“I’m sure Roger and I will take at least a half an hour off after Sunday before we get back together to talk about the offseason,” Smith said here last week. “But what we’ve done has worked incredibly well.”
Once the league and the NFLPA get to work, they must address numerous topics: Will vaccination be mandatory for players? How many of the strict protocols regarding testing, mask-wearing, distancing and contact tracing will need to be kept in place? Will offseason programs for players be conducted remotely again, with no on-field practices? What will the salary cap figure be?
In short: Will the NFL of 2021 look significantly more normal than the NFL of 2020?
League leaders say there’s no way to know at this point.
“I don’t know when normal is going to occur again,” Goodell said last week. “And I don’t know if normal ever will occur. … I know this: We have learned to operate in a very difficult environment. We have found solutions. And we’ll do it again. That’s what we believe is the lesson for us this year. One of the most impressive things to me and meaningful things to me is hearing clubs and the NFLPA say, ‘Our relationship has never been stronger.’ The communication and the fact that we’re all working together as a team — I interpret that as the trust that’s built here — will help us going forward. It will be really the long-lasting legacy, I think, of this season, ultimately.”
The league and franchise owners must decide whether to implement a 17-game regular season in the fall, as they are empowered to do under the collective bargaining agreement completed with the players’ union early last year. The owners can put the 17-game season into effect at any point over the next few years, with an accompanying reduction in preseason games. It is widely expected that it will happen for the 2021 season, although Goodell did not commit last week to that.
“There’s still more work to be done on that,” he said.
The league already has called off the NFL scouting combine, at least in its traditional form in Indianapolis. Workouts for draft prospects are limited to the players’ on-campus pro days. Teams’ interviews with the players will be conducted remotely, and there will be guidelines for how medical information can be gathered.
The NFLPA would like to see the scaling back of on-field offseason practices continued, both for coronavirus-related and non-coronavirus-related reasons.
“We did things differently this year,” said Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter, the NFLPA president. “I know myself and many of my teammates and players across the league I talked to felt both physically better and mentally sharper at the end of the season. The amount of hours at the facility were down. The amount of reps were down. … Now it’s the point of sitting down with the league and talking to them about which of these changes we should move forward [with] because they are better for everybody involved.”
Smith said he believes there is a “high likelihood” that testing protocols for players will remain in place into the offseason. The league and NFLPA repeatedly have expressed support for nationwide vaccination efforts — Goodell wrote to President Biden last week to make all NFL stadiums available as vaccination sites for the public — while saying they would not attempt to jump the line on vaccine access for league personnel. Neither side has expressed a public position on whether vaccination will be mandatory for players.
The relevant issue, Smith said, is not so much what condition the NFL will be in by the fall, but what condition the country will be in.
“To think that we are going to be in a vaccine-neutral state in September is probably not the case,” Smith said. “We’ve got tremendous work to do in the country. And I think the goal should be to focus on where we need to be in the country. Hey, what we found out is we can fix football. And at the end of the day, let’s not forget: The vaccine’s great, [but] social distancing, wearing a mask, testing and contact tracing is the most effective killer of this virus, not the vaccine. So if we can get our heads around that like we’ve done in football, football will fix itself.”
The degree of progress on national vaccination efforts also could be a determining factor on how many fans will be allowed into NFL stadiums next season.
“There are things that we will work on,” Goodell said. “… We also will work with local health officials and medical experts to make sure that if we do have opportunities to bring fans back into the stands by next year, how do we do that safely? We were able to do that. I mentioned 1.2 million fans got to attend an NFL game this year safely. … So we’re proud of that, and we’re going to build on that.”
There are economic issues to be addressed after this season’s drop in revenue while games were played in empty or partially filled stadiums. The salary cap, calculated based on revenue, was $198.2 million this season. The league and union agreed, as part of their coronavirus-related deliberations before the season, that the salary cap for the 2021 season would not fall below $175 million, with some of the potential shortfall spread over future seasons.
The figure for the 2021 salary cap still must be determined through revenue calculations and negotiations between the league and union. “I think there’s a decent chance that we could be above the floor,” Smith said last week.
The final number will matter to teams that might face a tighter salary cap squeeze the lower the figure ends up being, potentially necessitating the release of expensive veterans and a cautious approach when the free agent market opens March 17. There are expected to be eye-catching moves involving high-profile quarterbacks. The Detroit Lions already have agreed to trade Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for a king’s ransom of draft picks and fellow quarterback Jared Goff. The Philadelphia Eagles are believed to be nearing a trade of Carson Wentz. The Houston Texans have said they have no plans to accommodate Deshaun Watson’s request to be traded.
The NFL can only hope that, by the time next year’s Super Bowl is played in Inglewood, Calif., the sport — and the country and world around it — will look far different.
“I don’t know what the environment’s going to be like by next year,” Goodell said. “We’ll be prepared for that. We hope it will be filled with fans, not just in the stadium but around the stadium and enjoying the facility, and we will be back to more of a normal cadence. But safety has driven everything we’ve done this year. And safety will drive that decision as we approach it, making sure that we keep obviously the participants as well as the fans and others safe through that process.”