Coronavirus: Amid COVID-19 restrictions in the NFL, continuity matters

Once we get to the other side of this COVID-19 pandemic, there will be sports. But as cancelations and postponements continue each day, there’s a growing concern that the Sept. 10 start date to the 2020 NFL season will be in jeopardy.

There are still more than five months between us and that Thursday night game, and so for the sake of this column (and my sanity), let’s assume we’re past all this and playing football after Labor Day.

If the 2019 NFL season was all about the league’s centennial anniversary, the 2020 season will be dominated by one key term: continuity.

Amid the restrictions, prohibitions and postponements related to COVID-19 now and into the near future, the NFL teams that can carry over as much of their programs from previous seasons into this upcoming season will be best situated for success in 2020.

Offseason activities scheduled for April 6 are not going to start on time for the five teams with first-year head coaches: the Panthers, Browns, Giants, Cowboys and Washington. OTAs for all other teams surely won’t begin two weeks later, either.

There’s a distinct possibility the offseason programs, which typically run up until Father’s Day, will be scrapped entirely. The late-July start to training camps may get pushed, too.

One coach told me he’s preparing for a start to the NFL season similar to what he views college football. “You get three weeks of practice,” he said, “and then it’s Week 1.”

The general criteria for continuity consists of retaining the head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and veteran quarterback (three or more years) all while not suffering a fatal loss in free agency.

By my count, about a third of the league’s teams will have a leg-up on the competition in 2020 thanks to how they were able to keep their group and system in place from last season to this one:

  • Chiefs: The defending Super Bowl champs return the best quarterback in football and were able to keep the band together after teams without a head coach mysteriously passed on Eric Bieniemy.
  • Titans: By franchise-tagging Derrick Henry and locking up quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the Titans kept the engine and steering wheel to their AFC title game run.
  • Saints: After Tom Brady and Bill Belichick went to Splitsville, the best QB-coach duo in the league resides in New Orleans. The Saints are three-time NFC South champions and finally got a complement to Michael Thomas in Emmanuel Sanders, whose veteran savvy will help him get up to speed in no time.
  • 49ers: Though the 49ers lost Sanders and DeForest Buckner, they still own one of the best all-around units in football led by Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh.
  • Eagles: Yes, the Eagles fired offensive coordinator Mike Groh, but head coach Doug Pederson is taking back the OC reins that he last had when the Eagles won Super Bowl LII. And Philly is the only team in the NFC East that doesn’t have a new head coach.
  • Packers: Before getting trounced a second time by the 49ers, Aaron Rodgers was enjoying football for the first time in a while. The Pack’s losses in free agency weren’t enough to throw them off course.
  • Seahawks: When are you going to bet against Russell Wilson? Pete Carroll kept the coaching staff together and handed out a few promotions. The Seahawks will find their pass rush in the coming days/weeks.
  • Falcons: The first of only two non-playoff teams from a year ago. The Falcons turned a corner when head coach Dan Quinn made staff changes midway through the year, and that was enough for him to keep his job. Atlanta upgraded at edge rusher, downgraded at tight end and got an exciting plug-and-play running back in Todd Gurley if his knee holds up.
  • Raiders: Relocating a franchise seems to be the anthesis of continuity, but the Raiders still have everyone in place. And if the offseason is truncated or erased entirely, it won’t matter where the Raiders are or aren’t practicing.

The Steelers narrowly miss the list because Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play 14 1/2 games last season due to an elbow injury he’s still recovering from at age 38. The Bucs and Colts should clearly be contenders and I have no doubt their veteran QBs will handle this fluid situation with aplomb, but these are seismic changes for both franchises. And though I love what the Bills and Ravens have done in free agency to add to their already-solid teams, the quarterbacks are entering their crucial third season in the league where improvement (yes, even for NFL MVP Lamar Jackson) is critical.

I’m hard-pressed to think of two teams at a more distinct disadvantage than the Patriots and Panthers — for two entirely different reasons. The Panthers have first-year head coach Matt Rhule and first-year OC Joe Brady at the controls with free-agent quarterback Teddy Bridgewater taking over a brand new team where every offseason rep matters.

For New England, the best coach in football will have no time to indoctrinate any new player into the Patriot Way. He also has no Tom Brady for the young players to look at and learn from.  (And no Tom Brady on the field, too.) The Patriot Way mindset has been integral in the six Super Bowls, and in an offseason with such attrition, I wonder how he’ll find the time to teach it to the newbies.

Furthermore, teams who were depending on the draft for their quarterback of the future will be at a distinct disadvantage. If offseason programs are shut down through minicamp, Joe Burrow will have just a training camp to prepare for the Bengals Week 1 game. He and other rookie QBs can get the playbook the second they’re drafted and even find private workouts with some pass-catchers (so long as we’re not still under a shelter-in-place mandate), but it’s reasonable to think they won’t get any NFL-regulated work with their teammates and coaches until July at the earliest.

And what about Tua Tagovailoa? Monthly reports since his hip surgery have been all positive, but what mattered most in the pre-draft process for the Alabama quarterback were his medicals. Team doctors can’t get their hands on Tagovailoa for the foreseeable future, and Monday night teams learned that the combine medical recheck would be discontinued indefinitely. A team picking in the top-five of April’s draft will have to weigh the reward of nabbing Tagovailoa against the risk of whatever medical unknowns may still be lingering.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Some executives I’ve spoken with are choosing to look at the bright side of this. “May have a fresher rookie class due to them not having to go through as much mental and physical work this spring,” one exec told me.

COVID-19 has already changed the world in more ways than we can begin to count. Infinitesimal in the greater picture, its impact on the NFL this season is sure to be felt once play finally begins again.

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