NFL's big kickoff: Five things to look out for as COVID-hit season gets underway

One of the most unique NFL seasons in recent memory begins this week as the league’s 32 teams take to the field amid uncertainties about how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will impact the sport in the coming months.

Even the most seasoned NFL experts will tell you that there are more than a few question marks ahead of the 2020 season. The specter of the ongoing global health crisis has made an indelible mark on most major sports across the globe and, of course, the National Football League has not been immune. 

The worldwide sporting shutdown has severely restricted teams’ abilities to effectively prepare. Practice times have been reduced, team activities that traditionally take place in person were instead conducted over Zoom calls, and multi-million dollar training facilities sat empty, with players instead attempting to physically prepare themselves in home-made gyms in their garages. 

So, how will these limitations impact the forthcoming season, and what else should we look out for when the season gets up and running this week?

Prepare for some sloppy play

With each team scrambling to ready themselves amid much-reduced training times, this will likely result in a spate of errors as players work their way to full game fitness. 

You can expect to see more than a few blown plays as players – and in particular rookies – grapple with their playbooks.

Furthermore, tackling technique – which is often an issue early on in NFL campaigns – will almost certainly be lacking among some players, so look for the league’s more experienced running backs to rack up some lengthy runs and take advantage of any uncertainty in opposition defensive schemes.

Conversely, if this season will present challenges to the league’s younger players, some of the veterans – the so-called ‘plug n’ play’ players – will rely upon their wealth of experience to identify holes. 

Essentially, teams who rely on tactical schemes (hello, Bill Belichick) could struggle early, while others with dependable veterans adept at reading the game will likely take advantage of any second-guessing among the opposition. 

The coronavirus impact will be ongoing

Dozens of NFL players have already opted out of the forthcoming season due to the potential risk of the virus, with most citing concerns about the health of their families – especially those with newborn children.

Each team in the league locked in their 53-man roster this past Saturday, but you can be sure that these rosters will be chopped and changed if and when players in the league test positive for the virus and undergo enforced quarantine periods. 

One suspects that more than a few headlines will be generated should some of the league’s standout teams be forced to play without a host of recognized stars – and things could get even worse if there is a localized outbreak within a team’s training facility.

And we can only imagine the havoc this will play with fans’ Fantasy Football teams!

Can Tom Brady’s NFL swansong send Tampa Bay into the playoffs?

There was considerable angst in New England this year when Tom Brady confirmed that he was ending his two-decade association with the Patriots, placing a bookend on the most storied quarterback career in history.

Brady’s famous #12 shirt now comes in the black and red of the Buccaneers, where famed coach Bruce Arians looks to harness the gas left in the 43-year-old veteran’s tank to propel the underperforming Florida team towards the playoffs. 

Brady has been joined in Tampa by his old New England cohort Rob Gronkowski, while veteran running back (and recent addition) LeSean McCoy was also joined by former first-round pick Leonard Fournette. 

The new Tampa Bay roster now reads like an all-star roster and this certainly would have been an incredible assembly of talent five years ago. 

But in 2020? The jury remains firmly out. 

It is time for a new generation to step up

If Brady is in the twilight of his career, space exists for someone to step out of the shadow to be regarded as the best arm in the league.

Last year’s MVP Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, who recently inked a mammoth $503 million contract, look set to be the two quarterbacks who will duel with each another for the next decade or more.

Elsewhere, young talent like New York’s Saquon Barkley, Cleveland’s Nick Chubb (and a host of others) look set for breakout seasons where they will hope to take further steps towards a Super Bowl and eventually Hall of Fame status. 

Social justice campaigns will be part and parcel of the season

Given that a large amount of the ongoing “Black Lives Matter” protests found its genesis when former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the national anthem three years ago, you can be sure that the current social malcontent in the United States will continue to be referenced on NFL sidelines.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has already given his blessing to players peacefully protesting at games (much to the chagrin of Donald Trump) and this will almost certainly continue to be a divisive issue among sections of the viewing public. 

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