It’s quite strange to write my weekly “pressing questions” preview piece right now when the entire league feels like a pressing question. We’re all grateful the NFL made it this far and that we’re getting games, but we’re still in largely uncharted waters.
The 2020 season will be unlike any other. We’re going in blind as to how some players will be deployed thanks to both the lack of preseason games and the lighter than usual reporting out of training camp. Even the game environments themselves are going to look dramatically different.
Even from a pure aesthetics standpoint, we’re going to be looking at things like empty seats, or coaches wearing face coverings on the sideline. Hell, we don’t even really know what guys like Cam Newton, DeAndre Hopkins, or the incoming rookies even really look like in their new uniforms. At least in the typical preseason environment, you get to see some glimpse as they run through pre-game warmups or a faux drive or two.
Some of these things matter and some may well be immaterial to what actually unfolds through the play of the game, week-to-week projections, and the results of fantasy matchups. Either way, it’s worth talking about it.
So, here are the pressing questions I have on the mind heading into Week 1’s full slate that are not the typical player/team-outcome specific type I’ll usually cover here. We’ll also hit on some data points that already started to reveal themselves in Thursday night’s season opener.
Will crowd changes affect home-field advantage?
Getting an answer to the effect of altered crowds will likely be a developing story. It also might be the one that has the greatest impact on the outcome of games.
Maybe I’m alone in this, but it’s still bizarre to me that there isn’t a universal policy when it comes to teams having fans in the stand. It seems like a competitive imbalance for some teams to have a partial crowd while others cannot. I feel like it should be, “If one team can’t have fans, no one can have fans.” For a refresher, here’s how the capacity policy for each NFL team will work at this time:
Then again, maybe none of it matters? I don’t know.
Intuitively, the Seattle Seahawks having their usually raucous stadium’s stands straight up empty would have an impact on portions of a football game. We’re changing the conditions here. The environment we usually hold these experiments in just won’t be the same. It’s even different for the travel. If you’ve left your house at any point during the days of COVID, you know pretty much everything is more of a hassle than normal.
That intuition might just prove to be all of us blowing hot air about waters that, again, are completely uncharted. After all, Arrowhead Stadium was definitely lower on the “rowdiness scale” than usual in the season opener but there were times noise seemed to alter the Texans. We just really can’t say anything with much certainty right now, even if it’s worth discussing.
We’ll know more about these questions after we get a few weeks in the books. Pay close attention to what the players themselves tell us after games. After all, they’ll know the best about how these condition changes reroute the contests.
Will we know more about the rookie transition?
One of my biggest questions for the 2020 season involved our expectations for rookies. We’ve seen wide receivers transition to the pro game much faster than usual in recent seasons. Fantasy leagues usually get a boost from several first-year breakout running backs. Even rookie quarterbacks, primarily those with rushing upside, offer strong stretches as streamers.
It would seem that based on the truncated offseason and the lack of preseason games would bring about a stalling for the rookies’ early season impact. It would seem that a wide receiver would struggle more than the running backs. The latter has typically been the one with an easier road to instant NFL success.
That expectation could easily be shattered if a few rookies ball out in Week 1. Clyde Edwards-Helaire didn’t seem to look like he needed any extra prep time in his debut Thursday night but again, my eye will be more on the wide receivers.
Will we see players put on pitch counts?
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores already stated it’s hard to imagine guys playing a full complement of snaps given the shortened lead-up period to Week 1. We’ll see if this means Miami players, in particular, will be treated with kid gloves. We should also be open to the idea that other decision-makers around the league share Flores’ view, even if they haven’t expressed it publicly.
Players coming into the game with an injury might be of the highest concern. Someone like Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans comes to mind. He’s been dealing with a hamstring injury, the same type of malady that sent him to IR last year. The dreaded “game-time decision” has already been tossed around. It’s a long season ahead and all the players have had a much shorter runway to get to the Week 1 launch.
Guys like Evans could see a lighter snap count than usual. We already saw this happen with Brandin Cooks, who was highly questionable coming into Thursday night. Despite solid usage to start the game, he ended up playing fewer snaps than fellow veteran Randall Cobb.
Will the injury bug bite harder? Will we know the difference?
In general, injuries could be the theme of Week 1. It seems the football hive mind has already prepared itself for a rash of injuries in the opening slate. Should that come to pass, it wouldn’t be shocking. Soft tissue issues especially can crop up when the players hit warp speed after taking it lightly all summer. We saw this happen in camps during the 2011 season following the NFL lockout.
When wide receivers like Kenny Golladay, Courtland Sutton, and Diontae Johnson started to hit the injury report in the middle of the week, it felt like many observers only further steeled themselves for more bad news.
My only trepidation: Week 1 always feels like a hammer drop when it comes to injuries. That could simply be an emotional reaction. We get hyped to see our favorite players all summer and then they’re whisked away with injuries. We’re dealing with even more anticipation here in 2020. I worry we’ll chalk this Week 1 up as irregularly injury-heavy almost no matter what happens.
Do offenses or defenses have the early season edge?
Which side of the ball has a bigger advantage after less time to properly install in camp is one of my bigger internal debates. Frankly, after seeing the Chiefs and Texans play on Thursday night, I’m not sure we’re any closer to an answer.
At certain times, it definitely felt like the Texans defense wilted in the open field against the Chiefs’ offensive players. But was that a sign of things to come in Week 1, or just the result of dealing with an elusive rookie running back placed right in the middle of an offense that was already among the league’s most electric units?
Same deal on the other side of the coin. Houston’s offense looked out of sync at times, but that didn’t appear to be much a product of what Kansas City’s defense was up to; it looked more like a product of a unit trying to find itself after some player transition.
The rest of the Week 1 slate is going to provide a much more telling sample to answer this question. Be ready to hold your views much more strongly about this subject this time next week than you do today.
How much damn fun are we going to have?
Indulge me on this last one. Hell, after the year we’ve had, we should all be more than willing to indulge.
Let’s not forget the journey it took to get here. All of us have been dealing with the negative side effects of this pandemic in one way or another. It’s not the most consequential by any means (unless your livelihood depends on the sport being played) but having to deal with the speculation and dread that football might not happen in 2020 was not enjoyable. So, indulge in the fact that this is happening. Soak it in.
I, for one, already started reveling in football Thursday night and was struck by the fact that for most of the evening, when the whistles blew, it felt like a perfectly normal Week 1 game. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when those moments washed over me. Now that the dive in the first misting has come and gone, I’m ready to let the tidal wave of a full Sunday slate hit me.
Prediction: We probably have a lot of fun this weekend.