Two gloomy, football-less Sundays have passed since the finale of the 2020 NFL season. But the football calendar hasn’t turned to its new year, giving me an excuse to return back to what was a thrilling season and knock out my season in review. In four downs, let’s look back on 21 weeks of madness.
First Down: Top 2020 Storylines
- Tom Brady in Tampa
No storyline was as novel or scintillating as the sight of Tom Brady in the Buccaneers’ red and black after 20 years in New England. I had a pretty good read on the team, keeping the faith through some brutal performances, but watching this ultimate boom-or-bust squad boom against some of the league’s best teams in the playoffs was jarring. I loved to see Brady take the lead in the Brady vs. Belichick debate.
- Washington Wins NFC Least
Few divisions have been as bad historically as the NFC East. A Dallas Cowboys team that started 3-9 was in contention for the division crown on the last day. After the dust settled, a team that had gone through a name change, the release of its supposed franchise quarterback, and its head coach’s bout with cancer made it to the end as the Washington Football Team took the four seed in the NFC. I detest the WFT, but they were as good of a feel-good story as it gets in the NFL, and watching the sicko mode NFC East week after week in primetime matchups was hilarious.
- NFL Handles Coronavirus Pandemic
Hopefully, this is the only NFL season that will have to alter its schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic. The NFL season made it all the way to a Super Bowl through the pandemic — a huge feat in itself — though the season seemed to be teetering on the edge for a couple weeks. The Titans and Ravens saw their seasons shook up by outbreaks, while the Denver Broncos had to play with no quarterbacks for a game. The coronavirus wasn’t a fun part of the season, but will be an essential part of its narrative.
- Cleveland’s Playoff Return
Another playoff ascendant that plays in one of my team’s divisions, the Browns made it to the postseason for the first time since 2002. Stars like defensive end Myles Garrett and running back Nick Chubb produced big-time, but first-year coach Kevin Stefanski’s development of Baker Mayfield proved to be just as crucial. And while I did see an 11-5 season coming from the Browns, I could never have predicted their Wild Card beatdown of Pittsburgh and near upset of Kansas City. A historic year in Cleveland, but the Dawg Pound is certainly hungry for more next season.
- Josh Allen’s Ascension
Josh Allen joined the ranks of the elite in 2020, but more importantly to fans, he ascended to the top tier of entertaining players along with Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. Allen’s escapability and unorthodox plays turned incompletions into highlights. Allen has always been a gambler, but in 2020 he racked up the stats and wins to back it up. The Bills became the first non-New England AFC East winner since 2008, while Allen took his completion percentage up from 58.8 to 69.2 and his touchdown tally from 20 to 37. That is an unbelievable jump, and while offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and receiver addition Stefon Diggs can share in some of the credit, Allen emerged as a premier talent to watch going forward.
- Tank for Trevor
For a while, it looked like the Jets would end up with the number one overall pick. Head coach Adam Gase seemed to be on the hot seat before Week 1 kicked off and the quarterback combo of Sam Darnold and Joe Flacco was ineffective at best. But New York showed fight in the second half of the season, nearly knocking off the Raiders before beating two playoff teams in the Rams and Browns to finish the year 2-14. The Jets’ late wins allowed the Jags, who won in Week 1 and lost every game after that, to secure the top draft slot and be in position to draft transcendent Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. At times, the race to the bottom was just as rife with drama and as interesting as the race to the top.
- Philadelphia’s Disintegration
Just a couple years after the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory, the Eagles completed their fall from grace in 2020. Quarterback Carson Wentz looked nothing like the MVP favorite he was in 2017 and was benched for rookie Jalen Hurts. While Wentz at least got a trade to Indianapolis, coach Doug Pederson was fired at the end of the year. In a historically awful division, the Eagles finished last with a 4-11-1 record. The end couldn’t have been any messier or fitting— a Week 17 controversy in which Pederson pulled Hurts late in the game, presumably to hurt his team’s chances of winning and boost Philadelphia’s draft position. Quite a scene.
- Derrick Henry Bucks RB Trend
The Tennessee Titans bet on Derrick Henry to buck the running back decline of the past decade by handing him a massive contract, and Henry delivered. He somehow improved on his 2019 breakout, eclipsing 2,000 rushing yards and carrying the Titans to the AFC South title. Tennessee needed every one of those yards in some of their late games, including overtime battles against Baltimore and Houston. Henry was held in check in the Titans’ Wild Card loss to the Ravens, but he proved everything he needed to in an OPOY-worthy campaign.
- Rookie Quarterbacks Shine
Quarterback intrigue was a major theme in the 2020 NFL Draft, and when it came time for the rookies to hit the field, they delivered. Top pick Joe Burrow lived up to the hype in rebuilding Cincinnati and showed poise before a season-ending injury. Third pick Tua Tagovailoa electrified Miami and nearly made the playoffs. But the quarterback who proved the doubters wrong and ended up with the Rookie of the Year award was Justin Herbert of the Chargers. Herbie finished sixth in passing yards and 10th in passing touchdowns. Take out a couple late collapses out of Herbert’s control, and the Chargers are 10-6 and in playoff contention. The spotlight should continue to be on all three next season.
- New Threads, New Places
I paid special attention to the new aesthetics of the 2020 season, both the new stadiums (Los Angeles, Las Vegas) and uniform sets (Patriots, Chargers, Browns, Falcons, Buccaneers). The final verdict: the new stadiums rock, the Chargers, Browns and Bucs made the most of their visual identities with clean and endearing jerseys, and the Patriots and Falcons looked below-average in below-average seasons. I especially loved when it turned out to be a new uniform, Tampa Bay’s, that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in February.
Second Down: Season-End Quarterback Rankings
- Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Mahomes proved to be worth his $500 million contract in Year 1 and led the only 14-2 squad in the NFL.
- Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers enjoyed an MVP campaign in his age-37 season, including a career-high 48 touchdowns and a 13-3 record.
- Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
Watson flourished in an absolutely awful situation. If his trade request is granted, he could rocket up this list next year.
- Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Russnardo’s year was uneven, with MVP frontrunner highs and turnover-prone lows. For the Seahawks to take it to another level, they’ll have to build around Wilson, because he is certainly not the problem.
- Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brady took some time to acclimate to coach Bruce Arians’ downfield attack, but some of Brady’s throws down the stretch were absolute beauties. At age 43, he won Super Bowl MVP.
- Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Prescott played at an MVP level through the first five weeks before a season-ending ankle injury. There is no quit in the guy, and he has resoundingly taken the mantle from Zeke Elliott as the team’s centerpiece.
- Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Jackson topped 1,000 rushing yards from the quarterback position for the second straight year. His arm was inconsistent at times, but receiver upgrades and another year of development could be significant.
- Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
A Jackson-type playmaker, but with NFL-leading receiver Stefon Diggs in his arsenal. I want to see a second year of this type of production before boosting Allen into the top tier.
- Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Herbert looked like a veteran in Year 1, throwing for three touchdowns in six separate games and thriving on a sinking ship.
- Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Murray struggled in November and December with injuries as the Cards slid out of the playoff picture, but his best performances were All-Pro material. Year Three will be huge.
Third Down: Best Games
- Baltimore Ravens 47, Cleveland Browns 42 (Week 14)
A back-and-forth battle between AFC North foes with everything on the line. Lamar Jackson’s late-game heroics after an infamous locker room trip gave the Ravens life, and a Justin Tucker field goal sealed an all-time classic.
- Miami Dolphins 26, Las Vegas Raiders 25 (Week 16)
The Dolphins kept their playoff hopes alive and eliminated the Raiders with this Saturday primetime win. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s no-look deep pass to Mack Hollins helped the Fins overcome a late Nelson Agholor go-ahead score. With 23 seconds left, the Raiders had an 80% chance of victory and still lost.
- Miami Dolphins 34, Arizona Cardinals 31 (Week 9)
There was no load management in this one for young gunslingers Tua Tagovailoa (248 yards, 2 TD) and Kyler Murray (3 TD, 106 rush yards). While Murray had the more prolific night, Tua’s Dolphins controlled the fourth quarter to seal a win.
- Arizona Cardinals 37, Seattle Seahawks 34 (Week 7)
The Seahawks blew a 34-24 lead with three minutes left as Kyler Murray went full MVP mode. Each team had chances in overtime of this divisional battle, and it was only a Zane Gonzalez 48-yard field goal that prevented the season’s second tie.
- New Orleans Saints 30, Los Angeles Chargers 27 (Week 5)
Drew Brees faced his former team for likely the last time, though rookie Justin Herbert stole the show with four touchdown passes and almost won the game in regulation on a 64-yard score to Mike Williams. Herbie couldn’t muster any overtime magic as the Saints defended their home turf.
- Baltimore Ravens 20, Tennessee Titans 13 (Wild Card Round)
I had a really great time watching Lamar Jackson win his first playoff game while on the road, and Jackson’s touchdown glide from midfield was one of the best highlights of the season. The Ravens’ stomp on the Tennessee midfield logo also earned my seal of approval.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31, Green Bay Packers 26 (NFC Championship)
NFL fans finally got an Aaron Rodgers-Tom Brady playoff game, though few expected a combined four interceptions between the two legends. To the surprise of many, Tampa Bay’s defense had a strong showing in chilly Lambeau Field. Green Bay’s decision to kick a late field goal instead of going for the tie will be second-guessed for years.
- Kansas City Chiefs 23, Los Angeles Chargers 20 (Week 2)
After team doctors accidentally punctured starter Tyrod Taylor’s lung, rookie Justin Herbert came in and shined against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Charger defense deserved the lion’s share of the credit for holding Patrick Mahomes in check for most of the game, but Herbie finished with 311 passing yards in his debut. If not for Harrison Butker field goals to end regulation and overtime, Herbie would have had a career-opening victory for the ages.
- Dallas Cowboys 40, Atlanta Falcons 39 (Week 2)
The first half could not have been more agonizing as the Cowboys forgot to hold onto the football, but Dak Prescott rallied the offense to overcome a 28-10 deficit and pull within striking range of the Atlanta Falcons. Prescott’s 450 yards ignited the comeback, but Greg the Leg emerged as the hero late with a miraculous onside kick recovery and a game-winning 46-yard field goal.
- Arizona Cardinals 32, Buffalo Bills 30 (Week 10)
Any game that ends in a Hail Mary (or “Hail Murray”) is an instant classic, but this wild duel between two upstart franchises and their young quarterbacks had much more to offer than its ending. The Cardinals let the game slip away in the second, but Kyler Murray’s decision to chuck it to the end zone and give All-World receiver DeAndre Hopkins a chance paid off in a last-second home win.
Fourth Down: 2021 Storylines
- Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson Trade Talks
Patrick Mahomes is in Kansas City for at least the next decade and Aaron Rodgers seems content enough to play the last years of his prime in Green Bay, but the two next-best quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson, might start next season in new jerseys (or maybe even New Jersey). Watson has played at an All-Pro level in a dumpster fire of a situation in Houston and would make any team that trades for him a Super Bowl contender. Wilson has been a playoff regular with Seattle and hasn’t expressed strong desires to get out of the Northwest, but the Seahawks have done little to build an adequate supporting cast for this annual MVP candidate. A move by either would be seismic.
- Dak Prescott’s Free Agency
I hate this headline so much because the Cowboys should have made a deal with Dak Prescott three years ago and saved so many people so much anxiety and themselves a fair bit of money (though Stephen A. might be out of a job). The most boring outcome is that the Cowboys pay Dak an exorbitant amount to play under the franchise tag. Otherwise, it’ll be either my best- or -worst case scenario — Dak takes a four or five year deal or he departs for free agency. I’m already nervous.
- Receiver Movement
One of the key takeaways from the 2020 season — the impact of a star receiver. Stefon Diggs was a major part of Josh Allen’s resurgence, while DeAndre Hopkins made Kyler Murray’s sophomore campaign a lot easier. Will contenders take note and pay up for a talented class of free agent options that includes Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson and JuJu Smith-Schuster? For teams like Baltimore, Indianapolis and San Francisco, another big name on the perimeter could signal serious Super Bowl contention.
- Draft Quarterback Influx
The first round of the draft will be fascinating for its influx of potential MVPs at the quarterback position. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is the clear-cut number one pick for Jacksonville, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess. BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance will be in the running for top-five picks, while Alabama’s Mac Jones could move up into the middle of the first round. This should be the most exciting draft class since Baker, Allen and Jackson in 2018, and that class is already on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
- Will Rams’ All-In Efforts Prove Fruitful?
Like the Titans in the AFC, the Rams seem insistent on going against the current and the conventional wisdom. While Tennessee said no to Tom Brady and handed a big paycheck to a running back, Los Angeles has been sending first-round picks across the league every year for win-now pieces. New quarterback Matthew Stafford is the newest addition to a team that surprised many with a run to the Divisional Round. Could the trifecta of Stafford, coach Sean McVay and stud lineman Aaron Donald overcome the Rams’ lack of depth and young talent? I’m doubtful, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the best team in L.A. is the other one sharing SoFi Stadium.
- Post-Brees life in New Orleans
Drew Brees’ retirement isn’t set in stone, but all signs seem to point for a new starting quarterback in New Orleans for the first time since 2005. The question is, who will it be? Taysom Hill has worked his way from utility guy to Brees backup, while former No. 1 pick Jaboo Winston also has his eyes on the job. Coach Sean Payton doesn’t want to squander a talented roster with terrible quarterback play, and eventually he’ll have to commit to one guy that he trusts to take the Saints back to the playoffs. Or does he?
- Lamar Jackson’s Year Four
Fine, I have more of an interest in Lamar Jackson’s development than the regular NFL fan. But how could you not be fascinated by a 24-year old player who has already rushed for two 1,000-yard seasons, made the playoffs three times and won a unanimous MVP. Jackson’s passing game will be a focus of Year Four and is the formula for Baltimore bridging the gap between them and Kansas City.
- Still Tua Time in Miami?
For all of the talk about rookie Tua Tagovailoa as the franchise’s savior, you would have thought the love would have bought him a nice little grace period. Instead, the Dolphins go 10-6 and talk of Tua being shipped out to Houston is all over the place. The Dolphins’ utilization of Tagovailoa was erratic in the second half of his rookie year, with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick coming in late in games to provide a spark, or something like that (you’ll have to ask the Fins coaches on that one). The lefty passer has plenty of talent, but Miami seems focused on making the most of its present and won’t rule out any options to improve themselves.
- Year Ones Loom Large for New Coaches
When will it settle in that Urban Meyer is an NFL head coach? Will he even last a year in Jacksonville, one of the most toxic franchises in the league? The Jets’ Robert Saleh and the Lions’ Matt Campbell are in similar unenviable positions in their first years at the helm, though expectations won’t be sky high immediately. And don’t even get me started on David Cullen in Houston. Brandon Staley with the Chargers is my pick to have the most immediate success — just imagine a sophomore Herbert with the Los Angeles defense at full power. I’ll also have my eye on Mike McCarthy, who in his first year saw his team ravaged by injuries.
- A Post-Covid NFL World
I believe the worst is behind the NFL in terms of global pandemics, and 2021 should mark a return to some of the norms of NFL life. Fan attendance should return in the fall after a hiatus in multiple stadiums and will be a major factor once more. I’d also expect a return to form for training camps and the preseason. But the NFL might also change some practices for what they perceive to be the better, such as limited journalistic access and the use of virtual meetings. Either way, the NFL should look forward to a safer and more predictable season.
What to look for from me in the months to come
I wrote plenty about the 2020 NFL season, from my 20 Storylines NFL Preview to my 17 Read Option Columns to this Season in Review column. The NFL content on this site won’t be as frequent as during the season, but keep your eye out for a couple fun pieces I hope to post soon. I’ll probably run back my State of the Ravens and State of the Cowboys pieces (spoiler: I’m optimistic on both) and will review free agency and the draft. I am hoping to dive deep into the NFL Draft given the loaded class of quarterbacks and am aiming for another eight-person Mock Draft, one of my favorite parts of last offseason. A couple new ideas are in the works too — a post-mortem of my senior year 20-page essay on Jerry Jones from two years later as well as a “Franchise Functionality” ranking of some sort. Thanks for reading and I hope you find ways to fill those Sunday afternoons!