Navigating a global pandemic forced the NFL to constantly adapt to and overcome obstacles in order to complete its 2020 season.
With 268 games in the books and just Super Bowl 55 remaining, it’s now worth wondering how many of the league’s countermeasures and protocols might go viral in the future and/or how much will revert to the norm once the country moves past the worst of COVID-19.
“I would love to think that we can get back to normal next (season),” Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not sure what we’ll do. I think we’ve all gotten used to different things — Zoom, off-site meetings … the way we travel, restrictions.”
It’s been almost a year since the novel coronavirus knocked the league for a loop. The 2020 scouting combine had barely wrapped in early March when the virus really began to take hold nationally. Pro days were cancelled, free agency was disrupted, offseason programs were re-imagined — the New Orleans Saints scrapped theirs entirely — and the entire draft was ultimately conducted in a virtual format rather than on the Las Vegas Strip.
Training camps eventually opened, featuring an acclimation period before full-fledged hitting commenced. There were no joint practices, and there was no preseason. But the regular season started Sept. 10, as scheduled, and concluded Jan. 3, as scheduled — and, though several games had to be rescheduled (some more than once) when a few teams were in the clutches of the virus, not one was canceled.
And the on-field product was as entertaining as ever, a league-record 12,692 points scored in the regular season.
“The quality of play this year from the start — for the most part, you wouldn’t have known the difference,” former New York Giants vice president of player personnel Marc Ross, now an NFL Network analyst, told USA TODAY Sports. “The quality of play was still high.”
That was likely due in part to the increased roster flexibility the league granted all 32 teams in 2020. Clubs could carry up to 16 practice squad players including, for the first time, veterans (up to six) who had more than two accrued seasons of service in the NFL. An unlimited number of players could also be recalled from injured reserve after spending three weeks on the list. (Normally, a team can only designate two players to return from IR and only after he’s missed at least eight games.)
“I’d love for them to stay,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said of the roster management rules, which may remain in 2021 depending on the pandemic’s staying power. “The protocols, I thought the league did a really, really good job.”
DeCosta, whose team made the playoffs even though COVID altered the Ravens’ schedule and cost quarterback Lamar Jackson one game, agreed.
“I would have to give a lot of credit to the league,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy — not without challenge — but I think they’ve been resolute. I also give a lot of credit to the players for what they’ve had to endure.”
Players, NFL staffers — and especially future employees — will doubtless have to endure even more in the coming months.
Teams had to reduce their traveling parties to this week’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, to 10. The combine, staged annually in Indianapolis, will not happen this year, teams forced to take much of their scouting processes to virtual environments while relying on player performance data culled from pro days on college campuses around the country.
However Ross believes this might actually be a positive step.
“I always thought the NFL wastes a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of resources flying people and scouts to certain events. I always thought it was not really necessary and teams just did it because that’s the way you always did it,” he said. “It didn’t really evolve to the new ways of technology. Now, it’s forcing teams to say, ‘Hey, what’s a more efficient and effective way we can conduct meetings or scout players?’
“Teams were forced to innovate, forced to develop, forced to look forward as opposed to just doing things the way they were always done.”
However, as much as players might have loved those virtual offseason meetings, a ramp-up to football activities once training camp started and the absence of preseason games, Ross contends many of the league’s old-school thinkers will likely try to adhere to several pre-pandemic ways of doing business.
Preseason, for instance, will likely return, though the new collective bargaining agreement will shorten it to three games while limiting joint practices. Still, those tend to be important forums for unproven players trying to make a roster.
“Victor Cruz would’ve never made the team if he didn’t play in (preseason),” Ross said of the Giants’ former Pro Bowl receiver, who was not drafted but scored three touchdowns in a 2010 preseason game against the Jets.
“We used to call him 50-50 — catch one, drop one, catch one, drop one. But once we saw him play against the Jets, that was like, ‘Whoa, this guy really has something to him.’ “
It surely helps that the league is a temporary home to so many fringe players, many likely to only get one contract and few ever approaching anything resembling job security. That helps to keep them in line in terms of following protocols but doesn’t take away from the level of discipline so many exhibited during the 2020 season.
“Our players made a commitment to each other back in August,” said Arians. “We’ve had very few cases, knock on wood. Even though (coronavirus is) rampant in our city, our guys have stayed away pretty good.”
Yet one thing everyone seems to miss is a stronger sense of fellowship.
DeCosta, who didn’t have to undergo a COVID test last Sunday for the first time since July 15, longed for the times everyone could eat and make merry on team flights. He didn’t like being masked in his office when players or colleagues stopped by.
Even Tom Brady, much as he’s enjoyed his first season with the NFC champion Bucs, said this week that something’s been lost amid the necessary abundance of caution.
“I chose Tampa and it’s just been an amazing experience,” he said Thursday. “The only thing that’s been difficult is I just haven’t been able to meet (people). There’s a lot of people in here that I never really had a chance to get to know. Certain players on defense that I just don’t know very well (because) we’re not able to be together in certain rooms, we’re not able to eat together, we’re not able to travel well — we don’t get the normal camaraderie that you have on a normal team.
“Under the circumstances, we’re all doing the best we can do, and it’s been a tricky year in that sense.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis