As the last sport to begin its regular season amid the pandemic, it's almost impossible not to think about the NFL's start through the prism of the other major pro sports leagues in this country. I find myself doing it literally all the time.
We have come to expect the unpredictable and brace for pretty much anything and accept the fact that these teams and league are going to have to be malleable in ways that never would have been fathomed back in the heady days of say -- February -- when all of the football world converged in Indianapolis for the scouting combine. So much has changed since then.
It's a new world with new norms, indeed. Precisely what that means for the NFL next month remains to be seen, but one could make the case that certain truisms stand to apply to this sport as well. Baseball is the rival sport to focus on the most, given that it too is operating without a true bubble, and unlike the NBA and NHL, it was not completing a season when the virus struck, but rather preparing to start one. And, unlike what has transpired in Orlando and Canada, the MLB has dealt with daily Covid-related drama and controversy, with the Cleveland Indians' forays into Chicago nightlife the latest scandal that has caused chaos for that team's pitching rotation and potentially jeopardized their upcoming schedule as well.
It would be naïve not to think some of these same issues await the NFL this fall, once games and travel begin in earnest, and with the country still lacking any coordinated response to the outbreak whatsoever. Short of quarantining everyone associated with the sport – an exercise that has never seemed reasonable given the pure number of people it requires to get through an NFL workweek – there are going to be risks at play in navigating through a season.
There is a very real chance the season gets paused, or altered on the fly, as we have seen repeatedly in MLB from everything to the schedule to the playoff format to how double-headers are played to extra-innings adjustments. And, it has never been more imperative for teams to get off to a quick start; if the NFL were to have to collapse to 10 or 12 games, after playing, say, a month or six weeks, then it would be just as paramount not to have to make up for lost time.
Of course, with the NFL's offseason and preseason already completely refashioned by the pandemic, and forcing teams to adapt in ways never before considered, there were already inherent competitive advantages for certain organizations based on their institutional strength, experience, continuity of coaching staff and key positions (quarterback, middle linebacker) and depth and quality of roster.
Add in what could be a very favorable early-season schedule, and you have the makings of a few teams running away from the pack – particularly if that team was facing an out-of-conference division that appears to be strong, as those AFC/NFC cross-conference games are considered the most likely to be sacrificed by GMs if the schedule does require truncating. One thing that seems apparent at this point is the NFL starting as planned in Week 1 and playing through as many games as possible until or unless the health situation requires a rethink. This could certainly favor certain teams.
Here are a few that stood out:
Upstart team is building a monster offense -- Kyler Murray had the benefit of a tremendous base of experiences as a rookie and he and Kliff Kingsbury are already sympatico. If out of conference games are scrapped by October, it would ensure the Cardinals would make just one East Coast trip after Week 4 and spare them a trip to Foxboro in November. Not that the AFC East is stout, but they would get additional days of practice not having to go to the Jets and Pats, a ton more rest and with the Dolphins and Bills currently scheduled on back to back weeks in November, coming off their bye, perhaps they would get an extended layoff/rest period right in the middle of the season. Trying to think outside the box here, and MLB has already had to deal with teams getting extended breaks just weeks into its season.
Right now their first six weeks look fairly treacherous, with the Seahawks (Week 2) and Chiefs (Week 4) on the road and the 49ers looming at home in Week 6. But imagine if those NFC games were expunged by Week 2? In that scenario, the Pats might not have to make a West Coast trip until December, when they are currently set to face the Chargers and Rams back-to-back. For now, it's an extended California stay, but who knows, maybe it is just a single game by then. Regardless, anything that would ease their early-season grind (when Cam Newton would be adjusting to his new offense) could end up paying huge dividends down the road. Kinda seems every year that New England's schedule is easier than you would think it would be a team that is in the Super Bowl almost every year, so why should zany 2020 be any different?
Okay, this isn't exactly rocket science – with the AFC East playing the vaunted NFC West, losing those games would tend to bode very well for Buffalo as well. They are set to face the Seahawks and then at the Cardinals in November before a bye, and then had the 49ers on the road looming on Dec. 7. Take that stretch of the season away and a schedule that already looked pretty darn good on paper sets up even better for the Bills Mafia.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Super Bowl champs don't need any help, but canceling those games against the NFC South sure would be nice. They are set to face that division all in the second half of the season. Including road games at the two Super Bowl contenders from that division New Orleans and Tampa Bay. They are already set to finish with consecutive home games and lessening that December load just a little would go even further to buoy their repeat chances.