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The 16 Biggest Story Lines for the 2020 NFL Season

A lot has happened since the Chiefs won the Lombardi Trophy. Let’s get caught up before Thursday’s kickoff.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Football is almost back. On Thursday, the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs will host the Houston Texans for the first NFL game since the Super Bowl in February. How did we get here so fast? Actually, don’t answer that. A lot has happened in the world, and subsequently we are all less informed entering this NFL season than usual. That’s where this guide comes in handy. On the off chance you have been focusing on, uh, things other than the NFL offseason during the past six months, here are the Sparknotes on the 16 most important events, stories, and lingering questions since the Chiefs won the Lombardi Trophy.

1. How will the pandemic affect the season?

The NFL fully intends to start and finish the season on time.

However, the NFL has opted against the “bubble” approach used by the NBA, NHL, and MLS because there are too many people involved in football operations—about 150 combined players, coaches, and essential staff for each of the 32 teams. Instead, the league is relying on everyone involved to make good choices, get tests frequently, and practice social distancing to prevent the virus from spreading. Of course, there is no social distancing in football (the sport is basically the opposite of social distancing). But the goal is to make sure none of the players on the field have the virus. Thus far, these measures have worked. Just 10 of 58,621 tests conducted on 8,739 players from August 21 to August 29 came back positive. But a good training camp does not mean a good season. MLB had strong success with testing during spring training, but then had far more trouble when the season started and travel began. The NFL could face a similar problem. The league plans to keep the schedule on track, but that does not mean it does not have contingency plans.

The league is reportedly prepared to move the Super Bowl back to any weekend in February or early March if necessary. The first two weeks of the season were structured to be pushed back if needed, and there might be a window created between the regular season and the playoffs to make up for any games that get postponed, an issue baseball has dealt with this season as multiple teams have had positive COVID-19 tests.

The testing plan is in place, but rules around allowing fans in stadiums aren’t uniform. The NFL is allowing teams to have different rules for fan attendance (e.g., the Miami Dolphins are hosting a 20 percent capacity in Miami, but the New York Jets will not allow fans in their New Jersey stadium). There are 30 stadiums, and in theory each could have a different policy. The look and feel of the game will be different, and some coaches say there is a competitive advantage to some teams having fans while others don’t, but that merely exposes a fundamental reality of the 2020 season: It is not going to be fair. The concept of fairness this year will be sacrificed at the altar of finishing the season on time.

Players were allowed to opt out of the season—though not with anywhere near the same benefits that NBA or MLB players received. Yet just about every household name is playing this year. The risks for players are complex, as lung and heart complications for people who recover are not well understood. There is also a group of coaches and referees who are in at-risk categories based on age. But the league is expecting all-time-high ratings, so the incentive for owners to pull off the season is massive.

2. Race, kneeling during the anthem, and demonstrations could dominate the conversation

George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer ignited the largest series of racial-justice protests since at least the civil rights movement. The conversation takes on added significance in the NFL, where Colin Kaepernick is still a free agent four years after kneeling to protest police brutality and racial injustice. After Floyd’s death, side-by-side images of Kaepernick taking a knee and the knee on Floyd’s neck were shared widely on social media.

After Floyd’s death, a group of players including reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, and Saints receiver Michael Thomas released a video demanding commissioner Roger Goodell repeat a statement in which he “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people,” “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting,” and state that “Black lives matter.” Goodell responded in less than 24 hours. Goodell also went on Emmanuel Acho’s YouTube show Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man last month, where he acknowledged the NFL made a mistake with Kaepernick and apologized, saying, “I wish we had listened earlier, Kap, to what you were kneeling about.”

This is a big change from three years ago, when the NFL tried to squash protests around the league. But Americans may have changed their minds in that time, too. The question now is what will happen when NFL games begin. Players and coaches are expected to kneel en masse during the national anthem. But as that form of protest becomes mainstream, will another form rise?

3. Tom Brady is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer

Everyone knows this one, but none of us has processed it yet. The Tom Brady–Bill Belichick era defined modern football. Together, they won six rings, appeared in nine Super Bowls and 13 AFC championships, and captured 17 AFC East titles. It might have been the best pairing in the history of American team sports. Now it’s over. Brady left for Florida to ride out the most public midlife crisis in the U.S. to play for the Buccaneers, a team that hasn’t been great for most of its history. The inevitable follow-up is: Why?

Brady’s decision seems to have been more about leaving the Pats than joining a specific team. Brady had worked at only one company in his life. That is out of tune with the rest of the American workforce. Regardless of the industry, it is possible to spend 20 years working at the same place for the same boss and same owner, achieve unprecedented success, and then feel it’s time for a change. On top of that, the Patriots have ruthlessly swapped out players a year too early rather than a year too late. Brady has seen this happen to dozens (hundreds?) of players in his career, and it would be surprising if he never wondered when the franchise would do that to him, especially since he wants to play until he is 45. Leaving New England is merely evidence that Brady had been paying attention.

Why he chose Tampa Bay also seems fairly simple—it came down to the Chargers and the Bucs, and the Bucs are in the same time zone as his family. They also have a better team. Brady is joined by Rob Gronkowski, who came out of retirement and was traded to the Bucs this offseason. Gronk, along with receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, and newly signed running back Leonard Fournette, make up perhaps the best skill group Brady has had since Randy Moss and Co.

Brady turned 43 last month. There have been only seven total games started by a quarterback 43 or older in NFL history, so the Buccaneers are officially sailing into uncharted territory. The question is whether we will look back on Brady-to-the-Bucs as a meme, like Michael Jordan on the Wizards, or momentous, like Peyton Manning on the Broncos. The answer could happen as soon as this season, as Brady chases a seventh ring. This year’s Super Bowl is scheduled to take place in Tampa. No team has ever played a Super Bowl in their home stadium.

4. Cam Newton signed with the New England Patriots

A dirty truth: Patriots fans are already over this breakup. New England responded to losing Brady by signing Newton, who was league MVP in 2015. Newton was a free agent after the Panthers released him to save roughly $20 million rather than watch him rehab through injury for the third year in a row, and Newton went unsigned for months. It might not be long before Newton makes the teams who passed on him look foolish. He has already been named the Patriots starter and a team captain. New England gave Newton just a half-million dollars guaranteed. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, Newton can earn as much as $7.5 million, which is still less than a third of the $25 million the Bucs are paying Brady in 2020.

5. The Green Bay Packers traded up to draft a QB in the first round

The Green Bay Packers were expected to draft a wide receiver to help Aaron Rodgers in April, but instead they drafted a quarterback presumably to replace Rodgers in the near future. Green Bay selected Utah State’s Jordan Love, a quarterback with a lot of physical tools, but little college success and mixed reviews on whether he was worth a first-round pick. On the surface, this looks like a repeat of when the team drafted Rodgers to replace Brett Favre, especially since Rodgers is 36, the same age Favre was in 2006. But Rodgers doesn’t buy the comparison between the two situations.

“As much as people want to make parallels to certain things, in 2004 the Packers were 10-6 and lost in the first round of the playoffs,” Rodgers said on The Ringer’s 10 Questions With Kyle Brandt podcast. “[Last year] we were 13-3 and one game from the Super Bowl and won a playoff game at home—and obviously [we] won our division. A little different circumstances. Not to mention that Brett had talked about retiring for a few years before [I was drafted] and I’ve talked about playing into my 40s. So when people start talking about the parallels to this and that, well, I fell to 24th. They traded up and drafted Jordan.”

Whatever Rodgers makes of it, he hasn’t been playing as well the past five years as he has before. Some of that is due to questionable coaching, declining talent around him, and injuries. But part of his decline may also rest on his arm. Whatever is going on with Rodgers, he understands his time in Green Bay might be limited.

“Was I bummed out? Of course,” Rodgers told Brandt. “Who wouldn’t be? I wanted to play my entire career in Green Bay. I love the city. I grew up there, really. I got there when I was 21, I’m 36 now. You know, a lot changes during that time. But look, I get it. I see it completely clearly and I’m not bitter about it. It just kind of is what it is.”

6. Philip Rivers signed in Indianapolis and (other quarterbacks changed teams)

After spending his entire career to this point with the Chargers, Rivers joined the Colts this offseason on a one-year contract worth $25 million. Rivers looked cooked last year and is 38 years old, but he will also have the best offensive line he’s had in a decade. He’s also familiar with Colts head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, both of whom coached Rivers on the Chargers staff. While Rivers was a Charger, the team made losing into an art form. Now we’ll see whether the Chargers are cursed, or if Rivers was the problem.

There were three other significant moves from veteran quarterbacks this offseason.

  • Nick Foles was traded from the Jaguars to the Bears (though Mitchell Trubisky is expected to be named Chicago’s starter).
  • Teddy Bridgewater signed with the Carolina Panthers and will be their starter.
  • Jameis Winston signed with the Saints to back up Drew Brees—and possibly replace him in the near future.

7. The Raiders moved to Las Vegas

Typically, this would be a more exciting move. But it comes in the middle of a difficult year to relocate.

“We’re the only team that’s changing locations,” Gruden told The Mercury News in May. “We’ve got to find new homes, new doctors, new places to shop. We’ve got to get acclimated to a completely different environment.”

That environment includes the brand-new Allegiant Stadium, which cost roughly $2 billion. It would be the most expensive stadium in the NFL, but the new Sofi Stadium in Los Angeles cost more than $5 billion.

8. The Dallas Cowboys fired Jason Garrett—and the Giants hired him

Dallas finally fired Jason Garrett in January. They were somewhere between one and eight years (or perhaps a few weeks) too late. The final straw was Dallas dropping a game to a division rival in Week 16. The Cowboys ended up losing the division title, missing the playoffs, and finishing 8-8. Again.

Garrett was hired by the Giants to be the team’s new offensive coordinator, while Dallas replaced Garrett with former Packers coach Mike McCarthy. McCarthy publicly campaigned for the job and then admitted in his introductory press conference he lied to Jerry Jones in the interview. “I told Jerry I watched every play of the 2019 season, but I wanted the job,” McCarthy said to dozens of reporters while sitting next to the Jones family. “I haven’t watched every play of the season. But you do what you gotta do, right?”

You do what you gotta do, I guess, and what we all gotta do is watch Jason Garrett’s Giants visit Dallas in Week 5. Whether Garrett and the Giants win, lose, or tie, it is must-watch television.

9. Washington dropped its name and was the subject of a Washington Post investigative piece about its toxic front-office culture

Washington finally dropped the “Redskins” name in July, which came after years of people saying the slur should not be used—and years of owner Daniel Snyder saying he’d never change the name. But for some people, money talks louder than morals. After the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the team’s shareholders and major sponsors like FedEx, Nike, PepsiCo, and Amazon all pressured Snyder to change the name. Washington is using the nickname “Football Team” this year until they can decide on another name. Choosing that new name may be tricky: Trademarking names that Washington may have wanted has become a cottage industry inside the Beltway.

Just two days after the name change was announced, the Washington Post reported that more than a dozen women said they were sexually harassed by former team employees. A follow-up story in August reported that a video of naked cheerleaders from a swimsuit photoshoot was made for owner Dan Snyder.

10. The NFL added two extra playoff spots

There are two extra wild-card playoff spots this year, bringing the total to 14. To account for the odd number of seven spots in each conference, only the top seed in the AFC and NFC will get a bye instead of the top two seeds in each conference. The only change to the playoff schedule is the NFL has two extra playoff games to televise on wild-card weekend.

11. Pass interference cannot be reviewed

Pass interference is no longer reviewable. Last year, the league made PI reviewable in an attempt to prevent what happened to the Saints in the NFC championship game in January 2019—when an egregious missed PI penalty may have cost New Orleans a trip to the Super Bowl—from occuring again. The league passed a rule last offseason to prevent future problems, but the rule was (predictably) a disaster. The NFL tried to create an objective measure to judge a subjective penalty, which was never going to work, especially when slowed down to instant replay.

Worse, the rule missed the forest for the trees. Almost everyone agreed a rule change was needed after the Saints debacle, but nobody cared that the specific penalty in question was a PI. People would have been just as mad if the game was decided by an equally egregious uncalled holding penalty. But instead of creating a framework to address no-calls late in games, the NFL addressed one specific penalty (and chose the penalty that is hardest for refs to call and the hardest for fans to see). Not only did this fail to solve the problem, but it failed to understand what the problem even was. It also created a new problem of fans second-guessing PI calls every game. Now we have returned to where we were before: Subjective penalties are left to referees in real time.

12. The NFC West got fun

This looks like the most competitive division in football. The 49ers almost won the Super Bowl. The Cardinals traded for Texans superstar DeAndre Hopkins and Seattle traded for star safety Jamal Adams. This profiles as the most fun division in football, with Kliff Kingsbury running the Air Raid with Kyler Murray (and now Hopkins) in Arizona, the Rams two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance themselves, the Seahawks looking every bit the part of a contender, and Kyle Shanahan trying to ensure his 49ers recover from a crushing loss.

13. Speaking of which, the Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins

We’ve all done some dumb shit during 2020, but the Texans were the first ones to lose their marbles. To quote ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, “the Texans seem to operate in a vacuum in which there is no concept of what the other 31 teams are doing or thinking.” Yet even that is kind, because “the Texans” is really just Bill O’Brien, who serves as the team’s head coach and general manager. A timeline:

  • March 16: Houston trades DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-rounder for a second-round pick and running back David Johnson. The Cardinals may have released Johnson if he wasn’t traded. Hours after the swap, the Vikings got a far better trade package from Buffalo for Stefon Diggs, a worse receiver.
  • April 9: Three weeks later, the Texans traded away a second-round pick for Brandin Cooks, a far worse receiver than Hopkins.
  • April 24: O’Brien gets shellacked in negotiations with left tackle Laremy Tunsil for a record-setting, precedent-altering contract of $22 million annually despite Tunsil not hiring an agent.

The Texans were up 24-0 on the Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs in January and lost 51-31, and now they are tilting. If Houston loses by 20 again in Thursday’s opener against Kansas City, then all this offseason reshuffling was just throwing chairs overboard the Titanic.

14. There are multiple fun rookie quarterbacks

Three quarterbacks were drafted in the top six in April. With the first pick, the Bengals selected Ohio-born-and-bred QB Joe Burrow, who posted the best statistical season of any college quarterback in league history in 2019. LSU went 15-0, won the national championship, and set the record for most points scored by an FBS team. Burrow led the country in yards, yards per attempt, and passer rating while setting the FBS record with 60 passing touchdowns and throwing just six interceptions. He did this in the SEC, and he looked like a badass while doing it.

The Miami Dolphins drafted Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa fifth, but Tua might have challenged Burrow for the top spot if not for a hip injury that kept Tagovailoa out of football activities until March. Tua also has a claim as one of the best college football players of all time. Ryan Fitzpatrick will likely start the season for the Dolphins, but Tua might soon become the best Miami Dolphin since Dan Marino (Miami is the only team that has not had a quarterback reach the Pro Bowl in the 21st century).

Then there’s Justin Herbert, the Oregon passer whom the Chargers drafted sixth to replace Philip Rivers. Like Tua, Herbert will sit behind a veteran at the beginning of the year (in his case, Tyrod Taylor) but likely take over by the end of the year. Unlike Tua, Herbert was not a world-destroying force or an obvious candidate to succeed in the NFL. He may be forgotten for the duo of Tua and Burrow fairly soon.

15. The Ravens will try to repeat their 2019 magic—and overcome their heartbreak

Last summer, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh compared the offense they were about to unveil with Lamar Jackson to Apple introducing the iPhone. He wasn’t as far off as that hubris-filled statement would suggest. Baltimore rushed 3,296 yards and 5.5 yards per carry, which were both NFL records, and Baltimore secured the no. 1 seed in the conference with a 14-2 record. Jackson was the youngest MVP in league history and landed on the cover of Madden. Yet when the no. 1-seed Ravens played the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, Baltimore sank. The Ravens fell 28-12 in a game that was never truly close. Baltimore returns most of its 2019 squad except for future Hall of Fame right guard Marshal Yanda, who retired, and safety Earl Thomas, who was released.

16. Patrick Mahomes signed a half-billion-dollar contract extension

In July, the reigning Super Bowl MVP signed a contract extension worth a maximum of $503 million over 10 years. Except it’s not really worth a half-billion dollars. In truth, the deal is closer to a six-year extension paying Patrick Mahomes $225 million, after which they will rip up the back half of the contract and renegotiate. But now is not the time for nitty-gritty contractual details. The point is that Mahomes is under contract at an average of roughly $45 million annually until 2032.

Believe it or not, signing Mahomes to this contract raised Kansas City’s available cap space in 2020 by $30,000. That’s because Mahomes agreed to backload the money to help Kansas City pay other players. The Chiefs subsequently re-signed defensive tackle Chris Jones and tight end Travis Kelce, each of whom were important contributors. Don’t worry, Mahomes still had enough money to propose to his girlfriend with an eight-carat diamond. But the next question he faces is whether he can bring another ring home to Kansas City.