How will we look back on this year in sports when it’s over?
How will hockey and basketball titles won in bubbles be categorized? How will a baseball title won on a microwaved schedule be assessed? How will a college football champion be looked at after being crowned amid a season marked by unequal rules across the sport’s landscape? And how will this year’s Super Bowl winner be categorizing in pro football’s pantheon of champions?
These questions aren’t new. We’ve all asked them for months. Talk shows have wasted hours on them.
And the guys playing those all games aren’t walled off from them either. Which is why that very subject has already been addressed by the coach of the NFL’s best team.
“I don’t think there’ll be an asterisk at all,” Steelers quarterback Josh Dobbs said, over his cell on Tuesday night. “I mean, there won’t be. Coach [Mike Tomlin] always says it, The Lakers won in the bubble. In 10 years, no one’s gonna care. They’re just gonna say, the Lakers won in 2020. I think it’s the same with us. And it’ll definitely show more of your mental toughness if you’re able to come out victorious in this environment. So yeah, I think it’d mean a lot. Any time you win a championship, it takes sacrifice.
“And this year definitely would exhibit that. So being able to win a championship in this environment would be special. That’s what we’re working toward, in keeping that big picture in mind as we’re making the right decisions and preparing ourselves to play. We just gotta keep the ball rolling in the right direction.”
The Steelers have another big hurdle in front of them Sunday, with the Ravens coming to town for a game that could all but put away the AFC North for Pittsburgh. A game that, appropriately enough for 2020, has been bumped three days from its prime Thanksgiving night time slot because of positive COVID-19 tests in Baltimore.
But as Dobbs said, the biggest hurdle may be the one facing every team. All 32 of them have fought the COVID-19 fight through 11 weeks and, for the most part, the NFL has done all it’s needed to, to get the games played and keep the train on the tracks for Super Bowl LV to be played—where that champion will be crowned—on Feb. 7.
Still, getting here hasn’t been easy. And last Saturday, without much fanfare, the challenge for all teams intensified again, with the league ordering everyone into intensive protocols for the rest of the season. To those who weren’t paying attention, this might not seem like a big deal. For the players and coaches you watch on Sunday, though?
Rest assured, it is.
It’s time for the Week 12 GamePlan and we’re starting here with a scheduling note: You’re getting this column a day early, and we’ll be giving you the mailbag on Friday, after all the Thanksgiving action. And so inside this Wednesday column, you’ll find …
• A look at the Tom Brady/Bill Belchick split, three months into their first season apart.
• An underrated factor looming over the 2021 job market in the NFL.
• Power rankings!
But we’re starting with how this weird season is about get … weirder.
You may not know what it means for NFL teams to go into “intensive protocols.” So here’s a quick rundown of what it means for the guys on the ground.
1) No in-person meetings, if they can’t be held outdoors or in a fieldhouse.
2) Only grab-and-go food service, no seating in the cafeteria.
3) No in-person contact between coaches and players away from the facility.
4) Players can only enter the physical facility for treatment.
5) Lifting can happen, but with limits on the number of people in the weight room (10 players, five staff).
6) Players have to wear masks or Oakley face shields for practices and walkthroughs.
7) Prior day’s tests must be processed before players can come in.
Now, when the trigger was pulled on going into this protocol over the weekend, it wasn’t foreign to the great majority of teams—28 of the NFL’s 32 had already been in it at one point or another earlier in the year, due to COVID-19 concerns, and 16 teams had been in it more than once.
Still, the above signifies a pretty substantial change from even the standard protocols that teams have had to adhere to since August. And it was with that in mind that on Tuesday, I set out to try and humanize what players will be facing over the next six weeks under the new rules. To do it, I talked to Dobbs, Bills LT Dion Dawkins and Broncos OG Dalton Risner.
I figured those guys would be interesting for a few reasons. One, they’re all young enough that, to put it bluntly, it really stinks to lose your social life. Two, they all have been in the league long enough to know what it looks like otherwise. And three, all their teams have been in the protocol previously. I also thought having offensive linemen would be good (because chemistry is so important at their positions), and a backup quarterback would be key (because they have to prepare hard, knowing they probably won’t play).
The good news is the three guys were great. The bad news? What they told me shows how tough this is going to be on guys going forward. Here’s what I learned …
Your home office setup is key. Dobbs said to me that the Steelers, for their part, and as a cold-weather team, aren’t even messing around with the thought of setting up outdoor meeting space or retrofitting their indoor practice facility. So for those players (and this is the case for a bunch of teams), it’s two to three hours on the field, and the rest of the workday is at home. Which means your environment at home is a real factor.
“I sit at a table, a desk, wherever I am, get my iPad set up, as if there’s a coach in front, presenting at the meeting,” the 25-year-old said. “I have my notes out, just as I would if we were in the complex. So I think when you approach it from that standpoint, it’s easier to stay locked and focused into it. Of course, if you’re doing anything from your couch, the same intensity isn’t there. You’re not gonna have the same intensity just sitting in the couch, as you’re gonna have sitting upright, at a desk, with all your notes laid out, as you would if the world was normal. That’s been my trick. Nothing crazy, nothing too different.”
Dawkins, 26 and (like Dobbs) in his fourth NFL season, told me his setup is similar, with the trouble being, well, the same trouble a lot of us have run into the last eight months. He’s got a one-year-old at home—his daughter actually just turned one earlier this week—and, like all kids that age, she doesn’t have volume buttons.
“From learning your entire life in a classroom—from elementary school to middle school to high school to college to college ball and the NFL—to having to do everything through an iPad, it was just like, ‘Whoa, this is different, this is gonna take a second to get used to,’” he said. “We adjusted quickly, but it was drastic at first. … I’d lock myself in the office space, so the only thing I could hear is [the coach]. And that was still hard, having a baby, you could still hear the baby crying and normal life going on, a door away instead of a drive away.”
House rules. Risner had his girlfriend move in with him from Kansas City this year, and the Colorado native has two little brothers under his roof, too. And Risner loves having them, but also has them understanding there have to be rules, given the requirements of his job.
“We have house rules,” he said. “We don’t have anyone getting on a plane. If you’re gonna be around other people, we ask that you try to have your mask on. If you feel like you’ve been around too many people, like my brother, like he was around too many people at work, so we had him wear his mask for a couple days just to be careful. I’m not an expert on this, but I don’t want my team to get it, and I want to continue to be able to play for my team, get paid, and have a great season.
“So it’s just like, Hey, try to stay away from people. I know that work’s gonna be mandatory, you gotta go to work and make the money that you need. No one’s going out other than that.”
Dawkins’s setup has been similar—really keeping his off-site contact to those living with him, his girlfriend and daughter. But he’s made some exceptions, with a pretty significant caveat. He’s actually set up his very own pre-screening process for family. “Get yourself a COVID test, isolate, then come on over,” he explained, then adding, “Thanksgiving is gonna be the first time I’ve seen my mom since the offseason.”
The guys are used to masks, but some things are still weird. And that’s very apparent in the one place that the players can still gather—on the field. At practice, wearing masks or the Oakley shields can complicate things.
“The face shields, it’s just different, weird, they’re just plastic face shields that sit on your face mask,” Dawkins said. “So if you could think of a face mask, some of us wear visors that cover up the top half of our helmets. And then we have these plastic face shields that are covering the bottom half. So basically, a giant plastic shield. So from having the face shield on, it fogs up the actual visor, which is protecting your eyes. It’s a hard deal.”
It’s also harder to breathe, Dawkins said, and gets sticky and wet, and, in his words, “Literally, you’re fighting a whole new method of playing ball from what you’ve been playing your entire life.” Another thing that’s weird: Wearing masks on the sideline, which will be mandated starting this weekend for everyone not in between the white lines. Dobbs, as a backup, has been doing it all year.
“Yeah, that’s so weird. That is so weird. That will never get normal,” Dobbs said. “You kinda forget, we all do sometimes, we get into normal football situations, and then you have someone tap you on the shoulder and say, Hey, pull your mask up, or, Hey, wear your mask. And you feel like, Yo, come on now, we all get tested every single day, we have all the regulations in place, I got wear a mask on the field? You understand why you have to do it. It’s still weird to be on the field and have a mask over your face.”
Relationship building is tough. During a normal year, guys might go for dinner on a Wednesday or to the bar on a Friday and, as is the case in any workplace, relationships take on a different tone and tenor away from the office. All of those shots to build meaningful bonds? They need to be replaced too.
“We can’t even be in a team meeting together, man,” Risner said. “We haven’t been in a full team meeting with all of us next to each other since last year—I miss that. I miss being able to all be together, and not on a Zoom call, to watch film. To laugh, talk to each other, look at each other, see body language, be in there with our coaches, we never got to do any of that. We barely have enough to do offensive meetings together, we have to be 10 feet apart in the indoor facility, and we’re listening to our coach and he’s hard to hear, or we’re with Vic Fangio on a Zoom call. …
“We do things right, we follow the intensive protocol like we’re supposed to. It’s just tough. A coach sees you—you’re talking to your QB for two minutes, and your trackers are on, and he says, Hey, you gotta get away, we can’t have that. So you leave that conversation. There are so many conversations we can’t have, team camaraderie building we can’t do this year because of the virus. … I’d say that’s the biggest challenge.”
“That’s the biggest thing that’s missing, you hit it on the head,” Dobbs said. “Just trying to value the actual time I’ve gotten to spend with my teammates has been the main thing I’ve done. When I’m in the complex, trying to maximize that time with them, rather than having your head down in your iPad or your phone at your locker, maximizing the time with them, making the most out of it. Instead of getting to see them all day, you only get to see them for two hours now. So you’ve gotta make the most of that time.”
Finding a way to keep your head about you. Time away from the facility in isolation, under the intensive protocols, goes way up. And since players can’t, say, go out to dinner, or to any sort of event, that adds up to a lot of idle hours. And that especially goes for guys like Dobbs, who live alone—he was waived by the Jaguars at the final cutdown, then claimed by his former team, the Steelers, and moved back to Pittsburgh on his own.
That, in turn, led Dobbs to find some non-football work for himself.
“I’ve been getting into music a lot, so I’ve been playing the piano a pretty good bit,” he said. “I’ve been working on an apparel company I wanna come out with, starting with hats, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with that. Those have been my getaways. I try to still make my time productive, so building my brand and learning a new skill have been two things I’ve gotten accustomed to.”
And then Dobbs said something that was echoed by all these guys: Players taking care of their own mental health is a pretty important piece of all this.
That, of course, isn’t to say there aren’t light moments. One that Risner mentioned was the mask that Denver linebacker A.J. Johnson wears around the facility. When he described it, I told him it sounded like Bane from Batman and he responded: “Just a huge mask on with those things that go out each side, holy cow, like Darth Vader.”
And having fun with it does help to take the edge off a little, which, again, is important, given the gravity of what everyone’s dealing with and the toll all of it’s taking.
“I think it’s definitely testing us, especially me personally,” Risner said. “Having to wear a mask and the trackers, and the possibility of getting fined if you don’t wear your mask or you are within contact of somebody with your tracker—the idea of getting it, somebody else giving it to you, or not being able to do anything other than football, having to just go home. It tests you in a lot of ways, man. It makes you rely on the little things for your own self-happiness. Man, I can’t tell you how many ways this has tested me.”
“It changes your process,” Dawkins added. “Guys find their own soothing tools. Football is high-intensity all the time. You have coaches yelling, you have people that are unhappy, you have to deal with different emotions every day, whether they’re happy, sad, mad, if we lost, if we won, there’s different ways of deal with things. Some guys bowl, some guys go to the movies, some guys shop, some guys go and get massages, some guys do different things.
Not being allowed to do those things, it’s a drastic change.”
One thing that everyone hopes won’t change is the crowning of a champion in February.
And assuming we get there, good luck trying to tell whoever makes it their title counts any less than it should.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers (10–0): As Mike Tomlin said, they aren’t perfect. But they’re really good, with a shot to get even better. And next up they’ll get a Ravens team that’ll potentially be undermanned, even with the game now moved.
2) Kansas City Chiefs (9–1): The Chiefs have won a bunch of different ways this year. On Sunday night, they did it the (relatively) old-fashioned way—they let Patrick Mahomes take the wheel. And, predictably, he drove them right through to a win.
3) New Orleans Saints (8–2): Last week in this space, we told you that the team around the quarterback was so good, that the identity of the QB in New Orleans may be a little less relevant than it is elsewhere. Did Sunday’s win over the Falcons prove that? I’d say you can both acknowledge that it did, and that Taysom Hill played pretty well in a challenging circumstance.
4) Los Angeles Rams (7–3): I’ll be honest—I struggled to find a team to put into this spot. It does, indeed, feel like there’s a dropoff after the top three. And maybe it’s recency bias to put the Rams here, since they’re literally the last team we saw win a game. But I do think the Rams are playing really complementary ball right now, and being solid in all three phases is usually a good starting point this time of year.
5) Indianapolis Colts (7–3): The Colts’ roster is much more talented than most people realize. The defense is fast all over the place, the offensive line (holding issues on Sunday notwithstanding) is stout, and there’s a deep group of skill players on hand. If Philip Rivers can keep playing like he did against the Packers, Indy could be a problem for a top-two seed in the divisional round.
THE BIG QUESTION
What do the struggles of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady mean?
My big takeaway now, with 11 weeks of evidence: They really were perfect for each other. And I know how that sounds, given things were strained the last couple years, but I think each guy brought out the best in the other.
Brady’s rare football mind, his ability to adjust on the fly and his toughness truly unlocked Belichick’s vision to build a tough, smart team, that could run a system and schemes with malleability to change its identity from week-to-week. And his willingness to take tough coaching enabled Belichick to run an unrelenting program that would play 60 minutes and be the NFL’s most consistent team on a weekly and annual basis.
Conversely, Belichick’s system was perfect for maximizing a quarterback who could think as fast as Brady could. Brady would rarely snap the ball into a bad play, and that’s because the scheme there gave him answers to just about everything. One example was audible on TV. Brady could call out the mike—that’s not the middle linebacker, as the Patriots do mike calls, it identifies the fifth rusher—which would often mean not having to keep an extra blocker in, which, in the end, would mean another skill player being part of a pass play. Also, as part of this, Brady was always getting smart receivers who’d be on the same page with him on option routes. All those things played to Brady’s strengths and made the Patriots’ offense the most difficult to prepare for in the NFL over a 20-year period.
I think the right answer here is the decidedly unsexy one. Both guys are less for having broken up. But to be sure, I ran this take by a couple guys who’ve worked there.
“I feel like Tom wanted a little bit more at the end,” said one. “He wanted to be consulted, he wanted to be in the loop. And I think it’s rightfully warranted because I personally think his skill set is still very much that of a starting QB. And I think he wanted more pieces to work with and he wasn’t going to get a big influx of talent in New England. So he left and he went somewhere with the personnel. I think what he’s found out now is that his input on the game plan and the scheme is much more important to his success.”
“I agree with all that,” texted a second. “BB’s struggles: Lost his best player that made others a lot better. All of the skills guys are lesser now. James White more of just a guy. N’Keal [Harry] just a big, slow target. Jules [Edelman] becomes ordinary. TB makes those guys so much better. TB’s struggles: It’s so hard for other teams to do EVERY single little thing that helps [the Patriots] be what they were. Other teams just don’t care as much or work as hard. TB probably has had MANY WTF? moments when a T wasn’t crossed or an I wasn’t dotted. He’s 43. The system around him needs to be HUMMING, so you can let him just drive the boat.”
Like I said, I don’t think this is overly complicated. There’s a reason they won six championships together. Which is to say the answer’s right there in the trophy case.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
How ownership situations could wind up affecting the job market in January.
It’s understandable if, at times, you might forget who calls the shots in the NFL. It’s the same person who calls the shots at your work: the person who writes the checks. So it is that the NFL’s 2021 coaching carousel remains pretty murky six weeks out.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes—there always are. But the state of ownership with a few of the league’s 32 teams could impact how and when decisions are made. Here are a few of those.
Atlanta Falcons: Owner Arthur Blank’s relationship with the league office, and president Rich McKay’s ties there too—and 345 Park’s hard work on diversity—have led to many believing the Falcons’ focus will be on minority candidates for either their GM job, their head coach job or both.
Detroit Lions: The Fords have generally shown a lot of patience with their coaches. But with control of the team being passed down now, from Martha Ford to daughter Sheila Ford Hamp, it’s hard to say in what form we’ll see changes after the year. The decisions on coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn are big ones, of course, and how Hamp handles them just six months or so into her time in charge will be interesting.
Denver Broncos: The ownership is in flux, and will probably remain that way with Denver having an exemption to keep the family in a trust until spring of 2022. The assumption is Brittany Bowlen—the team’s VP of strategic initiative—will get the team eventually, or it will be sold. Bowlen, for her part, has become an impactful leader for the team during the pandemic, leading the organization’s task force and working with Colorado’s governor. But that doesn’t mean there’ll be resolution to all the Bowlen family drama in the immediate future, which is one of a few reasons there almost certainly won’t be wholesale changes (some tweaking is possible) in 2021.
Houston Texans: Bob McNair had his issues, but he did show he could run a fairly stable organization. Things have been less level since son Cal took the reins from his late father in 2018. That, plus the rise of EVP of football operations Jack Easterby, has made many wonder if the Texans might have trouble attracting candidates who have options. That said, Deshaun Watson is a nice carrot for whoever might consider the GM or coach jobs there.
Jacksonville Jaguars: It seems likely a clean sweep of football operations is coming here. And so the involvement of co-owner Tony Khan, the son of Shad Khan, will be interesting moving forward. One reason the team resisted change last year was because the younger Khan was a champion for GM Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone.
New York Jets: The presidential election ensured that Woody Johnson’s time as ambassador to the U.K. is coming to an end. The question is how his reentry to the Jets organization and the NFL will work, and that one remains unanswered. Until now, changes have been on hold. Now that we know Woody will be back? It’ll be interesting to see, with the fate of a football operations staff that he didn’t hire at stake. Adam Gase is likely to be gone. What happens thereafter is tougher to figure.
THE FINAL WORD
Here’s hoping all our readers have a happy, healthy Thanksgiving with family, as tough as this year’s been on everyone. And I’ll say here that I’m thankful to have football in my life. The impact the sport’s had on me since I was five years old is immeasurable, and I’d say in a certain way, at certain points of my life, it really saved me from going the wrong way.
So you can be sure that I’m thankful we have it this year, and that we’ll have it Thursday.
Enjoy the games, everyone.