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The NFL’s general attitude towards 2020 can be summed up succinctly: What pandemic?
Whereas other leagues ground to a halt, considered voiding their seasons, entered into complex bubbles or faced existential crises, the NFL thundered along, with the kind of bravado that is afforded only to the biggest and baddest and most-watched on the block.
Some precautions were taken. Preseason was out. Mask mandates were in. But the bottom line was this: No matter the lineup, no matter the ridiculousness of the spectacle, no matter the health consequences, football will be played.
And, in general, it was a success. Covid has the potential to embarrass the league in Week 17, the final week of the season, and we still do not know the extent of the health consequences, but for the most part the league got its wish: The season will be completed on time.
As the calendar flips from 2020 to 2021, here are some subplots to keep an eye on.
Aaron Rodgers’ future
As of now, Rodgers likely has his name etched on the MVP trophy. Voters love a narrative, and the Rodgers Revenge Tour is a better narrative than ‘isn’t Patrick Mahomes droningly excellent?’ It’s the Michael Jordan syndrome. (Voters actually gave Karl Malone an MVP award during Jordan’s prime. That’s a real thing that happened.)
But it’s not that long ago that the Packers selected Jordan Love in the first round of the draft, that Rodgers’ future was up in the air, that the team had obviously selected his replacement, that it was just a matter of when not if Rodgers would leave.
Rodgers has been terrific this season. His game has evolved. The improvisational off-script, jazz artist is still there, but he’s married that with the on-script rhythm that defined his early years as a starter. It’s a deadly combination.
The power to decide his future now sits with Rodgers. He’s performing at an MVP level and could guide the Packers to another Super Bowl title. Green Bay will want to keep the 38-year-old around until he truly starts to decline. But will Rodgers take matters into his own hands this offseason? How upset was he really by the love selection? With possible quarterback openings in such hot spots as New England, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, could Rodgers look to push his way out of title town as the final act of this year’s tour?
A franchise sale
The NFL as a whole has done a decent job of inoculating itself from the financial losses that have hit the majority of sports leagues during the pandemic. Rather than push games or add weeks, the NFL stripped back its preseason and steam-rolled ahead whenever there was a sign of a health scare. We are playing football! Who’s ready to play? Who’s watching? We’ll play them on Monday nights and Tuesday nights and Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, the quality of the games or the health of the players be damned.
That was a lucrative strategy for the league, as much as any league is making money in the Covid age. But the league is still made up of old-school owners who made the bulk of their money in an old-school manner. While several owners have stomached the financial hit to their sporting institution, plenty have taken significant losses in their non-sporting ventures.
You only have to look over to the NBA to see how even the tech-savvy, self-dubbed ‘smart’ sport owners have been hit by the pandemic: Tilman Fertitta, the NBA’s latest owner, who paid a record $2.2bn for the Houston Rockets franchise in 2017, makes his money in casinos and restaurants. His operation has been reduced to 4% during the pandemic and he has been forced to take his company public, as well as accepting an operating loan from the league.
There are similar issues in the NFL’s upper chamber. Some owners are feeling the financial costs much more than others, particularly those whose wealth is based on owning an NFL franchise. (The NFL remains the sports league with the most ‘legacy’ ownership families.)
Nobody will be shedding a tear for the fattest of fat cats, but NFL franchises are notoriously hard to prize away from owners because they print money. The pandemic has changed that. The year 2021 could usher in a band of new owners as those current owners who’ve been most severely impacted by the pandemic try to recover funds.
Will there be any Cam Newton takers?
Newton’s one-year plan in New England was clear: Get himself to the smartest, most creative and consistent organization in the sport; show that he still had plenty of juice left, that he just needed a break; and then sign a mega-deal this coming offseason, be it re-upping with New England or elsewhere.
But for as much as Bill Belichick has tried to sell the Patriots-Cam Newton experience to the media and fans this season as a success, it hasn’t worked. The Patriots’ offensive staff has been creative and mailable, working around Newton’s idiosyncrasies and lack of accuracy. But all too often when Newton has dropped back and attempted to play with some kind of rhythm, it’s looked like he’s trying to throw a medicine ball
Newton’s health is the question here. He no longer has the same kind of zip on his fastball, and his throwing accuracy that was so-so even during the best of times has now completely fallen off a cliff.
Perhaps the Patriots talk themselves into Newton for another season as a bridge to whatever the team’s quarterback future looks like. Perhaps they tell themselves he looked OK prior to his Covid diagnosis. Perhaps Belichick believes Newton, even with his flaws, will be fine once the Patriots are able to bring back the chunks of their roster that missed this season due to COVID. But that seems unlikely. It seems like Newton, the great pioneer, the paradigm-shifter, is ultimately shot. And if Belichick isn’t willing to indulge another season, will any other team? And if not, what does Newton do? Retire? Sit out another year and hope to heal? It’s hard to imagine Newton doing the rounds as a one-year hired gun on a ready-to-tank, rebuilding team.
Is this it for Bill Belichick?
It doesn’t feel like Belichick is slowing down. But, at some point, Belichick is going to walk away from the Patriots’ job. Belichick tried rolling things back for one more push this season, band-aiding together a roster that was missing the core of its defense due to Covid defections and which lacked a quarterback given Tom Brady’s move to Florida.
Is Belichick, at his advanced age, post-Covid, ready and willing after a par year to start another rebuild? He has no quarterback, and the backbone of the roster that delivered the last Super Bowl is starting to creak – a majority have already or are expected to exit this offseason. Plus: Belichick’s staff is expected to be picked apart again during the offseason, both on the coaching side and in the Patriots front office. Is it possible he opts to walk away before things get ugly?
The Justin Fields surge
The Jaguars have locked up the number one pick in the upcoming draft. The selection is expected to be Trevor Lawrence, Clemson’s once-in-a-lifetime-type quarterback prospect. But as always in a draft cycle, expect there to be a run on Justin Fields, the Ohio State quarterback who would be the sure-fire top selection in a traditional year.
And if former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer winds up as the head honcho in Jacksonville, look out. The chatter will increase. Leaks will flow. Trade offers will arrive.
Lawrence should be the top pick, but there is a chance that Jacksonville switch spots with the Jets (for a significant haul).
A JJ Watt trade
JJ Watt and the Houston Texans are synonymous with one another. But if Houston is looking to generate some kind of assets to be able to improve its roster this offseason, moving Watt is one of the only ways.
The Texans have little to no draft capital and have one of the worst cap sheets in the league. They also have a jumbled roster that is the walking embodiment of the fractured front office that oversaw its construction over the past five seasons. Yet there, in the middle of it all, is Deshaun Watson, one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the league.
Having a great quarterback fixes a lot. So for the Texans to leap back into contention, even with the roster holes and lack of flexibility in the market, could take as few as five to six smart moves. One way to open up some sort of flexibility, to increase the margin of error when trying to make such moves, would be to move on from Watt while he still holds value.
It would be a difficult move financially and culturally, but it would also be a savvy one. And it would allow Watt to get a shot with a different organization, where he may get a shot over the next 24 months to advance beyond the divisional round.
New TV deals
As noted in the Guardian’s 2021 bold predictions piece, the NFL’s current round of TV rights deals are set to expire in 2022. As sports continue to be the sole place that networks can bank on to produce a large, live audience, and as the NFL continues to reign supreme as the biggest provider of live content (eight of 2020s 10 most-watched single telecasts were football games or post games) the bidding is expected to be intense and expensive.
The league could look to re-up with its traditional broadcast partners. Or it could hand a more favorable deal to ESPN/Disney, with the possibility of Disney snagging itself a coveted Super Bowl and moving its broadcasts to ABC. Or it could offer larger packages to a streaming client, like Amazon Prime, in the hopes of getting ahead of the live sports streaming curve or to try to make up for some of the revenue the league and its owners lost in 2020.