On the doorstep of the National Football League opening its 2020 season there are more questions than answers. The directives and guidelines are many. The manual for navigating the current landscape is thicker than the playbook used for Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints offense. Unlike any season in our lifetime, the keys to success may have more to do with perfecting a new operational process than X’s and O’s.
I have come full circle in my thoughts and opinions on who has the biggest advantages entering this sure-to-be crazy season. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still think coaching staffs who have an already installed system and playbook in place should have an advantage. No mini-camps, no OTA’s and no on-field instruction of any kind makes it challenging to teach, to learn, to acquire new players, cull rosters and get overall cultures up to speed. However, having made that point numerous times during this pandemic, a team’s ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and to focus on committing, in every way, to the “new normal” might just be as reflective of a team’s success as anything else.
My point is, no team has any experience dealing with these kinds of things. No team has an advantage or head start in adapting to the “new normal”. COVID-19 has created a new world for everyone. It actually reminds me of earlier days in my career when the salary cap was being instituted in the mid-90s. I was a young executive in the Seahawks front office. All of a sudden, it was a new world for everyone— cap counting, contract values, some incentives that counted on the cap, others that didn’t, blah, blah, blah. All of a sudden, I had the same amount of experience building a team, on paper as Hall of Fame GMs like George Young, Bobby Beathard and Ron Wolf. I think it really equalized the playing field and turned the tables in some cases. Some GMs jumped on board and learned this new system more quickly than others. The same can be said of the current situation I think. A first-time GM or Head Coach has the same amount of experience dealing with this as does long-time Steelers GM Kevin Colbert or Mickey Loomis, the Saints GM. I think there might be opportunities for a surprise team to break through, but only if they have the following characteristics:
Discipline- One thing for sure, and it’s only been confirmed with the breeches we have seen in both MLB and the NBA, teams will have to be diligent in enforcement of their bubble situation, including the policing of their own locker room and in their ability of making sure teammates are aware of what is at risk for all. If just one player or staff member is not disciplined, they might suffer the same fate as the Florida Marlins. Leadership at the top of a team’s org chart is important but I think the teams with leadership in the locker-room is maybe more important. What is needed are players who are not only respected but also “willing” to communicate and lead, be a bad guy if they have to help keep some, from putting others and therefore the team at risk. That will have a direct effect on a team’s wins and losses during the season. Team leaders will have to be more vocal than ever before and they will need to be forceful and lean on other teammates more than ever before. This task will be draining for those who are effectively leading the way. A team that can create its own bubble and endure within its own environment, which means setting aside the rest of your life (as unfair as that sounds) for the most part, will have the best chance to succeed this year.
Depth- Sure, you can make a case for depth being a vital cog in every NFL team’s season each year, but I think this year will be a bit different. In my opinion, developing players (which is crucial in the NFL world) is going to have to take a step back in COVID-19 times. That’s going to be hard for some NFL GMs to accept because they are usually looking down the road a couple years, and rightly so. The key for me will be the new 16-man practice squads. That squad will contain some of the normal prospects, draft picks from Rds. 5-7, practice squad carryovers from last year, and even a few undrafted guys off the street. I really think this year’s crop of practice squads had better be filled with as many experienced and plug-n-play types as the numbers allow. You’re going to have more injuries (lack of camps/preseason/limited physical off-season contact) and the obviously positive COVID-19 tests that will take a toll on a roster. Your replacements are going to come from the PS pool. No tryouts and bring guys in form the outside may not even be allowed. Coaches and front offices have always had a bit of a difference when it comes to the “characteristics needed” to populate practice squads. It comes down to the players best suited to practice and play with right now vs the players we need to develop for the future. If you care about winning this year, you’re going to have to sacrifice development for the future at some level to compete and win immediately.
AAF- And Im not talking of the failed spring league. Adaptability, Adjustability, Flexibility. I think you get the point. Teams that are willing to handle change on the fly will have a big advantage. We all should know this by now after watching the other professional leagues try to exist in our crazy bubble world. The only thing that’s “for sure” is that “nothing is for sure”. The attitude to change, the ability to stay positive, the willingness to shrug and move practice fields, practice times, bus or airline times, meals, etc. will be giant factors in winning and losing. Handling change is not always easy for those stuck in their ways. Some of the old school coaches whose regiment is all they know, may struggle with relaxing “control” of everything. That way of thinking is out the window in 2020.
2020 is a giant petri dish of experiments for all of us. Here’s hoping we have an NFL season and we can look back with many case studies to see what worked and what didn’t. I think I can speak for us all by saying, all these unknowns will be best viewed from our rear-view mirrors.