In January 2020, the NFL unveiled plans for its upcoming draft to take place on a floating stage in front of the fountains at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. In March, as the coronavirus spread throughout the country, the league announced that the draft would be a remote event. On April 23, Roger Goodell hosted the first round from his living room while snacking on M&M’s. Plans change.
The draft was among the earliest and starkest examples of how the pandemic would impact how the NFL operates. It would take too long to list every adjustment teams made this offseason to start the regular season safely and on time. Many of those changes, teams hope, are temporary: Scouts would like college pro days back, assistant coaches would like to be able to get close enough to players to give them hands-on adjustments in practices, and players would like to be able to spend time together freely in the locker room. Some changes, however, might stick. Rams general manager Les Snead thought remote meetings with draft prospects were so efficient that he’d like the league to eliminate predraft visits altogether. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in July that watching his staff play games and devise competitions over Zoom to keep players engaged with the playbook made him “see where there might be a place for it in the future.” The remote draft was a ratings success and came off as charming and informal. Maybe the league will rethink how it produces it in future years, continuing to trade the glitz for an emphasis on personal stories and Goodell wearing a sweater.
One of the most significant changes to this offseason was the cancellation of the preseason. Eliminating it was one of the major sticking points between the NFL and the NFLPA during negotiations about safety protocols for training camp. The NFLPA argued that the injury risk was too great without normal offseason workouts. The NFL initially canceled two of four originally scheduled preseason games, but eventually agreed to cancel the entire slate.
There was a tug-of-war over the preseason before this year, too. It was already expected to be shortened to three games in 2021 to balance out the addition of a 17th regular-season game. Some teams, like the Rams, already refuse to play their starters during exhibition games—even pre-COVID-19, it was fair to wonder whether the preseason could ever go the way of the dodo, despite the NFL’s financial incentive to keep it around. With that in mind, coaches and team employees watched Week 1 of this regular season with an eye on the quality of play around the league, wondering whether it would tell them anything about the usefulness of preseason games in the first place. They saw some noticeable differences, but mostly, the football looked like football.
“I thought overall, what I expected in terms of some of the sloppy penalties, presnap issues, I thought it was a good reflection of just the caliber of play around the league,” McVay said Wednesday. “There weren’t as many turnovers, I want to say there was like 33 fumbles, only 14 of them lost.”
There were actually only 13 lost fumbles in Week 1 but that math, as it usually does with McVay, basically checks out.
It did look like some teams were taking it slow to start the season. One noticeable trend from Week 1 was how much offenses relied on short, quick passes. Patrick Mahomes—Patrick Mahomes—attempted only one throw of at least 20 air yards against the Texans, which has happened only once before in his career. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Mahomes’s average time to throw was 2.35 seconds, and his average pass went 4.7 yards past the line of scrimmage, both career lows. His average depth of target in 2019 was 8.6 yards.
Other offenses were similarly conservative. In his New England debut, Cam Newton’s average depth of target was 5.2 yards, Gardner Minshew’s was 4.5, Kyler Murray’s was 5.5, and Jared Goff’s was a Week 1 low of 4.3. Even though the Seahawks put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands and went pass-first, Wilson’s average depth of target was still only 5.3 yards. It appeared to be an effective strategy since all those quarterbacks’ teams won.
There were six starting quarterbacks who had more than 10 yards per attempt in Week 1 of last year, with Lamar Jackson leading the pack at 16.2 and three more passers, Kirk Cousins, Wilson, and Tom Brady, checking in at 9.8. In Week 1 of this year, Jackson (11 yards per attempt) and Cousins (10.4) were the only two, according to Pro Football Focus.
One NFC personnel director said that when watching game film from Week 1, it was clear that players “were really feeling out the speed of the game, having not been out there for a while.” He pointed out that the absence of preseason games meant teams couldn’t advance scout their Week 1 opponent effectively, which may have contributed to game plans being more vanilla. Coaches had less of an idea who the situational pass rushers were, or which running backs would be featured on third downs.
Some coaches worried that tackling would be bad early in the year because players didn’t have live reps. McVay said that he did notice a lot of missed tackles by Rams players—four of them whiffed on an inside cut by Ezekiel Elliott on one play—but that he thought the tackling got better as the game went on.
There were also, as McVay said, fewer penalties.
Officials threw 199 flags in Week 1, down from 249 last season, and from 255 in 2018, according to nflpenalties.com. There were significantly fewer holding penalties—18 were called in Week 1, a 78 percent drop from Week 1 of 2019, and a 58.6 percent drop from the five-year average from 2014 to 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That probably has more to do with how the officials were calling holding than the actual play, but it also indicates teams weren’t less disciplined without time to adjust to rule changes and new points of emphasis.
There did seem to be less discipline or preparedness on special teams where, at least anecdotally, a large number of plays went horribly, horribly wrong for teams in Week 1. Coaches saw this coming. It’s very hard to simulate plays in the kicking game without live reps, and young players, who often get their starts on special teams, are the ones who need the work most.
“One of the toughest things that is going to be judged is special teams,” Washington head coach Ron Rivera told USA Today in August.
“This is critical that we don’t go out there and our first live kickoff return is Sept.  and somebody gets hurt, because that’s the last thing that you want to do is say, ‘Well, I just wasn’t ready for that guy in the speed to come down there, as he was covering kickoff,’ because we all know that’s what’s going to happen,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said during a press conference in July. “On Monday night, they’re going to be flying down there.”
Vrabel probably wasn’t anticipating the special teams meltdown his team endured in its win against the Broncos during their opener. Veteran kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed three field goals and an extra point before kicking the game-winning field goal in the closing seconds. Vrabel wasn’t the only coach whose team had mishaps in the kicking game in Week 1.
The Falcons failed to convert a fake punt against the Seahawks after ballcarrier Sharrod Neasman fumbled and Seattle recovered. The Ravens-Browns game had a failed fake punt, a missed extra point, and a missed 41-yard field goal. (It was the Browns who ran the fake punt attempt, from their own 30, but you didn’t need me to tell you that.) The Buccaneers had a field goal kick blocked and a kickoff return muffed against the Saints. Patriots receiver Damiere Byrd got benched for 34-year-old Julian Edelman as the team’s punt returner after botching a punt in the first half against the Dolphins. Bengals kicker Randy Bullock cramped as he attempted a game-tying 31-yard field goal against the Chargers with two seconds left; the kick went wide right, his second miss of the day. You get the picture.
These mistakes aren’t necessarily the result of not having preseason games, especially the missed kicks. Several coaches I spoke with, though, did say that they noticed some energy lag in Week 1.
“There’s no question guys were tired. I mean just the nervous energy, all that stuff, that you kind of get to work out in those four preseason games, it hit all at once,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said Wednesday. “By the end of those games and even the tape I’ve been watching, there’s obviously some sloppy play, some stuff you’ve got to get cleaned up. I think the resounding thing was guys were just tired and there’s not a lot of juice to lift you up in some crucial situations.”
Kingsbury doesn’t think it will take a month for teams to get up to full speed: “I do believe teams will make a huge jump from Week 1 to Week 2,” he said.
It’s too soon to know how this offseason’s restrictions will impact how teams approach training camp and the preseason in the future. Week 1 was not a referendum on whether or not we need exhibition games in August to get premium-quality football in September and, even if it had been, the results were inconclusive. We’ll never know which undrafted rookie might have earned a roster spot with a strong preseason performance, though expanded practice squads did create more opportunity to make teams. Teams may have focused more on players on their own training camp rosters they wanted to keep rather than going after players on other teams who had impressed them in preseason. No one could see anyone else’s training camp practices, so while bubble players got less exposure, teams got to keep more of their diamonds in the rough. “I don’t think we made any decisions we wouldn’t have otherwise as far as cuts go, but I do think it helped us squeeze a couple of our guys over to the practice squad that might have played too well in a preseason game,” the personnel director said.
The most significant accomplishments of Week 1 were not about the on-field product. It started on time, and of the 15,959 COVID-19 tests administered to 2,511 players from September 6-12, only two came back positive. The NFL, however, could also be happy about at least two things on the field at the conclusion of Week 1: The number of players injured in preseason games this year was zero, and scoring was up—teams combined to score 87 offensive touchdowns, the most in NFL history through the first week of a season. The football looked like football. There were times not too long ago when that seemed like an impossible bar to clear.