2020 was a unique year in the history of the planet, let alone the NFL. Despite the challenges, somehow the NFL managed to get through a 17 week regular season, and as we head towards the Super Bowl next Sunday, I have brought together 3 of my favorite experts for a round-table discussion.
Today, we're discussing the winners and losers from 2020, the NFL's veteran QB corps, and who the panel tip for a rebound in 2021.
Check back on Monday for Part 2, where the questions will be on Super Bowl LV between the Chiefs and Buccaneers.
KC Joyner - Founder at The Football Scientist, contributor to Pickwatch and formerly of ESPN. One of the most accurate expert pickers in the industry
Christian d'Andrea - Co-founder of The Post Route, formerly of SB Nation and regular season champ on Pickwatch in 2020
Michael Schottey - Head of operations at Brawl Network, formerly of Bleacher Report and Fanduel.
Shaun Lowrie (Pickwatch): Thinking back to the start of the season, what was your inclination about how Covid would impact the NFL, and what has the league got right and wrong in its fight to keep the season on schedule? I remember being quite pessimistic that we’d get the regular season into 17 weeks...
KC Joyner, Pickwatch/Thefootballscientist : I shared that same pessimism and figured the league was being overly optimistic in some ways, but then saw the preseason article by Peter King that detailed how many steps the league was taking to keep the pandemic from spreading throughout teams.
I still had doubts that those would work well enough to keep the season going without a hiccup, but once it became clear the NFL was willing to tighten the rules and add more preventive measures as the weeks passed, the path to 17 weeks looked clear. The NFL showed how effective we all can be in defeating the societal impact of this virus and should serve as a blueprint for many other industries.
Christian d'Andrea, The Post Route: I was fairly sure the league would chug through to 16 games for most, if not all, teams. What I didn’t expect was that it would happen more or less on schedule. Once the Pro Bowl was cancelled (at least in physical form) I assumed we’d be looking at a Week 18 and maybe even a Week 19 to sort things out before the postseason.
Instead, the precautions the NFL took earlier in the season when bye weeks could be moved were trashed in the final weeks and teams played shorthanded and it was ...mostly fine? As much as some writers liked to tweet about how the league didn’t miss a game, goalposts were moved and player safety was put at risk among gutted depth charts.
On the plus side, Tuesday afternoon football was fun? And hey, all the league writers out there still get the Sunday before the Super Bowl (mostly) off.
Michael Schottey, Brawl Network I’m always driven by two paradigms when it comes to the NFL in situations like this … First, that they have as many resources and connections as any entity on the planet so they can usually accomplish anything that they want to. Second, that they get in their way far too often and end up tripping over their own proverbial two feet. So, count me among the pleasantly surprised that the season went off mostly without a hitch.
I’ll say this, though: 25 years from now, we’re going to get some sort of deep-dive, oral history of the league’s decisions through COVID-19, and I would put good money on some of the questionable things we saw over the past few months looking even more so when we do.
SL: Who or what was your disappointment of the season? For me it was Dak Prescott’s injury in week 5 against the Giants, because as much as I enjoy watching the Cowboys lose, they were doing so in the most wild, inconceivable ways possible, and Dak was on pace for something equally preposterous in terms of his own performance...
KC: It’s a related issue to Dak, as his ailment was one of many reasons for the collapse of the NFC East. This division hasn’t been anywhere close to where it was during its halcyon days when it ruled the NFL with unrivaled excellence in power football, but that all four of these clubs have fallen as far as they have just isn’t a good thing for the league.
It cast a shadow over the NFC playoff picture all season long and gave more credence to the idea that division winners should not automatically get a first round home playoff game.
CDA: The Prescott injury was gutting for sure, but I’m more broken up about the hatchet job going on some 240 miles to the south. The Texans appeared to be on the right track after mercifully putting Bill O’Brien -- OK as a coach and a waking nightmare as a general manager -- out to pasture. But then, an already tenuous situation fell apart as CEO Cal McNair apparently chose executive Jack Easterby over star 25-year-old quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Now Houston is likely going to have to trade away the best passer in franchise history in its latest reset … where it will be helmed by a 65-year-old coach who’s never been an NFL coordinator. David Culley has cultivated run-first offenses in his long career as an assistant and will be taking over the league’s 32nd-ranked rushing attack (per Football Outsiders) and an offense likely breaking in a new quarterback.
This is going to get worse before it gets better.
MS: Oh man, I am going to take this one year of relative irrelevance from the NFC East and I am going to cherish it. As for the Texans, Easterby knows well how the Bible says that you “reap what you sow,” so I can’t feel too bad about that situation either.
My “disappointment” will be a little more general: the rapid decline of some of my favorite arms around football. Turning on a Saints game and watching the “artist formerly known as Drew Brees” was just a weekly cause for mourning. The same was true for Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and (to a slightly lesser extent) Rivers in Indianapolis. We’ve got a tremendous crop of young quarterbacks in the league, but watching these old-heads fall off the cliff was a seriously bad footnote to this season.
SL: Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees made it to the playoffs this season at the age of 37 or over.. If all five walk off into the sunset over the next 2 years like Rivers and Brees, or decline rapidly, or suffer a major injury… just how seismic is the shift? And who replaces them in the playoffs alongside Mahomes, Allen et al?
KC: The NFL reached an all-time peak in quarterback play back in 2010 and it is not a high percentage move to think that the league will simply return to that level. Having noted this, consider the list of upper-tier/elite young quarterbacks in the NFL right now: Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray.
Add in Russell Wilson (who will be in his age 33 season in 2021), Matthew Stafford (who could have a major impact if he ends up with a talented team), Sam Darnold (who can easily be an upper half of the league QB under many circumstances), the Tennessee version of Ryan Tannehill, Baker Mayfield, Daniel Jones, Carson Wentz (if Sirianni and his staff can alter his trajectory), Kirk Cousins, and a very strong 2021 NFL draft class and the league won’t lack for quality quarterback play any time soon.
CDA: It will create a vacuum in the NFC, that’s for sure. It’s a shift we’ll notice, but probably not feel too much -- there’s just too much talent rising up the ranks behind them, as KC points out.
Who replaces them? The obvious answer among quarterbacks 25 and younger who missed the postseason this year include Herbert, Kyler Murray (if he can sustain his early 2020 pace through a full season), Tua Tagovailoa, and Watson, assuming he doesn’t get traded to a similarly hopeless franchise (helllooooo, Jets).
We’re also going to get an influx of great young QBs the next two seasons, including Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson (who is awesome), Sam Howell, Tyler Shough, and ugh fine, Kedon Slovis.
MS: Oh man, I really gave you this segue from the last question didn’t I? There’s an interesting dichotomy at play here, because I believe we’re getting better quarterback play (or at least more translatable quarterback play) from the college game than we’ve ever gotten before, so each draft is going to have a handful of prospects that could “enter the conversation” here. However, I find it very hard to believe that we’re going to see another “Brady-Manning-Brees” situation ever again where we have legitimately three of the NFL’s best all-time (four if you include Rodgers, and I do) duking it out with regularity. Heck, in almost any other era, Roethlisberger and Rivers would’ve been the NFL’s best.
Mahomes is definitely on the list, but for anyone else, I’m going to demur. Part of what makes the greats “great” is standing the test of time. Andrew Luck should be on the list, but he hung it up. A few years ago, we were waiting to put names like Winston, Mariota, Goff, or Wentz here. Are Watson, Allen, Jackson, Murray and even Mayfield all potential names to be added? Sure, but I think we’re looking at a bridge situation where the names we’re talking about (outside of Mahomes) for the next few seasons are guys like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson (who may finally get the full credit he deserves) and then probably some other veterans sneak into the playoff field convo like Matthew Stafford if he finally gets a better situation than Detroit.
SL: The Patriots are in flux for the first time in Bill Belichick’s career. What’s your gut feeling about how the next few years play out? Is Bill in it for the long haul and a full-scale rebuild, or are we reaching the end of the line?
KC: New England went 7-9 last year despite Cam Newton having an 8-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. A big part of that was on the receiving corps, as there aren’t many quarterbacks in the NFL capable of putting up quality numbers when the top four pass catchers are Jakobi Meyers, James White, Damiere Byrd, and N’Keal Harry.
It would not take much of a passing game upgrade to get New England back to the playoffs. Having said this, the Patriots still have to contend with Allen, Mahomes, Herbert, and Jackson and are looking at potential powerhouse AFC teams in Miami and Cleveland.
Unless or until New England finds someone on offense to offset those impact players, one and done playoff berths look like the ceiling for that franchise.
CDA: No other team in the league was hit harder with COVID-19 opt-outs than the Patriots, and those returns will be a boost for a team in need of talent. 2020 was always going to be a reset year and now that the last of Tom Brady’s dead money is off the books, Belichick will have some $57 million to play with in free agency along with his highest draft pick since 2008.
A rolling rebuild is a tough ask, but with a number of useful veteran quarterbacks available, New England could pick up its 2021 starter (Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, maybe Derek Carr or Teddy Bridgewater if their teams get caught up in the Watson trade derby) while plucking its quarterback of the future from this year’s rookie crop.
The bad news is the rest of the AFC East is better than it’s ever been (not you, Jets. At least right now). Going 5-1 in the division is a lot more difficult now than it was last decade. The Patriots will make it back to the postseason sooner rather than later, but it may be in a position the franchise hasn’t been in since 1998 -- a Wild Card slot.
MS: Patriots are back in the playoff hunt next season just by getting their defensive opt-outs back and with a small tweak to the offense. They’ve lost a lot of luster back from the days when they could match up with any team and run multiple offensive and defensive looks, however. Getting back to that level is going to take a minor miracle on par with finding a Tom Brady-type in the later rounds of the draft. If we set our expectations lower, however, I think they find a veteran QB rental that works out better than Cam Newton and get back into the playoffs next year as a late seed as they reload the offensive side of the ball.
SL: Final question, and let’s finish on a positive note. Which losing teams from 2020 will rebound in 2021, and how do they do it?
KC: They technically weren’t a loser since they went 8-8, but the Raiders have built a roster that 1970s Al Davis and John Madden would be proud of in many areas. It won’t take much of an upgrade to vault that team into the postseason. The Jets have a lot more talent than their abysmal 2-14 record would suggest and that club will respond extremely well to Robert Saleh’s creativity and enthusiasm. The Chargers defense will get a major shot in the arm from having Brandon Staley as the head coach and that could move the Bolts into double-digit win contention. Don’t forget about the 49ers, as a vast array of injuries was the major factor in why they weren’t able to follow up their NFC Championship with a playoff berth. Give San Francisco better health in 2021 and they have the formula to once again be a dangerous postseason foe.
CDA: The Jaguars have a boatload of cap space and the option to draft the most polished QB prospect since Andrew Luck. Their stock is gonna rise so hard Robinhood would jump to shut down day trading for it. The Jets will be better because Adam Gase is gone and, realistically, it would be difficult to get worse. The Patriots will trend upward for aforementioned reasons. The Bengals, if Joe Burrow returns to full strength and ditches last year’s high-usage, kinda-low-efficiency gameplan, might not suck either.
The NFC’s a little harder to predict. A healthy Dak Prescott will fix some problems in Dallas, but the Cowboys remain stuck in salary cap hell with a truly troubling defense. The 49ers will improve with some injury luck, but we don’t know who their quarterback is gonna be (though Matthew Stafford might be the guy, and that would be rad). The Panthers punched above their weight class in stretches in Matt Rhule’s debut, and I remain fully entrenched in the “Teddy Bridgewater is good” camp. But he might get forced out by Watson, and that’d be fun as hell (Watson + Robby Anderson + DJ Moore + Christian McCaffrey yessssss). The Falcons, uh, are an NFL team as well.
MS: Patriots are definitely one of those teams as mentioned in the last question, but I’m hesitant to name many more because we’re going to see so many NFL teams looking a lot different under center next season. I think the 49ers are primed to rebound rather quickly—especially if they end up with a Matthew Stafford type. The same can be said for the Panthers or the Broncos.
Here’s a curveball to end for the positive note: The Minnesota Vikings. This was a team that played very well for big stretches last season, and while we’ll focus on their average (and overpaid) quarterback play, they’re probably only a defensive tweak or two from being a playoff team and a good offseason away from being a legit contender for the NFC North and making a deep playoff run. Draft another pass catcher (probably at tight end), add a few veterans in the defensive front seven and watch this team win 13 games next season.
Check back on Monday for Part 2 of our round table, where KC, Christian and Schottey discuss the Super Bowl LV matchup between the Chiefs and Bucs in more detail and give their picks and score prediction!