January 23, 2020
There is just one meaningful football game left this season, and teams have already moved on to planning for next year. With that in mind, here are the biggest questions this coming offseason.
Will we get more surprise retirements?
Luke Kuechly shocked the NFL last week when he retired at the age of just 28. Kuechly was the latest in a line of magnificent players who have quit football before the game has taken too much of a toll on their bodies.
Will others follow suit?
Players are more aware than ever about the effects of playing football. Each individual has his limits, but there are more incentives than ever for players to quit early: players are making more money more quickly; smart players and agents are focusing on guaranteed dollars rather than the overall value of the deal; there is a never-ending stream of broadcasters ready to throw dollars at retired stars to be analysts. And that’s before we get to health and family reasons.
Who’s next? There has been speculation about a trio of top quarterbacks, but they’re likely to stick around. Tom Brady is set to return, whether with the Patriots or not. Philip Rivers looks like he’s out of Los Angeles but will pursue options elsewhere. There has been speculation about Drew Brees, though he’s coming off such a spectacular season it would be a true shock if he were to quit.
One name to monitor: Cam Newton. Newton’s time in Carolina looks like it’s over. He has interests outside of football, and has spent multiple seasons fighting nagging injuries. His physical running style has a clear and obvious shelf life. Here’s a thought: what if he doesn’t retire for good but instead takes a year-long sabbatical?
Will Andrew Luck return?
Which brings us to Andrew Luck. Did Luck retire retire last year? Or will he return at some point? As soon as Luck made his shock announcement during a preseason game in August, talk immediately turned to when and if he would return.
Luck left the game because he was in too much pain, and it was too taxing to go through the physical and mental drain necessary just to get on the field. Only he can answer whether he’s in a different place as we approach the offseason.
Similar questions will be asked of Kuechly moving forward, as they were of Rob Gronkowski and Calvin Johnson before him. We want to see all-time greats on the field again, particularly when we lose them in their prime. Could Luck pioneer a new career strategy: play through your first contract, sign the second, take a sabbatical, recharge, then return? It’s plausible.
What rule changes will the league implement?
The NFL pretending it implemented reviewable pass interference calls and then just ignoring them all year has become an underappreciated story. It’s evident the league tried to appease the online mob after last year’s NFC championship game disaster but had no real intention of reversing on-field pass interference calls. Expect the NFL to set that rule on fire this offseason and pretend it never happened.
Elsewhere, the league is looking into rules that could make the onside kick a real, actual play again. It will test a new rule at the Pro Bowl that will eliminate the kick all-together. Instead, the scoring team can give the ball to the opposition at their own 25, or take the ball at their own 25-yard line for a 4th-and-15 play. If it is successful, they will maintain possession as normal, and if not, the result is a turnover.
The Broncos proposed a similar rule last offseason that was initially dismissed out-of-hand. But discussions continued throughout the year and now we will get to see a trial run on Sunday. Onside kick recoveries dropped from the league’s historic rate of about 21% through the 2017 season to 7.7% in 2018 and 12.9% in 2019, after rule changes were implemented to make the play safer.
Adding in the 4th-and-15 play would introduce a fascinating strategic wrinkle to the game and an ample opportunity for late-game entertainment, which is the whole point of this enterprise.
How will the league handle the lack of minority hires?
The league has once again come under criticism, rightly, for the lack of minority coaching and general manager hires during the latest carousel.
The NFL has a race problem when it comes to hiring. It’s not necessarily about racism, a distinction that’s important and often gets lost in this discussion. Last year I wrote in detail about why minority coaches had been overlooked. In short: teams were skewing towards young, offensive coaches – offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches. Those roles were overwhelmingly filled by white faces.
That’s not the case this year. We’ve seen coaches pulled from the college ranks, retreads return, and a special teams coach plucked from near-obscurity in the hopes that close proximity to Bill Belichick and Nick Saban might unlock some magic dust.
Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy being passed up is a damning indictment. He has all the credentials. He’s helped build an exciting, sophisticated offense that is the envy of the league. Bieniemy coached a first-year starter – albeit a generational talent – to the AFC championship game and followed that up with a trip to the Super Bowl this year. Ordinarily, he would be a slam-dunk hire. Even the things thrown at Bieniemy – he doesn’t call plays; he isn’t a CEO type; it’s Andy Reid’s offense – have proven to be false. Still, nobody has taken the plunge, despite Reid openly lobbying for his colleague and friend.
Where the NFL goes from here is important. Roger Goodell will be asked about it over and over again at his annual state of the league address during the run-up to next week’s Super Bowl. Implementing a Rooney Rule at all levels of each organization has been mooted, but that comes with its own issues. There’s no quick, easy fix. You cannot force billionaires to hire someone, and this is as much a societal issue as a football one. Goodell has not been adept at navigating social issues, to put it mildly. It will be fascinating to see how he handles this latest one.