It has been 221 days since an NFL game was last played. You may not have realized it, because in the meantime, time broke. If you’d explained to anyone on that February night what the next NFL game would look like, well, they’d have some follow-up questions. It’s easier to list the things that haven’t changed in the past six months, so here’s one: Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, the two quarterbacks who face each other Thursday to start the NFL season, are two of the best players in football.
They will play in front of 16,000 fans in Kansas City, ending the strangest offseason in football history and beginning the strangest season in football history. They will play without having any preseason games or in-person offseason training due to COVID-19. Even from a football perspective, things shifted for both quarterbacks: They will face off having signed $663 million worth of contracts this summer. Watson will be playing without his former top receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, who was traded to Arizona. This football season, like most things this year, won’t be like anything we’ve seen before. Thursday’s game will not feel normal, nor should it. But Mahomes and Watson will again be on TV making a defensive back look like they’ve never seen a football before. It’s good to know some things never change.
The 2020 season will be about playing safely. NBC Sports’ Peter King asked NFL commissioner Roger Goodell this week if he believes some teams won’t play a 16-game schedule. Goodell said he didn’t know but the league is “prepared if we have to do that … There will be potential competitive inequities that will be required this season because of the virus and because of the circumstances that we wouldn’t do in other years. That’s going to be a reality of 2020. If we feel like we have an outbreak, that’s going to be driven by medical decisions—not competitive decisions.”
The NFL season, like MLB’s, will not be played in a bubble. Major League Baseball has postponed more than 40 games since its restart due to positive COVID-19 tests. The NFL has, despite its 80-man rosters and large coaching staffs, had no in-facility outbreaks during camp and a low number of players on the COVID-19 list that indicates either a positive test or exposure to the virus. The virus has not meaningfully disrupted the NFL since training camps began, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.
Thursday’s matchup is a reminder that the defining on-field theme of football is always the same: quarterbacks. As long as the game can be played safely, quarterbacks will matter more than anything else in the sport. That is what makes the 2020 season, from a purely sporting standpoint, one of the most interesting we’ve ever seen.
The 2020 season is the football equivalent of the 1995 Champions League final, or the 1960 U.S. Open, or the middleweight boxing division of the 1980s: All of these events were stockpiled with talent and fireworks, involving different eras crisscrossing each other. We will look back on this era in the NFL and marvel. Mahomes, Watson, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees in the same league at the same time—it’s the type of thing they make documentaries about. (If there weren’t 40 other things to make documentaries about during this year in sports.)
It is shallow to say there’s a passing of the torch happening in 2020, because it has mostly already happened. Starting with the 2016 draft class, which featured Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, among others, a steady stream of young quarterbacks has developed quickly and taken over the NFL. In 2017, Mahomes and Watson entered the league; Jackson entered a year later. There are reasons this group could thrive quickly: the spread offense finally coming to the NFL a generation late, smart coaches knowing how to use their best players, and more than anything, the enormous intellectual and physical talent of the younger generation of players.
There are two distinct things happening this season. For one group of players, time is accelerating; quarterbacks win an MVP in their second year as a starter and rule the NFL almost immediately. For another, time is slowing down: Brees and Brady are playing into their 40s, seemingly ageless. The past, to borrow from William Faulkner, isn’t even past. These elements have combined to create an almost-perfect league to consume. This is a good time to like football.
Mahomes, after a Super Bowl run last year and an MVP award the year before, has settled the debate about the top quarterback in football. The only question is how big the gap is between him and the second-best quarterback. The latter is probably Jackson, who won last year’s MVP while redefining what is possible with a football in your hand. Watson and Wilson are in the discussion. What we do know is that Mahomes and Watson are paid like the two best. Mahomes just signed a 10-year extension worth $503 million and Watson signed a four-year extension worth $160 million. This, of course, carries its own significance. For the first time in the league’s history, the three highest-paid quarterbacks by average annual value, according to Spotrac, are Black. Thursday night’s matchup marks the first time two Black quarterbacks have faced each other in the NFL’s opening game since 2006. Both Mahomes and Watson led NFL players in social justice initiatives this offseason and have used their voice during the nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
Thursday’s game is the official kickoff of the most unpredictable season in league history. It’s also another showcase for two of the best young quarterbacks in league history, who are doing things no one has ever done on a football field at such a young age. Or in many cases, at any age.
I think a lot about the players in the tunnels and hallways in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium after the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in February. There was a lot of fun but also a matter-of-factness that surprised me, given that the Chiefs had erased a double-digit lead to beat the 49ers. It was a joyous feeling, but there was also a collective calm, because there was a sense that Mahomes, surrounded by the Chiefs’ talent and schemes, was inevitable. This is a player whose passer rating on third down is nearly 28 points higher than the league average. His adjusted yards per attempt is a full yard higher than that of any other quarterback in history. The reason I think about those hallway scenes in that stadium is not just because of how amazing the game was, or how amazing Mahomes was. It is because of how normal everything felt. Nothing will feel normal Thursday. It might not for many more months. But one part of that night is back. It’s Mahomes. He’s inevitable.