The NFL pulled off a relatively normal 2020 offseason amid the coronavirus pandemic, a wild and weirdly comforting accomplishment that belies the current scramble to finalize plans for training camp and the regular season. It extended its labor peace, moved through free agency, conducted its draft and managed a virtual offseason, events that were limited in their own ways but also sparked a level of innovation and ingenuity the NFL does not always display.
In the end, our annual offseason review is no less robust than in previous years. Let’s dive in, as rookies and selected veterans begin to report to team facilities for COVID-19 testing and the start of a training camp like no other the NFL has ever experienced.
CBA extended through 2030
Just before the pandemic hit, throwing the sports economy into chaos, the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed in mid-March to a new collective bargaining agreement that in essence ensured labor peace for the next decade.
The most notable part of the deal is that owners can expand the regular season to 17 games if they trigger an option between 2021-23. In exchange, among other things, the players received an increased share (from 47% to 48%) of all league revenue starting in 2021. Minimum salaries also increased by 20%, starting in 2020. The NFL will now use this cost and labor certainty to negotiate new broadcast deals, which expire in 2022.
A virtual offseason
The pandemic forced the NFL to shutter its headquarters and all 32 team facilities, requiring a creative adjustment to accommodate the draft and offseason workouts. The draft, led by commissioner Roger Goodell from the basement of his home and featuring coaches and players in their home environments, was a resounding and intimate hit.
Team meetings were held via video conference, but strength and conditioning workouts were more difficult to replicate. No team got any actual football work in, and many stopped well short of the maximum number of weeks allowed.
The NFL finally moved forward on expanding its postseason from 12 to 14 teams, a revenue boost nearly a decade in the making. During negotiations for the new CBA, the NFL projected this expansion would generate $150 million in additional revenue. Each conference will add a third wild-card team, creating back-to-back tripleheaders during the opening weekend of the playoffs.
As part of the new plan, the No. 2 seed in each conference lost its first-round bye and will host the No. 7 seed during the wild-card round. According to an NFL analysis, the likelihood of the No. 2 seed winning the Super Bowl will drop by 9% in the new format. The format increases the chances of an 8-8 team making the playoffs but also reduces the chances of a 10-6 team missing out.
Tom Brady (and Gronk) went to Tampa …
Saying it was time for “a great opportunity, a great change and a great challenge,” Brady left the New England Patriots and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He followed in the footsteps of many Hall of Fame quarterbacks who decided (or were told to) finish their careers elsewhere, including Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Brett Favre.
About a month later, Brady recruited tight end Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement and join him via a trade from the Patriots. After 12 consecutive postseason misses, the Buccaneers pushed themselves into the serious 2020 playoff conversation — and beyond. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them a 3.8% chance to win the Super Bowl, the seventh-best odds in the NFL.
Ryan Clark proclaims no matter how good or bad Tom Brady does with the Bucs, people will overlook it due to his legendary career in New England.
… and Cam Newton went to New England
For months after Brady’s departure, it appeared that Patriots coach Bill Belichick would replace him with a combination of Jarrett Stidham, a 2019 fourth-round draft choice, and veteran backup Brian Hoyer. All the while, Newton remained on the free-agent market, seemingly a unique victim of an NFL rule that prevented teams from conducting their own physicals on new players during the pandemic. Eventually, Belichick couldn’t ignore his value.
Even if Newton’s surgically-repaired foot is not fully healed, the Patriots’ modest investment — a full guarantee of $550,000 on a one-year contract, with incentives that could bring it as a high as $7.5 million — was well worth it.
The Buffalo Bills looked to capitalize on Brady’s departure
Brady’s departure opened up the AFC East race for the first time in two decades. (Let’s not count 2008, when the Patriots finished second in the division after Brady tore his ACL in Week 1.)
First up is the Bills, who clinched wild-card berths in two of the past three seasons and have a 39.3% chance to win the division in 2020, according to FPI. General manager Brandon Beane made the kind of move a team pursues when it believes it is close, trading his 2020 first-round draft pick as part of a package to acquire receiver Stefon Diggs. If quarterback Josh Allen can take the next step, the Bills are in position to usurp the AFC East from the Patriots.
Patrick Mahomes got a $503 million contract …
The Kansas City Chiefs pulled off a massive accomplishment, getting their 24-year-old MVP quarterback signed to a 10-year contract two years before he was eligible for free agency. The max value of $503 million is eye-catching, but the most important takeaway is that the Chiefs avoided the current trend toward three- and four-year contracts for quarterbacks.
They also won’t have to deal with the rancor of franchise tags. Mahomes could have pushed off this deal until after the 2023 season, if he had played under his fifth-year option and two franchise tags, The Chiefs could always open up the deal in later years to give Mahomes a raise. But for now, they have extraordinary long-term cost certainty with arguably the best player in football.
… while Dak Prescott remains on the franchise tag
The Dallas Cowboys have re-signed two of their big three offensive weapons in recent years, running back Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Amari Cooper, but were unable to reach agreement with the most important player of the trio. Prescott will earn $31.409 million on the franchise tag in 2020, and unless his performance or health diminishes considerably, it won’t be any easier next spring for the Cowboys to get him locked in.
If he wants, Prescott could follow the Kirk Cousins model of playing under two consecutive tags and then entering the 2022 free-agent market in the prime of his career.
Other significant QB moves
In addition to Brady, Mahomes and Prescott, here is the rest of the 2020 offseason quarterback movement:
The Miami Dolphins drafted Tua Tagovailoa at No. 5 overall. He’ll open training camp behind veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Green Bay Packers drafted Jordan Love, the presumptive successor to Aaron Rodgers, at No. 26. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted Jalen Hurts at No. 53, despite having starter Carson Wentz firmly in place.
The Minnesota Vikings lowered Cousins’ 2020 salary cap number by giving him a two-year, $66 million extension through the 2022 season.
Rather than give Hopkins the new contract he was seeking, the Houston Texans traded their All-Pro receiver to the Arizona Cardinals for, among other considerations, running back David Johnson — who is owed $10.2 million for 2020. Other major offseason player moves included:
Kyler Murray gets together with several of his Cardinals teammates, including new star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, to get some work in.
Washington dropped its name …
After decades of protests that predate his ownership of the franchise, Washington’s Dan Snyder agreed to change the team’s name and logo. The end came only after intense pressure from corporate sponsors and Snyder’s minority investors, all of whom are trying to cash out of their investments, and has left the short-term path uncertain.
While Snyder and the NFL both hope to announce a new name by the end of the month, enterprising citizens have trademarked many of the possibilities. Typically, the process for changing the name and brand of a professional sports team takes a year or more.
… and vowed to change its culture
Washington’s poor treatment of women again became a national story. Two years after the New York Times reported that team executives required cheerleaders to pose topless, among other inappropriate requests, the Washington Post revealed that 15 women had alleged sexual harassment and verbal abuse by former scouts and members of Snyder’s inner circle. So far, two members of the personnel staff have been fired and longtime radio announcer Larry Michael has retired.
The team has hired attorney Beth Wilkinson to review the allegations, and new coach Ron Rivera has taken a leadership role in what Snyder said in a statement would include “setting a new culture and standard for our team.” The NFL could issue discipline toward Snyder and/or the franchise when Wilkinson concludes her review, but there is no indication that the league will attempt to oust Snyder from his position as the team’s primary owner.
New coaches face unique challenge
Rivera is one of five new coaches in 2020 whose skills will be tested by severe practice limitations imposed by the pandemic. In addition to losing at least 10 organized team activities (OTAs) and three mini-camps, they aren’t likely to get any preseason games and will face an evolving training camp schedule that will require a much longer acclimation period than normal.
On a human level, they will have gone six months between getting hired and speaking to the team in person. The list also includes Matt Rhule (Panthers), Joe Judge (New York Giants), Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland Browns) and Mike McCarthy (Cowboys).
Rooney Rule change
Rivera was the only minority hired in this year’s coaching cycle, dropping the total number of non-white head coaches to four. There are only two minority general managers.
As a result, the league strengthened its Rooney Rule to require teams to interview two external candidates for head-coaching jobs and one external minority candidate for coordinator jobs. It also expanded the rules into other levels of executive hiring and relaxed anti-tampering rules that prevents some candidates from getting interviews. Some owners wanted to award better draft positioning for teams with good hiring records, but that proposal was tabled as the league considers other options.
Star players force Goodell’s hand
Last month, Goodell released a video to acknowledge that the league erred in how it had dealt with NFL player protests of police brutality and systemic racism over the past few years. “We, the National Football League, believe that Black lives matter,” Goodell said in the video.
Why did he go there on a Friday afternoon in June? Goodell was prompted by a video organized by Saints receiver Michael Thomas, and including Mahomes and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, that asked the NFL to condemn racism, admit wrong in previous attempts to silence peaceful protests and to affirm that Black lives matter. The moment was a massive but welcomed shift in rhetoric for the league.
Patrick Mahomes says that he believes the players needed to band together because they do believe that black lives matter and he’s happy with the support that’s come from it.
Pass interference review was dumped
The half-baked idea to correct egregious pass interference calls, or non-calls, using replay review didn’t make it to a renewal vote. The competition committee declined to endorse a return of the rule, correctly concluding that the league’s officiating department didn’t have the capacity to administer it effectively. Many decision-makers around the league, including competition committee chairman Rich McKay, believed the rule was doomed from the start because of the inherent difficulty in reviewing subjective calls.
Regardless, the NFL remains without a safety net to fix the kind of decisions that sparked the original rule: the missed pass interference call in the 2018 NFC Championship Game.
New interest in sky judge-like roles
Owners declined to vote on team proposals that would have introduced a version of a sky judge, although the NFL never used that term. But it did make plans for a preseason experiment that would deputize the existing on-site replay official to consult on a menu of questions beyond reviewable plays.
Coaches strongly favor the sky judge concept, although members of the officiating community question whether replay officials are qualified to make the kind of judgments that could be asked of them. Realistically, however, the cancellation of the 2020 preseason means this idea isn’t likely to be implemented, at least at this pace, until 2022 at the earliest.
Officiating leadership overhauled
Although it didn’t receive much publicity, the NFL essentially demoted senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron when it hired two new executives to sit alongside him in the department’s hierarchy. Longtime assistant coach Perry Fewell now oversees day-to-day operations of the department as senior vice president of officiating communications and administration, and retired referee Walt Anderson is senior vice president of officiating training and development.
Riveron’s assignment is expected to focus on replay. During much of the offseason, however, Anderson handled the traditional duties of the NFL’s officiating chief, according to NFL Referees Association executive director Scott Green. The NFL settled on this committee system after failing to lure back former vice president Dean Blandino, who left the league in 2017.