At long last, an NFL Sunday is upon us.
The wait for the season opener ended Thursday night with the Kansas City Chiefs' 34-20 win over the Houston Texans, and Sunday’s slate of games will bring the first opportunity to see the majority of the league and answer some of the burning questions this season will pose.
Here are four of the biggest storylines going into the season:
Tom Brady’s signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the most notable example, but several veteran quarterbacks swapped jerseys this offseason and are set to make debuts with new teams.
Brady’s departure from New England after two decades opened the door for Cam Newton to take over as the Patriots' starting quarterback. Philip Rivers left San Diego for the starting gig with the Indianapolis Colts and Teddy Bridgewater went to the Carolina Panthers. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota both took backup jobs elsewhere, with Winston in New Orleans and Mariota playing for the Las Vegas Raiders.
And of course Nick Foles is with the Chicago Bears as a backup after things soured quickly with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Brady is at the helm of what figures to be an explosive offense with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at receiver and O.J. Howard at tight end. The 43-year-old has shown signs of decline in recent years, so it will be interesting to see if he has enough arm strength and athleticism to make things work. It’s also worth noting this is the first time he’s had to learn an offense from scratch since Y2K. Especially with the coronavirus-altered offseason, it will be interesting to see how Brady looks running coach Bruce Arians' offense.
Meanwhile, the Patriots insist they’re not missing the quarterback who brought them six championships. Coach Bill Belichick has been effusive in his praise of Newton, who is trying to rejoin the ranks of elite quarterbacks after injuries cost him last season and hobbled him in 2018.
Getting to Week 1 seemed like a dubious proposition this time last month, but the NFL contained the potential spread of the coronavirus well enough during training camp. The NFL and NFLPA announced last Tuesday that there were just five positive coronavirus tests out of the 44,510 tests administered to a total of 8,349 players and team staff between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5.
The next challenges will include mitigating risk with teams traveling and sharing a field with opponents instead of just teammates. There’s also the uncertainty surrounding the long-term implications of catching the virus.
Outside of that, the season will look entirely different from anything before because of the pandemic. Some stadiums will have a limited number of fans, while others will rely completely on pumped-in crowd noise to compensate for empty stands.
There’s a good chance of sloppy play and possibly low-scoring games because of the cancellation of preseason games and OTAs. Rookie minicamps were also canceled, which might lessen the effectiveness of this year’s first-year players. New head coaches have lost valuable time teaching their schemes, so continuity at head coach and quarterback may be more important than ever.
Extra playoff spots
Somewhat lost in all the coronavirus concerns was the implementation of a new collective bargaining agreement. The new CBA brought plenty of changes, but the one that will become most obvious this season is the immediate expansion of the playoffs from 12 teams to 14. Each conference will get a third wild-card team, which means more teams will be in the mix later in the season.
It will be interesting to see how this changes the response to the slow start a handful of teams will undergo. In the past, an 0-2 start was often too deep a hole for a team to overcome in pursuit of a playoff berth, but the third wild card team should give teams stumbling out of the gate a lifeline.
It will also have a major impact on the playoff seeding. Only the top seed in each conference will enjoy a bye week during the wild-card round of the playoffs, with the No. 2 seed now having to play the No. 7 seed instead of getting a bye week like in the past. This will make the final couple weeks of the season more meaningful, with teams jockeying for the top seed and the week off that comes with it.
Will there be another QB ascension?
Each of the last two seasons has featured breakout star quarterbacks claiming the MVP award and going to the front of the new generation of signal-callers. In 2018, it was Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his 50-touchdown season by way of off-platform throws, extended plays, and weird arm angles. Last year, it was Lamar Jackson’s turn, leading the Baltimore Ravens after combining the all-world athleticism he flashed as a rookie with a newfound accuracy and patience from inside the pocket.
Is there a young quarterback this year who can follow suit? There are a few candidates, including Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. He was the first pick in the 2019 NFL draft and had a promising rookie season, although it wasn’t dominant.
Like Mahomes, Murray uses a baseball background to his advantage with an ability to use his arm strength even when his feet aren’t set. Like Jackson, Murray can use his athleticism to either extend plays or to make people miss in open space.
Other breakout candidates include Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock, New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, and Washington’s Dwayne Haskins. Lock has an explosive offense around him, with Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and KJ Hamler at receiver.