SBJ Football: What Shaped The Gridiron In 2020
“And so I’m offering this simple phrase to kids from one to 92. Although it’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you.” -- Robert Wells & Mel Torme.
The Stories That Mattered Most in Pro Football
March 15: The NFLPA narrowly approves a new collective bargaining agreement early on a Sunday morning, the very day that New York City ordered schools, bars and restaurants shut down as the pandemic grew unchecked. By pulling the deal across the finish line, the NFLPA and NFL put laborious negotiations behind them just in time for the altogether new challenge of navigating COVID-19. Alternative history fiction buffs could have a lot of fun speculating how 2020 would have gone if 30 players had changed their votes -- but it wouldn’t have been fun for the people involved.
March 20: Six-time World Champion QB Tom Brady ends 20 years in New England by signing with Tampa Bay. The deal instantly rejuvenated one of the NFL’s lowest-revenue clubs on and off the field, while back in Massachusetts, the perennially contending Patriots had to come to grips with mediocrity for the first time since the Clinton administration.
April 10: The XFL ceases operations, lays off staff and files for bankruptcy three days later. This once-promising relaunch invigorated hard-core football fans for a few winter weekends -- and seemed to be the most promising attempt at a second pro league in decades -- but the pandemic and Vince McMahon’s own diminished financial position undercut that abruptly.
July 13: The Washington Football Team announces it will abandon its nickname after 87 years amid pressure from stadium naming-rights sponsor FedEx, seven years after owner Daniel Snyder promised he’d “NEVER” change it. The backstory of Snyder’s isolation among NFL owners and estrangement from his limited partners is important, but more than anything, this holds up as an illustration of sports’ importance in society. The old name had simply become untenable for modern business, and this victory was held up by activists as proof of progress.
July 24: The NFLPA and NFL come to terms on a series of changes to the CBA that lay the groundwork for the historic pandemic season: no preseason games, details for players who wanted to opt out of the season, spreading out salary cap reductions, testing protocols and much more. At the time, the negotiations had dragged over much of the summer, and there was concern a deal wouldn’t get done in time for camp. But in hindsight, the union and league have been mostly aligned on the key topics of the pandemic -- a necessary first step toward making 2020 work.
Oct. 2-3: Patriots QB Cam Newton tests positive on a Saturday, forcing the delay of a game against the Chiefs. The delay came one day after a Steelers-Titans game became the first NFL game postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak. This was the first big test of the NFL’s high-wire act of minimizing spread while keeping the season going. It introduced concepts foreign to routine-oriented fans that soon became the necessary cost of playing: Tuesday games, early Monday night games, contract tracing and last-second changes to team travel.
Dec. 8: After a chaotic week with outbreaks in Baltimore and Denver and problems with health regulators in California, the NFL posts new statistics showing a 47% decline in COVID-19 cases in the week after Thanksgiving. It was reassuring proof that by banning in-person meetings and expanding mask mandates, the NFL could keep the “camp fire from becoming a forest fire,” in the words of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills.