan State in 1999, where he worked for Nick Saban and befriended a young McDaniels. Gase later was McDaniels’s receivers coach in Denver, and the two have remained close. Gase also received a phone call from Belichick earlier this season expressing support after the losses started piling up for the Jets. Gase could certainly do worse than to coach QBs for a year or two in New England and rehab his reputation . . . Cam Newton could stand to toss a few touchdown passes. If he starts Sunday and doesn’t throw a touchdown pass, he would finish the season with five in 15 starts, which would rank as the second-fewest in NFL history for quarterbacks who start at least 15 games. Former Buccaneer Trent Dilfer has the record, with just four touchdown passes in 16 starts in 1995 . . . Philip Rivers is set to start his 240th consecutive game Sunday, starting every one since entering the Chargers’ lineup at the start of the 2006 season. He still has 57 games to go to catch Brett Favre, however. Meanwhile, Ravens punter Sam Koch will see his streak end at 239 games Sunday after he was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list this past week . . . Interesting suggestion by NFLPA president J.C. Tretter this past week, writing in an open letter that the union wants to abolish the two-month offseason program, given the success of this season. Offseason practices aren’t necessary for veterans but certainly are helpful for youngsters who want to impress coaches and quarterbacks who want to master an offensive system. The NFLPA knows it will have to concede something to get something, so perhaps eliminating the offseason is how the NFL gets to an 18-game schedule . . . Dwayne Haskins is the poster boy for the new rookie wage scale adopted in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Before then, owners were furious that a bust such as JaMarcus Russell could walk away with $39 million, and Sam Bradford could earn $50 million before taking a snap. Haskins, drafted 15th overall 2019, signed a four-year deal worth $14.4 million fully guaranteed, and only $4.3 million left over the final two years. Washington had no trouble walking away from that when Haskins proved that he wasn’t worth the trouble.