Domenic Allegra Fourth Estate

The NFL kicks off in the COVID-19 era


If it feels like the NFL season snuck up on you this year, you’re not alone.

With the MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL, ATP and WTA all resuming their seasons in late summer months, little attention was given to the NFL in recent months.

And, of course, a worldwide pandemic has led to the cancellation of nearly all in-person events, the least important of which are NFL preseason games.

Whether it be no fans in the stands, a leaguewide bubble, mask mandates or limitations on scheduling, sports have looked a lot different since COVID-19 started wreaking havoc on the world.

The NFL will be no different from those other sports leagues with significant changes coming to the 2020 season.

Before teams were allowed to return to their facilities, all 32 teams had to create an “Infectious Disease Emergency Response Plan” that had to be approved by the NFL and NFL players association (NFLPA).

On July 16, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to numerous leaguewide COVID-19 policies and procedures that went into effect at the start of training camp the next week.

At each team facility, there is a designated testing site that administers two different types of tests: a polymerase chain reaction COVID-19 test conducted via nasal swab, and an antibody test for COVID-19 antibodies.

Daily symptom screenings and temperature checks are required for all individuals entering the building.

Once inside the facility, there are more precautions in place. In-person meetings and conversations can take place, but participants must be physically distanced and video conferencing is still highly encouraged. Additionally, all individuals inside the facility must wear a mask. 

Regarding food, the procedures state that, wherever possible, the teams should serve premade meals in individually wrapped packages. Buffet and communal-style spreads are not permitted.

When it comes to game day procedures, there are additional rules. 

Players will continue to be tested daily during the week, but there will not be testing on game days. 

On the day before the game, teams will be tested and individuals will only be allowed to travel if they test negative. Both home and visiting teams are required to stay at team hotels in the host city and will essentially be quarantined there until game day. 

On the sidelines, the procedures state that all individuals should maintain physical distance as much as possible. Additionally, masks will not be required to be worn on the sidelines, unless the host city requires them. Cheerleaders and team mascots are not allowed on the sidelines according to the protocols.

Regarding spectators, most teams have pushed back the possibility of having fans in attendance until at least the halfway point of the season. However, some teams, including the Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys, are aiming to have fans in their stadiums this month in a limited capacity.

These protocols and procedures were created over long periods of discussion this summer, but in late April, the NFL had to think on its feet as to how to conduct its annual player draft. As it turns out, the best solution was to have Roger Goodell host it from his basement and have teams use video chat software to deliberate and communicate their selections.

While the neon lights remained off on the Las Vegas Strip on draft night – the original home of the 2020 NFL draft – the stars of the night shined bright as numerous teams made franchise-altering selections. 

The Cincinnati Bengals selected LSU quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick, a consensus top pick. The Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers also took quarterbacks in the top 10, selecting Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) and Justin Herbert (Oregon) respectively. 

But the NFL Draft wasn’t the only time to see big-name QBs on the move. One month earlier, free agent Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and brought former teammate Rob Gronkowski out of retirement to join him.

As he always does, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick found a way to keep his team competitive by signing another MVP to replace Brady: former Panthers QB Cam Newton.

One other veteran QB also changed teams: Philip Rivers signed a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts, ending his 16-year career with the Chargers.

In the biggest trade of the offseason, Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien shocked the NFL community by trading star WR DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick to Arizona in exchange for RB David Johnson and two mid-round draft picks. 

With the news and notes of the offseason out of the way, let’s look at two under-the-radar teams that could make noise this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

As popular as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ brand is, they seem to be going unnoticed heading into the 2020 season. That is understandable as the two biggest favorites to reach Super Bowl 55, the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs, lie within their conference.

However, last season, the Steelers were on the cusp of a playoff spot despite only getting one full game out of QB Ben Roethlisberger due to a right elbow injury he sustained in week two. 

Roethlisberger recently said, “I’m pleasantly surprised how my arm strength has come back, maybe even better than it was before.” 

The Steelers will live and die with Roethlisberger this season. But with a healthy offensive core of him, RB James Conner, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and C Maurkice Pouncy, this team can compete with the favorites in the AFC.

Atlanta Falcons

Let’s dive even deeper and find the Falcons, who have finished at 7-9 in each of the last two seasons and have won only one playoff game since playing in Super Bowl 51.

The Falcons were struggling so badly last season that head coach Dan Quinn almost lost his job midseason. However, the team underwent a fundamental change that turned their season around. 

After starting 1-7, Quinn, who was the defensive coordinator in Seattle during their legendary “Legion of Boom” years in 2013 and 2014, ceded defensive play-calling duties to multiple assistant coaches after their bye week. 

The Falcons finished the season 6-2, upsetting New Orleans Saints and the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers. This looks more like the Falcons team we should expect to show up in 2020. 

While sustaining a 75 percent win rate is unlikely, a nine- or ten-win season and a Wild Card berth are well within the range of outcomes for this Falcons team, still led by Matt Ryan and his ever-potent offensive attack.