At least we (probably) have the NFL
In this world, where screen time rules our work and social lives, has there ever been a more anticipated National Football League season than the one that begins Thursday, Sept. 10?
There is plenty of intrigue.
How will the shuffle of Super Bowl quarterbacks Tom Brady and Cam Newton impact the balance of power? Will Russell Wilson continue to be able to carry the Seahawks on his shoulders, right arm and quick feet? Can leaving Oakland (and adding a backup QB named Marcus) finally free the Raiders and their fans from years of disappointment? Will a rookie quarterback from Oregon get the chance to make a splash in a new football Taj Mahal?
Of course, the most suspense at the start of the 2020 NFL season surrounds whether the league can make it to the end amid the challenges presented by COVID-19. At this writing, it's so far, so good. We can hope for the best, of course. But the NFL doesn't have a bubble to sequester its 1,700 players, so it's hard to imagine the season smoothly unfolding without a few schedule-altering COVID-19 cases.
Still, barring any late developments, the season is upon us.
So, with the caveat that, because of holiday deadlines I wrote this before cut-down day Sept. 5, let's tackle some storylines that jump out:
• Will a retooled defense and the second-best quarterback in the league be enough for the Seahawks in the NFL's toughest division?
Entering his ninth season, the 31-year-old Wilson is clearly established as an elite QB. In 2019, Wilson willed the Seahawks to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth, overcoming a shaky defense and pedestrian offensive line to throw for 4,110 yards and 31 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
Last season, Wilson engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks in the first nine weeks and added a fifth game-winning drive in an OT win over San Francisco.
Wilson turns 32 on Nov. 29 — hardly old, but entering a window where the Seahawks will want to make the most of his greatness.
With that in mind, Seattle made some significant offseason moves to shore up the defense. The big one was sending two first-round picks to the Jets for All-Pro safety Jamal Adams, who will team with Quandre Diggs and Pro Bowl cornerback Shaquill Griffin to form a strong secondary. Bobby Wagner leads a solid crew of linebackers.
The reason you don't hear the Seahawks being talked about as Super Bowl caliber is, primarily, the line of scrimmage. Wilson's elusiveness has allowed Seattle to find success with questionable talent and depth up front. The Hawks do have a strong left tackle in Duane Brown, a solid vet left guard in Mike Iupati and an intriguing rookie right guard in Damien Lewis. But, as of early September, the starting center job was still being sorted out.
Wilson, we know, is great on the run and has been durable. But without better protection and a more productive ground game, the Seahawks are unlikely to reach Super Bowl status.
• Can anyone stop those Chiefs? More specifically, can any team slow down Patrick Mahomes? Don't count on it. Sure, there is a big target on KC. But the Chiefs' Super Bowl run came despite Mahomes and several other key offensive players missing time to injuries.
And KC retained most of its Super Bowl roster, despite doling out half a billion dollars to secure Mahomes long term. And the Chiefs added a running back in the draft who looks like a perfect fit for the Mahomes-Andy Reid offense.
The rest of the AFC West teams are in transition. So, like the Patriots consistently earned playoff home field advantage thanks to a weak division, the Chiefs look like a solid bet to at least be in the AFC Championship game.
• How long before Mahomes and the Chiefs are universally detested the way we have loathed the Patriots?
The shine won't wear off Mahomes this season for the average fan. He is just too much fun, especially with Reid calling the plays. Seeing Reid finally win a Super Bowl in February took a bit of the sting off the result for this Niners' fan.
But if Mahomes and the Chiefs start hogging Lombardi trophies the way Brady and Bill Belichick did, it's only a matter of time.
• Which rookie QB will have the best season? It probably won't be Justin Herbert. The former Oregon Duck begins the season as the backup to Tyrod Taylor for the Chargers. Not a big surprise, given Taylor's experience as a NFL starter in Buffalo and the fact that the coronavirus prevented Herbert from the usual offseason development and preseason games. Even if Herbert is the inactive third-string QB for some games, it won't mean his stock has plummeted.
Joe Burrow's stock soared as he led LSU to the national championship last season. By all accounts, Burrow has thrived in training camp and is already a leader in the locker room. The No. 1 pick is the clear No. 1 QB in Cincinnati and will have the opportunity to raise the profile of a franchise that has underachieved for more than a decade.
Tua Tagovailoa was the No. 5 pick in the draft, going to Miami just ahead of Herbert. The former Alabama QB is about 10 months removed from suffering a serious hip injury and might not see much action as a rookie behind veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. But reports are that Tagovailoa is moving just fine and showing no ill effects from that injury. Still, the Dolphins figure to be cautious. There is nothing wrong with a rookie QB waiting his turn.
• Who's opting out? NFL players had until Aug. 6 to opt out of playing and have their contract moved to 2021. They were eligible to receive a $150,000 salary advance ($350,000 stipend if at high risk for COVID-19 complications).
Most teams had three or fewer players opt out. New England had the most with eight, including former Oregon safety Patrick Chung. Another former Duck to opt out was De'Anthony Thomas with Baltimore.
• What will the stadium experience be like? The Seahawks will play at least their first three home games without the backing of the 12s.
Most teams are in the same boat.
Exceptions include the Chiefs, who plan to have about 16,000 fans at the Sept. 10 opener, about 22% of Arrowhhead Stadium's capacity. Others with plans to allow a percentage of capacity include Dallas, Miami, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Jacksonville.
Notable empty stadiums include SoFi Stadium, the new 72,240-seat home of the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers which will not allow fans until further notice.
Ditto for Allegiant Stadium, the new 65,000-seat home of the Raiders, a franchise in its first season in Las Vegas.
• How will the NFL address racial and social justice? Four years after the league shunned Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice issues, reports have said the NFL plans to allow players the option of wearing helmet decals honoring victims of systematic racism.
And messages will be added to all end zone boarders promoting inclusion.
• As divisive as these times are, at least we can unite in our distaste for the New England Patriots.
Except, even that presents a quandary. Are we to expend energy putting curses on Belichick and the Pats, or save some for Brady and the Bucs?
• Finally, who should those of us who don't think of Portland as Seattle South be pulling for?
Well, our lifelong favorite team, of course (Go Niners!). Beyond such childhood ingrained loyalty, here are a few suggestions:
The Cleveland Browns. One of four existing teams to never reach the Super Bowl, the Browns are a popular choice again this season to rise up. I'm not a Baker Mayfield fan, but the dude can entertain and has weapons around him. Can't see this team finishing ahead of the Steelers or the Ravens, but if they do expect the bandwagon to be crowded.
The So Cal Chargers. I get it, rooting for a Los Angeles team is difficult. But it will be interesting to see if the team I refuse to call L.A. can stop blowing games they should win now that Phillip Rivers is in Indianapolis. While playing in a soccer stadium in Carson, the Chargers often had more fans of opponents in the stands. At least SoFi will be empty. Head coach Anthony Lynn seems like a really good guy from afar.
The Buffalo Bills. Buffalo is fun to watch just to see former Oregon State and Astoria High standout Jordan Poyer fly around on defense. They also have an interesting young QB in Josh Allen, made the playoffs last season, and don't have to face Tom Brady anymore. Former Beaver Isaiah Hodgins was in a battle for a roster spot last week and ended up on injured reserve with a shoulder issue.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sure, the Brady-Rob Gronkowski show might be tough to swallow, but just think of them as a typical old couple moving from New England to Florida for their golden years. Watching them in Bruce Arians' offense will be interesting. Besides, former Grant High standout Ndamukong Suh is a stud on what should be a solid defense.
These are just suggestions. With what might turn into a long fall and winter season approaching, if the NFL can beat COVID-19 and entertain us through February, I'll count that as a win.
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