When the pandemic forced the NFL to adjust its training camp schedule and eliminate the entire preseason, one concern among coaches and pundits was that the decrease in prep time would lead to a crummy start to the regular season. New coaches wouldn’t get to go over every game situation; quarterbacks on new teams would struggle and be out of rhythm with their receivers; and younger players, including rookies, would have a tougher time with their new careers. Think of all the uneaten game tape. The horror! But in the first week of the season, the bulk of NFL games did not demonstrate this.
Admittedly I did not consume every minute of Sunday’s NFL action, but I watched a few different games with new quarterbacks and/or coaches, since those felt like the parts of a football team that would require plenty of time for acclimation. Not every team looked great—and there are still two Monday night games—but the reasons teams were bad didn’t seem to be any different than the reasons teams are bad in years with preseason snaps. The only teams that looked like they didn’t belong in pro football were the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, and, well, Occam’s razor can help explain those two.
Tom Brady, the new quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played somewhat like crud, but he’s also 43 and had the Saints’ pass rush breathing down his neck. Drew Brees also played like crud, but he’s old too. His lackluster performance could just as legitimately be attributed to him ostracizing himself from his teammates when he said not standing for the national anthem was disrespectful. (The Saints won anyway, 34-23.)
Elsewhere in the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers had a new head coach in Matt Rhule and a new quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. Surely the lack of communication over the summer would make for disaster, right? Bridgewater connected with receiver Robby Anderson, also new to the Panthers, for six catches, 115 yards, and a touchdown. Carolina lost to the Las Vegas Raiders, 34-30, but a lot of that was on Rhule’s baffling decision to ignore Christian McCaffrey on a fourth-and-short situation and instead run the ball up the middle with fullback Alex Armah.
Three preseason games wouldn’t have taught Rhule to use McCaffrey in this situation.
Cam Newton, formerly of the Panthers and now the Patriots’ starting quarterback, took a couple of sacks but otherwise seemed up to speed as he went 15-of-19 with 155 passing yards and led his team in rushing with 75 yards and two touchdowns. He was used for a good number of option plays and designed QB runs not in the playbook last year with Brady; none of them seemed insufficiently practiced. The Pats won, 21-11, over the Miami Dolphins, who return head coach Brian Flores and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick from last season.
As for the rookies, Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire looked pro-ready as he rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown in Thursday’s season opener. First overall pick Joe Burrow put together what should have been a game-tying, fourth-quarter drive for the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, if not for placekicker Randy Bullock, who tweaked a muscle and shanked a relatively easy field goal.
The new collective bargaining agreement, approved by the owners and players in March, had originally shortened the preseason to three games and set a framework to gradually increase roster sizes. When it was clear that COVID-19 would jeopardize the season’s calendar, the players association agreed at the end of July to a revised CBA that would provide more safety measures, get rid of the exhibition games, and increase roster sizes even further. The quality of play in the first week did not seem any worse than the first week of any other season I’ve watched, so why shouldn’t these changes become permanent? Wouldn’t that be preferable to running the risk of any player shredding a knee in the first quarter of a preseason game that wasn’t going to actually change the outcome anyway?
The obvious answer is that NFL owners would never do something in the best interest of their players’ health unless forced to by a court order. They yearn for the past and future in which fans pay money to watch third-stringers take on fourth-stringers in August, and besides, if they were going to give up these inconsequential games, it wouldn’t be before they use them as leverage against the players to get an 18-game season. All leagues hold some form of meaningless exhibition to get athletes their reps, but even in a season without a pandemic, the NFL is honestly too dangerous of a sport to have one. Still, it’s refreshing to watch the lack of a football preseason poke holes in the notion that working longer hours automatically translates to an advantage. The Jets are not winning or losing based on the unhealthiness of Adam Gase’s sleep schedule.