Top 5 Storylines of the 2020 NFL Season
With the NFL season coming to a close and the off-season heating up, let’s reflect on what made the 2020 NFL season so special. Every year there are exciting games and spectacular plays but those are fleeting moments; what makes each NFL season so special are its inspiring storylines. These stories are what we will remember in the distant future, not the games or plays but the stories that shaped the season’s identity.
5: Allen ascends to greatness
Quarterback Josh Allen was picked seventh overall in the 2018 NFL Draft and started from the second game of his rookie season, leading the Buffalo Bills to playoff berths in each of his first three seasons.
Very little credit is given to Allen for his team’s success in his first two seasons however, and deservingly so. Allen threw for 2,074 yards, 10 touchdowns and a 53% completion percentage in 2018 and 3,089 yards, 20 touchdowns and a 59% completion percentage in 2019. It’s common for quarterbacks to get off to slow starts but Allen’s raw skill set and poor accuracy didn’t seem to be translating well to the NFL. However, everything changed in 2020.
“Quite frankly [Allen’s ascension] was remarkable. Going into the season the hope was that he was going to take the next step to become a good to slightly above average NFL quarterback but, while making those steps, he became one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and certainly the face of the franchise,” said sports director of ABC Buffalo Matt Bove.
In 2020, Allen threw for 4,544 yards, 37 touchdowns and a 69% completion percentage. Whereas in his first two seasons, the Bills’ defense carried Allen to the playoffs, in 2020, Allen nearly carried his team to the Super Bowl.
“He’s a top five quarterback. I think he solidified himself in that group and he still has some untapped potential,” said Bove.
4: Smith leads WFT to win NFC East
For the fifth time in NFL history, a team with a losing record made the playoffs. Before the season, fans of NFC East rivals Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys had dreams of the Super Bowl but those dreams were quickly crushed, creating an opening for the Washington Football Team (WFT) to make the playoffs. WFT ended the season with a lackluster 7-9 record but still greatly exceeded expectations by making the playoffs.
WFT’s obscure and inspiring journey began before the NFL season even kicked off when their stadium’s sponsor, FedEx, released a letter requesting that the franchise change their nickname from the “Washington Redskins.”
“As someone who’s been a fan of this team for a long, long time I think it was overdue for a number of reasons,” said producer of the Fan 106.7’s “Grant and Danny” Thomas Pleiman. “The bottom line is that, even though it never appeared to me that the name came from a mean-spirited place in the organization, enough people view it as being a derogatory term that [a change was necessary.]”
Even once the organization determined their name, WFT continued making headlines for a variety of non-football reasons. In August, first year head coach Ron Rivera was diagnosed with cancer but continued coaching while receiving chemotherapy treatment during the season. He received his final treatment on Oct. 26.
Despite Rivera’s heartening story, it may not have been the most inspiring on his own team. In 2018, quarterback Alex Smith suffered a severe compound fracture, breaking both his right tibia and fibula. After being rushed to surgery, he was infected with a bacteria that not only threatened his football career but also his life; after 16 more surgeries and two years of rehab, Smith was healthy but his football career was still very much in doubt.
After atrocious play from Dwayne Haskins and an injury to Kyle Allen, Smith was WFT’s last hope. With a 2-6 record, usually all hope would’ve been lost but the division lead was well within reach at 3-4-1, leaving a glimmer of hope for Smith and his team to make the playoffs.
“When [Smith] wasn’t in there, they were losing and then they put him in and they started winning. It felt like a movie. This kind of thing doesn’t happen: where a guy comes from near death to bring a team to the playoffs,” said Pleiman.
Smith was named AP Comeback Player of the Year on Feb. 6, prompting Pleiman to add, “they should name Comeback Player of the Year after him.”
Though WFT was eliminated from the playoffs after just one game, this season will go down in history.
“It’s in the short list of the best season that this team has had in the last 30 years,” said Pleiman.
3: Browns make playoffs for first time since 2003
From 2003 to 2019, the Cleveland Browns had a 69-181-1 record with one winning season. In 2020, for the first time in my lifetime, the Browns made the playoffs.
“I’m from Cleveland and I’ve covered sports here for 40 years and, except for basically the 1980s when they had Bernie Kosar, there hasn’t been a ton of success, and especially in the past 20 years since the Browns returned from Baltimore. So this year was a breath of fresh air,” said sports director of Fox Cleveland John Telich.
In 2020, the Browns finished with an impressive 11-5 record and, if it hadn’t been for Lamar Jackson magic and nearly their entire receiving corps missing a game due to COVID, they very easily could’ve been 13-3. Though their roster is very talented, Telich thinks the success starts with the team’s culture.
“[The coaches and general managers of the past 20 years] never seemed to make the right decisions: never stuck with their plan, always gave up and tried something new. This plan has worked because they have a talented young coach in Kevin Stefanski, they have a bright young football mind in [general manager] Andrew Berry and there's no controversy or backstabbing: no drama.”
Making the playoffs and finishing with a winning record is a triumph for any city but the pride is even more exaggerated in Cleveland.
“[The Browns this season were] refreshing to not just cover, but also to [watch] as someone from this area. For our many fans that have been loyal through all the bad times, it's been great to see [the Browns] have the success that they’ve had,” said Telich.
Once the Browns made the playoffs, they were pinned up against their rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers who had consistently bested them for the past 20 years.
“[The Browns] went after the Steelers in their own house. They didn't make any mistakes. It was the Steelers that were kind of doing the ‘Browns kind of stuff’ that they had been doing for the past 20 years or so. The Steelers were committing those types of [penalties] and throwing the ball away or getting intercepted and the Browns were taking advantage,” said Telich.
Once the Browns beat the Steelers in the playoffs, they would continue on to lose to the Chiefs by a score of 22-17. Their victory over the Steelers however served as a symbol to Browns fans that a new era is under way.
2: Brady adds a seventh ring in a new city
On Feb. 7, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were crowned Super Bowl Champions in a blowout win over the Kansas City Chiefs by the score of 31-9.
Prior to 2020, like the Browns and WFT, the Bucs were a struggling franchise. Since 2009, the Bucs had finished last in their division for all but three seasons, two of which they finished a still disappointing third.
“[I covered University of South Florida] so I know a thing or two about covering a bad team. Generally, when you’re covering a good team, people are more willing and inclined to talk and it makes for, not only a more pleasant gameday atmosphere, but also a more pleasant working atmosphere for somebody covering them,” said Tampa Bay Times Buccaneers reporter Joey Knight.
The Bucs’ turnaround was hasty: going from an offense leading the league in interceptions to a team taking the Lombardi trophy to its hometown. It all started when quarterback Tom Brady signed with the Bucs on March 20. Not often does such a great quarterback switch teams but Brady liked what he saw on the Bucs and headed South to test if he could bring success to a struggling organization (spoiler: he did.)
“[Getting to cover Brady] was a privilege and an honor. I was born in Tampa so to say that I was able to, not only cover this Super Bowl, but also the Super Bowl was a privilege,” said Knight.
Tampa Bay residents are getting used to successful sports in their city. All in their respective 2020 seasons, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, the Tampa Bay Rays lost in the World Series, and Brady and the Bucs completed what was one of the best years ever for a city’s sports teams.
“[Having three good teams in one year] is pretty unprecedented. I did a story on this a few months back and there are very, very few major sports cities that can boast the run and success that Tampa’s on right now,” said Knight.
Though a lot more went into winning it all in 2020, most of the credit belongs to Brady. There’s no telling when the 43-year-old will hang it up but for now, he can still clearly win and, so long he’s in Tampa, the Bucs will annually be in Super Bowl contention.
1: COVID-19 wreaks havoc in NFL
Like most things in 2020, COVID-19 defined the NFL season. There were certainly inspiring stories but, like the national news, COVID persisted in dominating NFL headlines.
“[I’d give the NFL’s management of COVID] like a C+,” said columnist for woodypaige.com Kevin Kissner. “To me none of the rules made sense, it felt like they were changing every week.”
Nevertheless, all 256 games were played within the standard 17 weeks and no lives were lost as an expense which is objectively an impressive achievement.
“They handled it as best they could. There was no playbook on how to deal with this,” said host of Nashville Sports Radio’s “Millennial Sports Mornings” Zach Williams.
In the beginning of the NFL season, while cases were down nationally, COVID didn’t affect NFL scheduling at all. On Sept. 24, however, a severe outbreak began that would spread amongst 23 players and staff members within the Titans organization. It was still early in the season so the NFL was able to maneuver the schedule later on to accommodate for postponing the Titans’ week 4 contest. Though the game was postponed, all the Titans beat COVID and the team would go on to make the playoffs.
“The Titans did a good job working with the officials for the NFL to try to make sure everything got fixed. I think when you look at how it worked out, that they got through the season, they did the right stuff and as best they could. Cases still happen, but they figured out a way to [make it through the season],” said Williams.
Though there were looming concerns about scheduling logistics and player safety, another component of COVID affecting the NFL was fairness. In week 12, the Broncos were forced to start practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton at quarterback since all their quarterbacks were ruled out as they were deemed “high risk close contacts.”
“It’s bad for the product, to put a practice squad wide receiver out there to start a game for an NFL team, but when other teams and players are testing positive, none of the other teams were really getting punished for it. It kind of felt like the NFL was coming after the Broncos,” said Kissner. “Almost all of us in Denver thought the game should be pushed back at least an extra day or two.”
Regardless of what team you root for, a lot of the NFL’s choices were controversial and potentially harmful to their players’ health.
“I thought they could’ve handled it a lot better. I just felt like they tried to force everything into this 17 week but they could’ve spread out the games. I just don’t think the NFL is really scared of COVID,” said Kissner.
That said, the NFL provided an opportunity to opt-out even if a player didn’t have any underlying health conditions but they didn’t feel safe. There’s no consensus on how to handle a pandemic and however the NFL went about conducting a season, they were sure to get lots of pushback.
“This was all written up on the fly. We witnessed history and how these organizations, whether they were a multi-billion dollar organization like the NFL or a mom and pop shop, we all had to go through it the same way and figure it out on the fly,” said Williams.
The strategy that they chose may have been riskier than some may prefer but they safely got through the entire season and provided plenty of good stories for Americans to distract themselves with in the toughest of times.