HISTORY WILL SUGGEST that Tom Brady was the story of Super Bowl LV, but history will lie. The man who won his seventh ring and his fifth Super Bowl MVP was a story, to be sure, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first NFL team to win a championship in its own stadium because of everything that swirled around him.
There were two enduring images of a surprisingly noncompetitive Super Bowl. The first was Brady challenging Tyrann Mathieu, face-to-face and scream for scream, a 43-year-old playing to prove everything once more, always as if this time might be the last time. And the second image decided the game: The Bucs’ defense chasing Patrick Mahomes all over the field — backward and sideways, for nearly 500 futile yards — in a stunningly successful effort to contain him.
Reserve a chapter in this saga for Bruce Arians, the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl. This man, who waited until he was 61 before he got his first head-coaching job, finally won the game he had long ago stopped believing he would ever get the opportunity to coach. Arians’ philosophy is rare and refreshing among the NFL’s fearful and suspect. It boils down to three words: Go for it. Whatever it might be, lean toward the riskiest option with the biggest reward. Take points off the board and deal with the consequences. Throw it deep at the end of the half and see what happens. Play with your insides out.
His team won eight straight games, along the way completing a run that may never be matched: three playoff wins on the road and a Super Bowl win at home. The last one served as the cleansing exhale to a singular season, one that started with trepidation and ended with the type of celebration — confetti, Gatorade baths, the Lombardi trophy being passed around from suited men to sweaty men — that felt so familiar it might have been normal.
IT STARTED STRANGELY, with a virtual draft, commissioner Roger Goodell in his basement, trying hard to hit all the notes that typically elude him: folksy, casual, regular. It was the first glimpse into the NFL’s yearlong attempt to infuse normalcy into a historically abnormal situation. A dude in his recliner, eating M&M’s, telling us whom the Dolphins picked in the third round. It was weird, definitely, but somehow it felt right for the moment. Everyone was trying out new coping skills, and Goodell was no different.
Strange as it was, everything would only get stranger from there. The NFL wound its way through its pandemic season like someone feeling his way through a dark room. Virtual offseason workouts, canceled exhibition games, no in-season bubble; it was six months of held breath and crossed fingers, six months of learning from mistakes and hoping for the best while expecting the worst — and somehow managing to get both.
The NFL, known for its institutional arrogance, would show everyone how it’s done. It would take the most dangerous, riskiest sport — the one with the most physical contact, the largest group of players, huddles and locker rooms and oh-so-many indoor film sessions — and play an entire season while a pandemic raged through a country governed by disjointed and often disinterested policy. It would impose strict protocols and test daily and spend exorbitantly. It would outfit players with tracking devices and penalize teams and individuals for breaking the rules. It would traipse its teams across the country the way it always has and allow its franchises to follow local policies when it came to fan attendance.
“Had this progressed the way it was in September, playing football would have been an unfortunate decision,” says Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious disease at Baylor College of Medicine. “But the NFL had the resources to make changes, and they responsibly made those changes to reduce the spread. We all learned from those changes, which was helpful.”
The NFL also gave its employees work and its fans a diversion from the pounding dirge of 2020. We watched even though it didn’t always feel right. When the camera was tight on the field and the fake crowd noise pounded through the speakers, we could all be fooled into a comforting solace. Close your eyes or walk out of the room and it all sounded like 2019.
But when the camera panned out, reality intruded on the escape. No building is transformed more by human beings than one built for the purpose of professional sports, and anyone who has ever walked out of a massive empty stadium can attest to the looming menace, the feeling like swimming next to a battleship. Even on TV, every empty stadium looked eerie, almost otherworldly. What must it have felt like to play inside one, week after week, to perform acts of athletic artistry and hear only faint human response, the surrounding vacancy a constant reminder of the state of the outside world? To play amid all that emptiness feels like an accomplishment all its own.
But the games with fans in the stands — 30,000 in Dallas by the end of the season, for one — somehow felt foreboding in a far different way, every unmasked spectator an omen of what might lie ahead.
Players learned to celebrate big plays by running to a video screen at the back of the end zone, and we sat back and watched them watch themselves. After winning the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay, Tom Brady asked a security guard for permission to approach the stands to say hello to his son. Coaches on the sidelines wore and failed to wear any and all manner of masks: Andy Reid’s fogged-up baseball cap/shield combo; Bill Belichick’s bird beak; Jon Gruden’s G-string.
Home games and road games blurred; who really cared whether a game was played in your team’s empty stadium or someone else’s? The 49ers raised that bar; forced to move out of Santa Clara County because of COVID restrictions, the team moved to Arizona for the remainder of the season, playing home games in somebody else’s empty stadium. For the first time, there was a game on every day of the week. There were midseason Monday doubleheaders, games that entire starting position groups watched quarantining at home, games that quarantined head coaches didn’t coach from their basements. There was a pivotal Steelers-Ravens game played on a Wednesday afternoon — on Wednesday because the game had been rescheduled three times, in the afternoon because NBC’s television schedule that night was reserved for a tree-lighting ceremony. Games for the sake of games, honoring the NFL’s commitment to packaging over product.
Through it all, games. Every single game, all 256 of them.
And we watched, because they played. And we watched, because what the hell else was there to do?
WHAT DOES IT mean to win the Super Bowl in a season like this one? Does it mean more than any other season, because of the discipline and self-control needed to weather a pandemic? Or does it mean less, because the results were reliant on too many factors outside of a team’s control?
The Steelers started 11-0 and had their season knocked from its moorings when locker room outbreaks in Baltimore and Tennessee turned Pittsburgh’s schedule into a broad series of recommendations. Certain teams had to go days and sometimes an entire week without practice. In November, the Saints were fined $500,000 and docked a draft pick for protocol violations. The Ravens were fined $250,000 after their teamwide outbreak. Gruden was fined $150,000 himself for repeated violations of the mask ordinance, and his team lost a sixth-round pick.
“I don’t think anything ever prepared us for the pandemic,” Tampa coach Bruce Arians said the Monday before the Super Bowl. “And this whole season has been different. The team-building things that you do in the offseason didn’t happen. I have to give all the credit in the world to our players for their commitment to each other and the accountability they’ve shown in beating the virus before we could beat any other team.”
Nothing seemed normal off the field. For the most part, the normalcy was reserved for what took place on it. The good teams mostly stayed good, the bad mostly stayed bad and the weird stayed weird. The Chiefs lost just twice (and that’s if you count the B-team falling to the Chargers in Week 17). Aaron Rodgers pulled the Packers to the best record in the NFC on his way to his third MVP. Brady, at 43, showed — for one season at least — that Brady without Belichick is better than Belichick without Brady (Belichick’s Pats missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years was one of the season’s only surprises). As usual, the Jets were atrocious, the Jaguars somehow worse and the Raiders conducted their annual late-season meltdown.
Through it all, messages of social justice were painted on end zones and stamped on the backs of helmets. Teams pledged money to causes promoting racial equity (but hired just one African American coach to fill seven vacancies). Patrick Mahomes championed voting rights. Deshaun Watson marched with George Floyd’s family through the streets of Houston.
“As a country and as a world, I think we strived to keep each other safe and keep ourselves safe,” Mahomes said. “And with all the social injustices, as a nation we’ve had to find ways to make ourselves better there.”
The serious merged with the absurd. Any history of the 2020 NFL season must include the saga of Kendall Hinton, a onetime college backup quarterback and practice-squad wide receiver who was forced to start for the Broncos when COVID-19 and its attendant protocols ran through all four of the team’s quarterbacks. “He did all he could,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. “We had about a two-, three-, four-hour window to get him ready.” Against a New Orleans defense that haunted competent NFL quarterbacks all season, Hinton completed 1 of 9 passes for 13 yards. So how would your high school quarterback do if he started an NFL game? This was the closest approximation we are ever likely to get.
Browns offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, the team’s longest-tenured player, had to sit out Cleveland’s first playoff game since 2003 because of a close contact. (The team’s upset of Pittsburgh allowed him to play in the divisional round.) In the middle of its push to win the NFC East — the league’s version of the world’s-slimmest-sumo award — the Washington Football Team released a statement that began, “The Washington Football Team is aware of social media posts showing QB Dwayne Haskins partying maskless in a strip club …”
As the Bills won the AFC East and advanced to the AFC Championship Game, I thought about Tommy Sweeney, a 25-year-old backup tight end who tested positive for COVID-19 in the fall (one of the season’s 724 positive tests) and had to sit out the rest of the season after being diagnosed with myocarditis, a potentially deadly heart condition. With a tenuous roster spot and a chronic medical condition, what’s his future?
“There were a couple of instances of players who were really affected, and they didn’t become the big stories I thought they were,” says Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College at Emory University who has worked with NFL teams analyzing player health. “Society still looks at this disease like you’re either in the hospital in ICU on a ventilator heading for death, or you’re just fine. And in the football culture, the narrative becomes, You overcame COVID, and we should be proud of you. That culture doesn’t want to talk about what overcoming looks like.”
The NFL deployed its vast resources in an effort to protect its players and complete a season, but was it a responsible social partner? Instead of issuing leaguewide edicts on attendance, teams followed wide-ranging local rules, which led to the 49ers moving to Phoenix while the Cowboys flaunted their attendance. The league adapted protocols based on its data — masks work, 6 feet isn’t enough distance and it doesn’t take 15 minutes of close contact to transmit the virus — to save its season, and those findings made a difference to those who studied the virus. “We’ve worked hand in hand for nearly a year with the CDC, which has reviewed and provided feedback on our comprehensive protocols throughout the preseason, regular season and the playoffs, including the Super Bowl,” says NFL spokesman Jeff Miller.
But the league never used its massive platform to educate fans, and Binney wonders: Where were the public service announcements urging fans not to congregate in groups to watch the Super Bowl? “The NFL made it crystal clear that they exist in their own world and have no real interest in being part of ours,” he says. “Our love for them is unrequited in a way they never made quite so explicit before.”
BUT IF WE remained, through the season, unsettled, uncertain and uneasy, at least it seemed that the players often were too. At times it felt like we were all in this together. Watson remained ascendant in Houston, even after the team inexplicably traded DeAndre Hopkins, and then made it clear he wants out after the Texans failed to give him a say in the direction of the franchise. Rodgers, after losing to Brady and the Bucs in the NFC Championship, waxed existentially about his future in Green Bay. Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford switched sides.
And so perhaps it was fitting, or at least reassuring, that the two biggest names in the sport — Brady and Mahomes — played until the end. Brady, untethered from the shared legacy in New England, was free to add an exclamation all his own. Mahomes, despite Sunday’s loss, continues to preside over the nascent moments of a potential dynasty.
“This is very different,” Mahomes said during what passed for media day. He was sitting in Kansas City, in front of a sponsor’s backdrop in the disembodied, now-familiar electronic stance. “Obviously, sitting in an empty room and not even in the city of the Super Bowl is a unique experience. From last year to this year, definitely a big difference.”
There wasn’t a Super Bowl week, but there was a Super Bowl, and the quarterback we’ve already watched win six rings won a seventh. In the end, after the M&M recliner draft and the Wednesday matinee and all the uncertainty and oddness fades into the mists of memory, history will at least reflect a sense of order. However many bumps in the night it took to get there, the NFL reached its destination, sighing heavily, hoping to never do it again.