Reflecting on the first NFL season impacted by COVID-19
It’s crazy to think about the difference a month can make.
If you had asked someone about the next NFL season after the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, they likely would’ve brought up the usual questions that pop up ever year in mid-February.
Who’s going to be picked first in the upcoming NFL Draft? Where are the year’s biggest free agents heading next? Will Tom Brady come back and win a Super Bowl, or will he ride off into the sunset?
Just one month later, however, all of those questions would change.
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Yes, those question marks were still focused on the future, but in a much more serious way. Instead of thinking about whether or not one small topic would happen, fans were left to wonder about whether or not the season itself could even go on.
It would’ve seemed crazy to even have that thought pop into your head when the dust settled on Super Bowl LIV in 2020, but a global pandemic has the power to disrupt everything that is normal across the globe.
As the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 continued to evolve, March Madness was axed, along with national tournaments for a variety of other collegiate sports.
The NBA, NHL and MLB’s seasons were all postponed, with the NBA and NHL opting to skip over the rest of their respective regular seasons when the time finally came to return to play in the summer.
The Masters was postponed. Wimbledon was cancelled, stunning tennis fans around the world. The 2020 Summer Olympics, originally scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Japan, were postponed, and questions still loom around their future in 2021, as well.
Then, there was the NFL.
While the NBA, NHL and MLB worked through a variety of situations and each crafted a slew of COVID-19-related protocols, the NFL was able to sit back and learn from each of their counterparts’ successes and failures.
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The NBA and NHL put together different types of “bubbles” for any teams involved in their adapted postseason, while the MLB season consisted of the same travel that teams are accustomed to, albeit on a lesser scale.
Meanwhile, the NFL built its own plan, which had its own high points and low points.
While the league couldn’t put together a bubble of its own like many fans had wished they would, they compiled a laundry list of strict protocols that teams were forced to follow.
Mask-wearing became common practice on almost every sort of team property, whether it was inside a meeting room or weight room, on buses and planes, and even on the sidelines during games.
Daily COVID-19 tests became the new normal, with players that either tested positive for the virus or players that were deemed close contacts forced to comply with strict requirements in order to return to the field.
Postgame interactions were mitigated to an extent, and schedules were put together in a way that would allow for more flexibility if teams suffered from any outbreaks throughout the year.
Unfortunately, even all of that wasn’t enough in some cases.
Games were postponed on numerous occasions, with some taking place on Tuesday nights and one played on a Wednesday night in December.
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Superstars like reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson and New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton missed time due to positive COVID-19 tests, and their teams had games bumped around their respective schedules on numerous occasions.
Throughout it all, there were plenty of fans, players, coaches and more who were again wondering whether or not the 2020 NFL season could even be completed.
But, somehow and someway, it happened.
When the final whistle blew on the last Sunday night of the regular season, 256 games had been played across the league’s 32 teams.
Then, the league managed to make it through four weeks of a postseason, which even featured two extra Wild Card Round games than usual.
It may have seemed impossible, and even reckless at times with how certain postponements were handled, but the NFL got it done.
To cap it all off, the league was rewarded for their efforts with a Super Bowl between Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs.
The league’s face of the last 20 years, who decided to change the course of two franchises at once by taking his talents to Tampa Bay, squaring off with the new kid on the block, who happened to be the reigning Super Bowl MVP and the apparent heir to Brady’s throne.
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While the Super Bowl may not have seemed like anything to celebrate for those looking for a competitive game, it served as the icing on a cake that many figured the NFL wouldn’t even be able to bake.
Less than a year after COVID-19 shook the world to its core, the NFL managed to put on 269 games in the span of just four months, and still saw a similar talent level as usual.
The league’s veterans and those that switched scenery despite the circumstances were still able to achieve greatness, while the rookies from the 2020 NFL Draft were able to rise to the occasion despite a new-look offseason that led to limited training camps and no preseason games.
Brady led his new team to the Super Bowl despite his lack of familiarity with the system, while rookies like Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa gave fans reasons to be excited about the league’s future.
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And, perhaps most importantly, the league built a baseline for the future.
No, the league didn’t have to deal with a brand new pandemic in the midst of its regular season, and had more time to plan for a return to play than its three counterparts in the country’s “Big Four” sports leagues.
But, the NFL pulled off a full season of travel, and battled through various outbreaks spanning numerous teams that could have easily derailed the entire season.
It seemed like an impossible task, and one that many thought wasn’t even worth the effort when the league started the 2020 regular season in September.
But, just like the impacts of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, things can evolve in different ways. In the NFL’s case, it trended in a positive way, and led to a full season that should be considered a huge success given the circumstances.
It’s crazy to think about the difference a few months can make.
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