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When sports went dark back in March, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion there would even be an NFL season. The league had a head start, sure, but the worrying developments were fairly relentless through the summer. So perhaps the thing we liked most from 2020 was the fact the NFL provided us a welcome distraction at all.
What else did we like seeing this year? In no particular order ...
The NFL draft had personality
It started with a basement-dwelling Roger Goodell inviting fans to boo him virtually, and only stayed cool from there. As everyone was forced to get inventive, war rooms were traded for palatial bachelor pads, luxury yachts and, um, kitchen tables. One prospect snatched a phone, another had a neighborhood parade in his honor. If only every draft were this fun.
Lamar Jackson’s maybe bathroom emergency
The reigning MVP went 32nd in the draft and No. 2 on this Monday night against the Browns. Or maybe not — Jackson says he was cramping — but it was great theater either way. His absence for most of the fourth quarter helped Cleveland rally to take the lead, and his return led Baltimore to a win in an instant classic.
Women’s rising role in the NFL
In February, Katie Sowers became the first female (and openly gay) coach in Super Bowl history with the San Francisco 49ers. In September, the Cleveland-Washington game marked the first time in NFL history both teams had a female coach (Callie Brownson for the Browns, Jennifer King for Washington) in a game also officiated by a female referee (Sarah Thomas). In November, Brownson also became the first woman to work as an NFL position coach when she oversaw the tight end corps against the Jaguars. Hell, yes, to all of this, and more of it, please.
Dak Prescott, Hayden Hurst call attention to mental health issues
Football has rarely been at the forefront of meaningful mental health conversations. Thankfully that’s changing. Two of the most notable stigma breakers are Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, who was incisively forthcoming about his bout with depression following his brother Jace’s suicide and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst, who revealed in February he attempted suicide before and continued speaking up on the subject this season.
Teams/stadiums do their civic duties in the 2020 election
Nearly half of the NFL franchises opened their stadiums for the general election, serving as voter registration sites, polling places and ballot drop-off locations. The league also launched the “NFL Votes” initiative in August to encourage civic engagement among fans, players and anyone else in its purview.
Joe Burrow’s charitable foresight
When the Bengals’ franchise quarterback was lost for the season due to injury, fans responded by donating over $27,000 to the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund, his charity that supports the local food pantry in his native Southeastern Ohio. Burrow’s efforts first gained notice when he mentioned the issues of hunger and poverty during his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech while at LSU. Safe to say, people were listening and inspired.
Ron Rivera beats cancer
The Washington Football Team head coach announced before the season he was battling squamous cell cancer, and that he’d continue to work while being treated. In late October, the team tweeted a video of Rivera leaving his final cancer treatment, with a hallway full of supporters cheering him on. Turns out this particular disease was no match for Riverboat Ron.
Alex Smith returns
Nobody would have blamed Alex Smith for never playing in an NFL game again following his devastating leg injury in 2018. Nobody except Smith himself, who endured 17 surgeries, a life-threatening infection and the physical and mental rigors of preparing for an NFL season before returning to the field in October against the Los Angeles Rams. In a year short of reasons to feel optimistic, Smith’s perseverance stood tall.
Andy Reid finally got the W
Andy Reid’s resume already had a Super Bowl ring on it — he was an assistant with the 1996 Green Bay Packers — but his title with the Chiefs is a level of vindication unto itself. He spent 21 years as a head coach. Kansas City spent 50 without a championship. Both droughts ended in spectacular fashion at Super Bowl LIV, when Reid finally set foot in the promised land. Surely everyone (except Niners fans) could revel in that.
The Bills and the Browns are actually good
The posterchildren for futility the past quarter century, Buffalo and Cleveland are finally being granted a reprieve. The Bills are a top-three team in the AFC, with Josh Allen looking like an MVP candidate. The Browns, meanwhile, have won 10 games for the first time since 2007 and only the third time since 1988. And if you were sick of the New England Patriot hegemony in the AFC, you almost assuredly appreciated the new blood in the playoff race.
Old guy forgets
It was fun watching Tom Brady morph into full Florida Man. Brady, frequently referred to as the GOAT of NFL QBs, lost track of what down it was in a loss to Chicago. The internet had a field day. Brady later joined in on the fun, tweeting a shoutout at LeBron James while also making fun of himself.
Much-needed face lift in Washington
They finally stepped into the 21st century and got rid of the “Redskins” nickname after decades of lobbying and protesting from activists. It’s a low bar in touting that a team no longer uses a slur as its nickname, but it’s at least progress for Daniel Snyder’s still troubled team. The voices of the marginalized were finally heard.
No preseason football
Here was a COVID-19 cancellation that didn’t result in groans. Fans and players got to rejoice in sidestepping the going-through-the-motions spectacle of meaningless football in August.
Football every day during week
The pandemic created scheduling chaos. A benefit for fans: we were treated to at least one NFL game each day of the week. Wednesday night football was peak trippy 2020.
‘Black lives matter’
The NFL couldn’t ignore the voices of its players any longer as the social movement found a new gear this past summer. There’s plenty to criticize about the league’s overall efforts, particularly its sincerity in supporting players’ voices and activism. For once though, business as usual wasn’t sufficient anymore.
Cheers for a QB who posted a 0.0 rating
Denver’s Kendall Hinton didn’t get a Kurt Warner storybook ending. He’ll still be a legend after going from a practice squad wide receiver to serving as the Broncos’ emergency quarterback in a game. Fans ignored the 1-for-9, two-interception performance and instead showed appreciation in seeing an underdog play a bad poker hand.
Derrick Henry's violent stiff arms
Maybe “You got Henryed” will become a thing like “You Got Mossed.” Outside of a no-look Patrick Mahomes pass, no player in the NFL got social media buzzing more than when King Henry flattened an opponent with a stiff arm. He is the best rebuttal to “running backs don’t matter.”
COVID is devastating restaurant businesses across America. This is why it was moving to see the generosity of the Los Angeles Rams’ Andrew Whitworth, who donated $50,000 to a struggling soul food eatery in Inglewood.
The signature Kyler Murray NFL moment came in the form of a Hail Mary that landed in the hands of DeAndre Hopkins in an Arizona victory against Buffalo. It’s a tandem we hope to enjoy seeing this decade, preferably when stakes are high in January.
Don’t ignore the quiet kid
So much for the draftnik criticism of Justin Herbert. Knocked as too much of an introvert to lead, the Chargers’ starting QB set a record for most TD passes from a rookie. There’s plenty of room on the stage to enjoy a star who strikes low-key chords.
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