The NFL season is like clockwork with game plans, practice and game days coming and going with a consistency that makes players creatures of habit. That was until the 2020 season got underway, and the coronavirus threw a curveball at the entire schedule structure.
I've spent the first month of the season trying my best to weigh in on football while leaving the obvious problems the pandemic has created off to the side. With games now being rescheduled in bunches, it's no longer possible to separate the two. The Patriots routine is just one of many to be disrupted across the league, as no fewer than eight games were rescheduled in order to allow the league to postpone the Denver-New England game from Week 5 to Week 6. Byes have been altered as well. It was a move that made sense given the Patriots inability to practice and therefore properly prepare for the Broncos visit. So, now the teams will wait a week and play on Sunday, as it was originally scheduled, at 1 p.m. But it's hard to imagine these schedule machinations will solve the problem. When the players and owners agreed on a modified CBA that allowed the season to get underway, it seemed clear to all that the games would go on with some positive tests expected, and despite the hue and cry in the media there really has yet to be anything out of the ordinary when it comes to an overwhelming amount of positives. The league is testing players, coaches and team personnel vigilantly, and adjusting accordingly. Where the league has gotten, and deserved, criticism is with the process of rescheduling the games and the decisions that go with them. With more than five months to prepare, the NFL stubbornly refused to adjust its schedule, keeping the 17-week, one-bye format in place and providing very little wiggle room for the inevitability of postponements.
Building in a league-wide bye week somewhere, or perhaps even agreeing to a 14-game season for all teams, would have made sense. The 14-game format could have worked by eliminating the two games each team plays against the teams from the divisions that finished in the same positions in 2019. In others words, the Patriots would play six AFC East games, four against the AFC West and the final four against the NFC West. The games against the Ravens and Texans, fellow first-place teams from a year ago, could have been eliminated to allow for open dates where postponements easily could have been placed. Instead we have chaos in the schedule, games that are being changed at the last minute and a growing resentment among the players. The last part seems to becoming an issue in Foxborough. The McCourtys have been outspoken throughout the process and over the weekend Jason had some stinging criticism for the league while Devin was not on the practice field Saturday and was listed as questionable for the game with a nor injury related designation. The players had the option to skip what figured to be a trying season before camp began. A league-high eight Patriots took that option, including mainstays Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Brandon Bolden and Marcus Cannon. Now it seems some might be rethinking their choices. But as difficult and scary things have been thus far, nothing has happened that could truly be deemed expected. Perhaps special teams captain Matthew Slater summed it up best: "We're trying to play football in the middle of a pandemic." In other words, the situation is far from ideal.
The Patriots raised some eyebrows when they decided to use the franchise tag on guard Joe Thuney, and it's hard to argue that the offensive line has been a true strength of the team through the first month. But those who felt that $14-plus million for a guard seemed rather steep have pointed toward the play of rookie sixth-round picks Mike Onwenu and Justin Herron. Both have played well and earn much less than Thuney, who also has been his exceptional and durable self. While the play up front figures to continue to be strong, it's not too early to start looking ahead to 2021. Onwenu is particular has been outstanding, playing both guard and tackle and proving valuable on both the left and right sides. If Thuney winds up leaving as a free agent, which is certainly possible given the large contract he will command, Onwenu could slide right into his spot at left guard. That is if the coaches don't feel he'd be better suited to fill the right tackle position.
Cannon could return and fill the latter role next season but it's also possible that he's played his last game as a Patriot. Onwenu performed quite well at both spots, and even served as a third tight end frequently in the first couple of weeks. Herron stepped in and played well at right tackle against Kansas City, perhaps putting him in line to earn that role next season should Cannon and current starter Jermaine Eluemunor leave. It seems the Patriots will have no shortage of options moving forward after enjoying what appears to be an excellent draft restocking the depth up front.
Will Dak Be Back?
Anyone watching the Giants-Cowboys game saw the horrific ankle injury that Dak Prescott suffered. He reportedly underwent surgery Sunday night and his season is over. The question now? Is his Cowboys career over? The respect Prescott has not just among his Cowboys teammates but across the league was evident in the aftermath of the gruesome injury. The anguish on Prescott's face was matched in various NFL circles with well-wishes streaming in via social media in addition to teammates offering theirs before he was carted off. Giants offensive coordinator and former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett was among those on the field showing concern as well.
Prescott was putting up huge numbers over the first four-plus games, but his Cowboys team was lucky to be 1-3 as turnovers and poor defense routinely built large deficits that more often than not were too big to overcome. He is playing on the franchise tag and will be a free agent again come March. He expects to be among the highest paid quarterbacks in football, but is he truly one of the game's best? That's a much more difficult argument, and I'm not sure it's one that Prescott wins. For all of the numbers Prescott was posting, here's the only ones that matter: 1-3 in 2020 (before the injury) and 1-2 career in the playoffs. While his overall regular-season record is a solid 41-27, taking away the 13-3 mark he posted as a rookie when Dallas' offense was carried by Ezekiel Elliott and the running game, and that number drops to 28-24. He is a very good quarterback but Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes money should be reserved for the greats, and that's the kind of money Prescott is seeking. Currently I'd place at least nine quarterbacks ahead of Prescott including (in no particular order) Mahomes, Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Kyler Murray. A case could also be made for Josh Allen (still want to see more), Tom Brady and Cam Newton, and I'd certainly rather have promising youngsters like Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert at this point. But Prescott is a talented quarterback who has gained the respect of everyone around him. He's proven that he can put points on the board and gives his team a chance to win. Starting over at that position is a risky proposition, and the Cowboys could certainly do worse. It's easy to say that Jerry Jones should just pay the man, and he probably will, but it's a much more complicated issue than it seems.
Super Bowl Hangover
Everyone knows and understands the problems that often arise for teams that lose the Super Bowl. The short offseason, coupled with the disappointment of falling just short often create hard times the following season. But few could have envisioned what's currently going on in San Francisco. The Niners defense has been decimated by injuries and without stars such as Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas the group has lacked the toughness is showed in 2019. Miami ripped the Niners apart for 60 full minutes, giving San Francisco its third loss of the season, all coming at home. But the real bad news for Kyle Shanahan is the situation at quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo's ankle injury suffered in Week 2 set the offense back. Nick Mullens played well in a Week 3 win but was awful before getting benched in Week 4. C.J. Beathard replaced him before Garoppolo was ready for the Dolphins. He was yanked at halftime trailing 30-7 and Beathard mopped up. Now Shanahan has a problem on his hands, and it goes beyond the team's 2-3 start.
Garoppolo posted a 15.7 passer rating before getting benched, tossing a pair of picks in the final two minutes of the first half. The right ankle injury no doubt played a role in the performance, but it's not likely to get much better as long as he plays. And Shanahan can't feel too confident with the backup situation, although Mullens has shown flashes of ability in his limited time. So, the banged up Niners are reeling, and with games against the Rams and at New England on the horizon things may get worse for the defending NFC champs.
Some changes at the top after an interesting weekend in the NFL.
- Green Bay (4-0, 3rd last week) – Aaron Rodgers' Revenge Tour may have had the week off but the Packers rise due to some stumbles around them.
- Kansas City (4-1, 1st last week) – Patrick Mahomes' offense has been stagnant for three of the last four weeks and this time he wasn't able to come to the rescue.
- Baltimore (4-1, 2nd last week) – Speaking of less-than-impressive offenses, Lamar Jackson's lacks the dynamic element of a year ago. Turnovers allowed Baltimore to an easy 27-3 win but the Ravens offense didn't do much.
- Seattle (5-0, 4th last week) – Guilty as charged when it comes to not showing the Seahawks enough respect. Russell Wilson pulled another Houdini act Sunday night but this is a flawed team.
- Pittsburgh (4-0, 5th last week) – The Steelers defense showed some holes against Philly but Big Ben may have found a new favorite target in rookie Chase Claypool.