Analysis: NFL hopes for normality in 2021, starting at draft

By Barry Wilner

Maybe the lack of competitiveness in the Super Bowl was a good sign for the NFL.

After a year in which the challenges of playing a full and barely interrupted season provided more than enough drama, Tom Brady and Tampa Bay’s rout of the reigning champion Chiefs brought some ho-hum. The league would like nothing better than a return to normalcy in 2021— as much as that ever will be possible again.

“It’s too early to know what the 2021 season will look like, but the NFL will do its part to help our communities return to normal,” Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to fans. “We look forward to seeing you back at the games next fall, but in the meantime, thank you and stay safe.”

Some topics to consider as the league moves toward the opening of its ’21 business year in March with free agency:

NFL football commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at a press conference ahead of Super Bowl 55, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. Photo: Perry Knotts/NFL via AP


Goodell and Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, have indicated several of the COVID-19 protocols could remain even beyond the pandemic. Remote meetings and Zoom interviews, for example.

There’s also the question of getting players vaccinated.

Last month, the NFL and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a scientific paper regarding what was learned during the 2020 season.

“The learnings we describe in our paper talk about things like the types of exposures associated with a very high risk of transmission of the virus. Those exposures can occur anywhere,” Sills explained. “They’re not specific to football.

“And along the way, we learned how we can evolve our protocols to put in the maximum amount of safety for everyone involved, whatever that group environment may be,” he added. “Those are important lessons that we learned through our NFL experience, but can broadly inform the rest of society.”

The NFL Players Association is pushing for significantly reduced offseason programs, training camps and, as in 2020, no preseason games. As long as the coronavirus is a major issue, all of the NFL’s protocols and minimized workouts will remain in place.


The draft in late April is scheduled for the shores of Lake Erie at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s doubtful any full-scale events will happen there, though the league remains hopeful it won’t have to eliminate on-site presentations entirely, as it did in 2020 for Las Vegas.

Bringing up the question of whether the NFL can get any satisfaction for the Cleveland draft?

Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, speaks during a news conference on Oct. 15, 2019. The NFL had an overall test positivity rate from Aug. 1 through the end of January of 0.08%, well below the United States’ positivity rate and almost all the league’s markets. Photo: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee


Where will it land? Speculation has placed it at between $175 million and $185 million as the numbers crunching continues.

Wisely, the union and league negotiated a minimum cap for 2021, using future caps to make up for much of the shortfall from lost revenues this past season.

“I hate to talk more about the pandemic but I think the lingering impact of the pandemic on the National Football League,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said, “is the salary cap will have a big impact not only on the Chiefs but all 32 NFL franchises.

“I hope that by the time we get to the season we’re talking about largely full stadiums, but there’s no guarantees on that.”


With all of the financial negatives associated with the pandemic — nobody should be doing a GoFundMe for an NFL owner — it’s difficult to believe the league would put off the approved expansion of the schedule by one game. Any additional revenue streams before new media rights deals kick in would seem as logical as picking Brady to win a Super Bowl.

“It was a provision that was negotiated into the CBA with the players a year or so ago,” Hunt said. “I think it could happen as early as 2021; the league has not made an announcement on that but I know it’s something they are thinking about and working on.”

Adding one more regular-season contest, which would be an interconference matchup based on the previous year’s standings, could have offered the NFL an opportunity to truly expand its international presence. Every 17th game could have been played at a neutral site, particularly in the United Kingdom.

The coronavirus has put an end to such an idea, meaning the conferences will alternate hosting the extra game.

Going to 17 games could present quite a scenario next February should the Super Bowl be pushed back one week to accommodate the expanded schedule: The Beijing Olympics would be in full swing on game day.

Former Denver Broncos QB Peyton Manning holds Vince Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl 50. Manning was selected Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021. Photo: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey


David Baker, the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is predicting “the greatest football gathering ever” in Canton, Ohio, in August. Baker’s dream week would include the induction of not only the recently elected class of 2021 (including Peyton Manning), but the enshrinement of the class of 2020 and a special group of centennial selections. The pandemic forced cancellation of last summer’s inductions.

Given that there are nearly six months until the Hall of Fame festivities, this appears a logical candidate for a football event that resembles ones of the past. Baker is hopeful of having a full stadium for the exhibition game between the Cowboys and Steelers, too.

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