The 101st NFL season returns amid a global pandemic

drawing of football players kneeling
Illustration by Emery Anderson

The National Football League (NFL) season has officially begun. Starting with a Thursday night football game on Sep. 10 between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, 13 games were played throughout the course of the following weekend, with two more taking place on Monday, Sep. 14. NFL fans finally got to see the off-season storylines materialize before their eyes; Tom Brady in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform, Deandre Hopkins reinvigorating the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver core, Joe Burrow debuting for the Cincinnati Bengals and Cam Newton teaming up with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. 

The NFL recently approved a 71-page document that details guidelines ranging from testing to traveling. Players and related personnel are required to be tested six days a week. If someone tests positive, a second test is to be administered in order to confirm the results (seventy-seven false positives were registered on a single day in August during NFL training camps). Air travel will also be limited to essential team personnel. Aside from these guidelines, the protocol also requires players that have received confirmed positive test results to stay on the COVID-19 Injury Reserve list until they have multiple negative tests or no longer show symptoms over a five to ten-day period.

Players that violate the protocol are subject to heavy fines from the league as well as to team disciplinary measures. This ensures that players will follow the COVID-19 guidelines within the confines of team activity. However, it remains to be seen whether players and related personnel will adhere to the NFL’s stringent rules outside of club facilities.    

Amidst the growing concerns over COVID-19 was intrigue surrounding the possibility of players kneeling during the national anthem. For the most part, NFL owners have drastically changed their tune regarding forms of protest during the anthem; in 2016 and 2017, players were essentially barred from voicing their opinions through taking a symbolic stance during the playing of the anthem. Prior to this season, however, NFL teams rolled out statements that lent support to players deciding to protest during the upcoming season.  

A multitude of players from more than 20 NFL teams took full advantage of this, either kneeling or staying in the locker room during the playing of the anthem. The Chiefs, for their part, locked arms throughout “Lift Every Voice and Sing,”  the Black national anthem chosen by the NFL as a means of honoring Black communities.. Throughout the 2020 season players are expected to continue protesting, signifying that the fight for racial equity will be an ongoing theme as the league’s schedule plays out. 

The games themselves featured a surprising amount of consistency; the Browns are still bad, yards per game (rushing and receiving) keeps climbing, kickers are undervalued and offensive lines are yet again the best predictors of team success.

The contenders and tankers are mostly the same as last year. The Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers are all current favorites to make the Super Bowl, with Seattle and New Orleans only slightly behind according to CBS Sports’ betting network. 

The 49ers and Saints’ passing attacks will likely falter without star wide receivers Michael Thomas and Deebo Samuel for the time being, but their running backs should pick up the slack while they recover. These teams feature flashy defensive secondaries that already have six picks between them.

The Chiefs and Ravens are led by explosive quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, and their offensive lines are among the best in the league. Both teams have an incredible amount of offensive talent; the question is whether or not their star running backs (Mark Ingram and rookie sensation Clyde-Edwards Helaire) will be healthy for the long haul.

The Dolphins, Jets, Chargers and Broncos are among the teams that you can pretty much write off this season. With Trevor Lawrence likely to declare for this year’s draft, teams are vying for the worst record in order to snatch him up in the first round. The Dolphins and Broncos in particular are in need of a franchise boost, and are the most likely to acquire Lawrence. With that said, the Jets are keeping a close eye on Sam Darnold, willing him to prove himself as their quarterback of the future.

All in all, the kickoff week was a success for the NFL. Now that week four games are underway fans are gradually settling into the comfort and stability inherent in knowing that their Sundays plans are filled with football. However, it remains to be seen whether this comfort will last or if the COVID-19 prevention plan will ultimately fail. Here is to hoping for the former.

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