The top 3 storylines from 2020 NFL Season

By Jordan Eisen, Junior, Parkway North High School

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 only temporary flashes; what makes each NFL season special are its inspiring storylines. These “top three stories” are what we will remember in the distant future, not the games or plays but the stories that shaped the season’s identity. 

3. Smith leads WFT to NFC East title

For the fifth time in NFL history, a team with a losing record made the playoffs. Before the season, the Washington Football Team (WFT) had little hope of making a playoff push, but the perfect storm of faltering rivals and dedicated football thrust WFT into a playoff spot despite a lackluster 7-9 record.

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 and injuries to their other quarterbacks, WFT turned to Smith as a last hope in week 10. With a 2-6 record, usually all hope would be lost but the division lead was still 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 producer of the Fan 106.7’s “Grant and Danny” Thomas 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.

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“It’s in the short list of the best season that this team has had in the last 30 years,” said Pleiman.

2: 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.

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 22-17. Their victory over the Steelers, however, served as a symbol to Browns fans that a new era is under way.

1: COVID-19 evokes chaos inNFL

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 COVID management] like a C+,” said columnist for 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.

The NFL managed to make it a couple weeks without COVID interfering with their schedule. On Sept. 24, however, a severe outbreak began within the Titans organization that would spread amongst 23 players and staff members. The Titans’ week 4 contest did get postponed, but 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 the NFL chose may have been riskier than some 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.