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ALWAYS PLAYING AWAY • The Mike Carlson Column

Football In The Time of Corona

Mike Carlson looks at Week One of the new and very different NFL season
Published on September 17, 2020

Patrick Mahomes Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. Photo: Ryan Kang/NFL

The National Football Season began as scheduled, and the first weekend proceeded without a coronavirus hitch. Only two positives had been registered among the 2,511 players that week, which was encouraging in terms of the face to face contact in which they would engage over the weekend.

The officials were wearing masks, prompting me to think, after watching the lack of calls for offensive holding (only 18 in the 16 games, as opposed to 82 in the 16 games of week one last season) and the same mess on pass interference, that bandit masks for referees was probably something the league should have thought of long ago. I also laughed out loud watching Tampa’s defensive coordinator Todd Bowles trying to keep his play chart over his mouth as he called the defensive signals into his headset microphone. Bowles, as it happened, was also wearing a face mask, and it would take a powerful lip-reader with X-ray vision to steal the call. Bowles recalled to me Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West, saying “how can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can’t even trust his own pants.”

There were fans in only two stadia in week one, by coincidence 21.8% of capacity in both cases. Kansas City saw 15,895 at Arrowhead for Thursday’s season opener in which the Chiefs easily disposed of Houston, and 14,100 were in Jacksonville to see Minshew Madness as the Jags upset the Colts. In the absence of fans, crowd noise “curated” by the league was pumped into the stadia, and TV used their own background noise. This led to Tony Romo noting that a play had ‘silenced the crowd’ and a slew of other comments, including the claim the announcers could ‘hear the Lions fans booing’.

In week two, there will be spectators at four of the sixteen games. Cleveland will allow 6,000 for Thursday night’s Ohio derby against Cincinnati. On Sunday, Miami will allow 13,000 fans and Indianapolis 2,500, while Dallas will accept fans socially distancing, but haven’t said how many. Owner Jerry Jones, sounding very much like Donald Trump’s pandemic control office, announced his Cowboys would “play it by ear”.

Trump was back in the football news when the Big Ten announced they would resume a limited football season on October 24th, assuming all goes well until then. Although the league’s press release made clear they had made this decision independent of any political advice, the President chimed in on twitter that he had been proud to ‘work with’ the conference to bring back football, which was no surprise and explained why he had so little time for the virus itself. More importantly for the NCAA, every special move college football takes to ensure players are kept safe is also another admission that its 'scholar athletes' are really just revenue-generating indentured servants. White House sources said Trump had offered the football players testing, which is nice if you can get it.

The biggest surprise of NFL week one was how good the quality of play was, considering the lack of practice time, and the unusual conditions. You could see some problems with the usual early-contact injuries: the Jets’ Le’Veon Bell, days after explaining he was lighter and in better shape than ever, went down with a hamstring tear. But in general, play was sharp considering the lack of contact scrimmages and exhibition games. This will likely impact the league’s desire to extend the season to 18 games, in return for dropping the number of ‘crucial pre-season games’, but that would be for profit, not player safety reasons: more controlled scrimmages and only one exhibition game would probably suffice even with a 16 game schedule.

The biggest event was Tampa Tom Brady leading the Bucs to New Orleans. Brady was a mixed bag in his first-ever non-Patriots start: obviously still needing to get on the same page with his receivers (the best of whom, Mike Evans, was also suffering from hamstring problems), get better play from his offensive line, and maybe get coach Bruce Arians to integrate the tight ends into the pass game more. The Bucs lost to the Saints; Brady (43) and Drew Brees (41) became the oldest pair of starting quarterbacks in NFL history, the previous record was held by Brett Favre (39) and Vinny Testaverde (44). Meanwhile Brady’s ex-Patriots beat Miami behind Cam Newton. They travel to Seattle for a tougher test, in which Bill Belichick (68) and Pete Carroll (69) will become the oldest pair of opposing coaches in NFL history. I wish someone had told me this was an old man’s game after all.

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