NFL schedule release is the latest stop in the league's welcome distractions tour

There were calls for postponements. There were cries about bad optics and insensitivity. Stuck-in-their-ways general managers grumbled about new procedures, new technology, new anything.

Mostly the NFL was under fire, both inside and outside the league, to shut business down the way the NBA, NHL and MLB had. This was a pandemic. People were dying. Layoffs were piling up.

How do we scout anyone? How do we sign anyone? How can business — mostly free agency and the draft — go on as is? Even if this could be done in a new manner, Tom Brady choosing between multimillion dollar offers or a draft pick celebrating his good fortune might seem out of touch as the ICU units overflowed.

Or so they said.

The concerns were honest and well-intentioned. They were just misplaced.

The NFL never listened and never stopped (the luxury of not having games to be played). Instead it has churned through its offseason schedule with great success while providing needed distraction.

Thursday is the league’s latest bit of promotion and showmanship — the unveiling of the 2020 schedule, which will be part of a three-hour prime time special.

Fans can get a clearer picture tonight of which defenses Lamar Jackson will torch this season, if only for a few hours. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Fans can get a clearer picture tonight of which defenses Lamar Jackson will torch this season, if only for a few hours. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The schedule release is always overblown. Every team already knows its opponents and whether the game is at home or away. This is about the order of the contests, the placement of the bye week and some of the expected prime-time match-ups (until some of them are flexed).

It usually takes about 53 seconds of looking at your favorite team’s schedule to get bored with it.

Whatever. Even in good times it provides a glimpse of the fall. These days, it provides a shred of normalcy. The truth is, no one knows if these games will be played. Even if they are, will fans be allowed in to watch. And if so, how many?

Then there is road trip planning, which is the offshoot of the dates getting locked in. Clear the second weekend of October, our team is playing in Miami. It would have taken on added jolt this year, with the Raiders relocating to Las Vegas.

Not sure there are going to be too many road trips planned this season.

That’s OK. Fans can dream about it, at least — Saturday night at the craps table, Sunday at the 50-yard line.

The NFL is, once again, proceeding as normal. They’ve handled the coronavirus better than anyone could ask.

Free agency offered America a distraction just as the virus became all-encompassing. In mid-March, at a time where it felt like there was nothing to discuss other than job losses, lockdowns and epidemiology graphs, at least you could debate how Brady would do in Tampa or Carolina moving on from Cam or if Dallas was going to franchise tag Dak.

Face-to-face meetings and facility visits weren’t even needed. It all got sorted out. Even Gronk unretired.

Then came the draft, and it turns out no one (or almost no one) reacted with bitterness as Joe Burrow or Chase Young, surrounded by family, celebrated years of hard work and dedication to talent.

In an entertainment-starved nation, more tuned in than normal. Many were pulled in by remote cameras from America’s collective kitchens and living rooms (including Roger Goodell’s basement and Bill Belichick’s dog).

During a period with so little cheer, this was joy to be had in watching someone else’s joy.

In the process, the league raised millions for charities.

The NFL has done it all safely. It shut down team facilities, and the inevitable reopening will require extensive protocols. The draft was held remotely, not in front of crowds on Las Vegas Boulevard. Free agent and draft prospect trips were canceled. Even offseason programs are being staged via Zoom and other videos.

Turns out plenty of coaches and general managers learned to love it. A bit less busy work. A bit more focus. A lot more time with the family.

In terms of operating a professional football franchise, it isn’t ideal, but what the heck is? It was responsible without being terrified. It was the NFL ignoring the critics, both internal and external. It was Goodell telling the whining GMs to get in line. No one was minimizing the virus. It didn’t require shutting everything down indefinitely, though.

When the schedules are released on Thursday, the next phase begins. Will training camp happen? Will the preseason? Will the games?

And if college football can’t be played, does that Sunday contest move to Saturday?

No one knows. For a few minutes or even three hours tonight, it doesn’t matter.

Dream of that Vegas trip that probably won’t happen. Look forward to Brady and his Buccaneers visiting New Orleans. Gear up for Kansas City visiting Baltimore or San Francisco heading to Dallas.

Those are some good optics.

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