This is already proving to be an NFL season unlike any other. And as the coronavirus continues to create unusual circumstances around our country, its impact on the game of football will grow as well.
The flurry of free agent signings and trades has made the business of the NFL seem, mostly, like normal. But that will soon trickle to a stop, and then the NFL will be facing many of the same issues other leagues are already coping with. The uncertainty about if or when offseason programs will ever begin is something that will garner more attention. Issues about minicamps and training camps will come into focus.
But trust me, general managers and coaches and coordinators are already dwelling on it. They know that big changes are ahead and there is very little chance that the period of offseason work and Organized Team Activities and practices looks anything like what we are accustomed to, if it happens at all.
"I'm watching film and doing what I can and playing board games with my kids and doing the best I can," as one offensive coordinator put it to me. "But I am also planning as if we might not be able to do anything besides FaceTime our players for the entire offseason. I'm trying to figure out how much we will be able to teach. I don't think it's out of the question that we don't even have our facilities open by the time training camp would normally start. No one knows how this is going to play out, but I think a lot of people are preparing for the entire offseason to be wiped out."
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This is hardly the only person to express a sentiment along these lines. There is trepidation among some coaches about how much they will be able to change with their systems and how many new players will need to be coached up. They are worried about how much classroom and film time they will have, and how the installation periods will go, if everything has to be done remotely.
I can assure you that Troy Vincent, head of NFL football operations, and all of his staff in New York are working overtime on contingency plans for what a truncated offseason or preseason might look like. This will have a significant impact on how teams prepare for the 2020 season, and the more people I talk to the more I believe that the organizations that have long-term stability between head coach and play-callers and the quarterback and the middle linebacker – the guys with the ear pieces in their helmets on game day – will have a distinct advantage, especially early in the season and perhaps all the way through.
Football is a game that requires 53-man rosters and large groups of men to be on the same page and in unison and of one mind. That is a challenge under normal times, let alone these. The rookie coaches – especially those without super experienced staffs – are going to be at a distinct disadvantage. There is a steep learning curve for these guys, and there is a reason the NFL allows teams with new coaches to begin their offseason programs before others.
In all likelihood, this spring and summer, that is going to go out the window. We may be looking at three-week training camps for the entire league and then, bam, straight into games. We may be looking at some teams that were more affected by the virus than others. We may be looking at rookie quarterbacks who get almost no spring reps with teammates at all, and time with coaches only over Skype … and if you don't think that will take a toll on certain franchises and individuals then you haven't been paying attention to how all of this comes together.
Experience will matter, more than ever, and there will be market inefficiencies that are a factor in how seasons play out. There is no substitute for time in front of a team, selling a program and getting players to buy-in and working to establish yourself as an unknown commodity. Guys like Joe Judge were always going to face a bit of an uphill climb in that regard – going from Patriots special teams coach to head ball coach of the New York Giants – and I expect that to only be amplified under these conditions.
Even for a guy like Ron Rivera in Washington, not being able to have a full staff in the facility and making an imprint and figuring out how to work together (and yeah, I know he has worked with a lot of these dudes before but not as one collective) is less than ideal. Ditto for Mike McCarthy with the Cowboys, where his franchise-tagged quarterback might not be the happiest camper under any circumstances, let alone these.
Really, the entire NFC East, I believe, will be swayed by what is to come. I already thought the Eagles had the best team in the division by far, but when you factor in that every other team in the division has a new head coach and basically all new coordinators and play callers, and there might not be any real opportunity to mingle and chat with and get to know players at all in a one-on-one fashion before camps launch – no position group meetings and full team meetings and time to huddle up during OTAs – that puts a team like the Eagles with almost total cohesion in a far better position to hit the ground running.
It's another reason why I would be even more bullish on the Ravens repeating as AFC North champs. Yeah, the Steelers are bringing back largely the same cast, but with a 38-year old QB coming off surgery that wiped out nearly his entire 2019. And the Browns have a rookie head coach and rookie GM thrust into a vortex of uncertainty. And the Bengals will be improved, but when will Joe Burrow really be able to even start throwing to his teammates, let alone making his mark?
We've talked so much early in this offseason about the unprecedented QB shuffle, but it seems no one is talking about the lack of time for the staff to be around these new passers. Sure, Teddy Bridgewater already knows the system in Carolina from his time with Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady in New Orleans, but how is this gonna work for the four or five teams that draft a QB in the first round and then perhaps do not get them in the building until late summer for the first training camp practice?
This sport is more incumbent upon prep time and walk throughs and mental reps than any other. For good reason. But this invaluable teaching time that invariably gets lost has no substitute. Which makes it all the important a guy like Philip Rivers has previously played for his new coach, Frank Reich, and ditto with soon-to-be Bears starter Nick Foles with Matt Nagy. But that won't be the case with everyone once this crazy QB circus ends.
If anything, what the NBA and MLB and the NHL and MLS have shown us is that this pandemic will impact all sports in ways almost no one would have fathomed even a week ago. Everything has been trending in a direction toward a complete and total shutdown for the foreseeable future. And the NFL, as big as it is, is anything but immune. Don't fool yourself – things will not be anything close to the same in the NFL until the late summer, if we are lucky, and there may be precious little practice and meeting time whenever buildings open back up and guys put the pads back on.
Continuity, particularly for the already successful franchises, will be king, and will further distance them from their rebuilding or retooling competitors.