It was the weirdest of times, it was the most tumultuous of times. The year 2020 tried the NFL’s soul. Here, I’ll hold up a mirror to the league, and highlight the most influential people in what happened on the field, and how the virus wracked it, and how social issues awakened a sleepy league, and how the business of the game was impacted. Some of those named here represent a group of people—an epidemiologist, for instance, and an Infection Control Officer, charged with keeping the virus outside his team’s door, and a Black coach. I could have picked many from each group.
I figured the year would be an offbeat one when, on a late-February morning at the NFL Scouting Combine, a GM fist-bumped me instead of shaking my hand. “Just being careful,” he said. Happened one other time in Indianapolis too. The virus was already on NFL minds, and within two weeks it would invade everyone’s psyche.
The 20 influencers (21, counting a combo-journalism entry) included some names unknown by most last January—and a few you don’t know today.
1. Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner
When Goodell looks back at his career, 2020 will probably be his most satisfying season. He was pushed to delay free agency in March and the draft in April because of COVID, but did neither; the folksy in-home NFL Draft—featuring home shots of Bill Belichick’s dog Nike—showed business as (un)usual could be done in a pandemic. When money was no object, of course. Goodell ran the draft from his suburban New York basement. Regarding the season: He had help from a persistent union, and from the actions of Infection Control Officers on the 32 teams, but Goodell was the CEO of the system that got all 256 games played in 17 weeks. With, of course, a bottomless budget—and don’t let anyone tell you that wasn’t huge. Goodell told me on Labor Day weekend: “I think we have a plan that will get us there.” Thirteen postseason games to go.
2. Allen Sills, NFL chief medical officer
The most important meetings in the league this year? For seven days a week for the last five months, there have been two: the 7 a.m. conference calls for the six or so contact-tracers to discuss that day’s positive tests that have been reported on overnight test results from the 32 teams, and the 8:30 a.m. calls to map out that day’s plans with 12 or so participants on what Sills calls “the SWAT team” of epidemiologists, league officials, tracers, and infectious-disease experts. (Each meeting starts an hour earlier on Sunday, in case issues including game-day rapid testing must be addressed.) Sills’ meeting of storm-chasers, often run virtually from his home in Nashville because of the crazy year, has kept the trains mostly running on time in a pandemic.
3. Tom Brady, Tampa Bay quarterback
One year ago today, in an AFC Wild-Card game, Tennessee stunned the Patriots 20-13, and Brady looked like a man who knew he was finished in New England. But not finished period. “I think a lot of other people who are great at what they do—great artists or great actors or great businessmen—don’t have to stop doing what they love. I know there’s football still in here,” he said. Eleven weeks later, he was a Buc. At 43, there were some hiccups on the way, but he piloted Tampa to an 11-5 record and the fifth seed in the NFC tournament, and he finished third in the league in passing yards (4,633). Only once in his career (2007) has he thrown for more TDs than his 40 this year. Not bad for the 16th-highest-paid quarterback in football.
4. J.C. Tretter, NFLPA president
The common-sense, sees-both-sides Browns center was voted president of the NFL Players Association in March. “This is what I’m passionate about,” he said when elected. Tretter actually trained for this at Cornell, studying in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. Tretter and the union insisted and won daily testing in the summer when the league wasn’t yet for it. In December, Tretter pointed to the increase in scoring and decrease in penalties after a virtual offseason to call for the elimination of offseason minicamps and practices. “We are the only major sports league with an offseason program,” Tretter wrote on the NFLPA website. “The most physically demanding sport is the only league that brings their players back for extra practices outside of the season . . . Football is at its best when we have healthy players playing at their best.” Food for thought—that coaches will absolutely hate.
5. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City quarterback
In the 18 games he started in the calendar year, Mahomes went 17-1, including leading Kansas City from a 10-point deficit with eight minutes to play to a 31-20 victory over the Niners in Super Bowl 54. He’ll remember one other thing fondly about this year: partnering with LeBron James in his national campaign to get out the vote, and through his foundation 15 and the Mahomies partnering with his team to make Arrowhead Stadium a polling place. They bought 25 voting machines and paid the cost of 30 poll workers to run the site, at a cost to the foundation of more than $100,000. Andy Reid voted there. At 25, Mahomes has shown that his future, in football and social issues and philanthropy, is bright.
6. DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA executive director
Something unprecedented happened in February and March. Angry that the NFLPA agreed in bargaining talks with owners to the imposition of a 17th regular-season game, the union’s executive council of players voted 6-5 to not recommend to membership Smith’s deal. It included a 20-percent increase in minimum salaries through 2031, advances in pension for 11,000 former players, 1 percent more of the NFL gross revenue for players, and discipline cases taken from Roger Goodell and put in the hands of a neutral arbitrator. When put to a vote of all players, the deal passed by a 51.5-percent majority of players—basically, about two players per team—and solidified Smith’s power. In retrospect, timing was good for the players because owners likely wouldn’t have been as forthcoming in negotiations during or post-pandemic; the game’s 2020 finances have been battered. Smith calculated that his players wouldn’t be willing to strike over the 17th-game issue, and that owners would make no deal without it. Sometimes leaders have to make unpopular decisions, and this was one by Smith. It led to 11 years of labor peace.
7. Crystal Echo Hawk, Native American activist
Echo Hawk, of Oklahoma’s Pawnee Nation, applied pressure for years on a 38-year Native American issue—that Washington should drop the team name “Redskins” because it was racist. And when owner Daniel Snyder finally said he would discontinue it, it was as much or more for economic reasons, with sponsors like FedEx demanding the name be changed. But the frequent rallies and political pressure on the team and sponsors led by Echo Hawk (and the movement started by native leaders Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse) was a burr in the franchise’s, and the league’s, saddle that never went away. Echo Hawk told NPR when Snyder caved: “It’s a remarkable, historic day for native peoples. I commend the NFL and the Washington team for finally doing the right thing.” After 87 years known as the R-word, the franchise suddenly became the Washington Football Team.
8. Michael Thomas, New Orleans wide receiver
I’ve never seen such a collection of mega-stars in any sport do what Thomas, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr., Ezekiel Elliott and others did in the 71-second June mashup video in calling on Roger Goodell to back the Black Lives Matter movement. Thomas’ star was rising as 2020 dawned, after he set the NFL record for receptions in a season with 149 in 2019. He began to be outspoken after the May death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. On June 3, Thomas received an Instagram direct message from an NFL social-media producer, Bryndon Minter, offering to work with him to allow his voice in a well-produced video to be heard. Thomas wrote back in 23 minutes, and a collaboration began. Thomas got mega-NFL stars to record snippet-quotes on smart phones to be formed into a video calling on the league, and Goodell, to be more attentive to the Floyd murder. It worked. The next day, Goodell told his staff, “I’m going to make a video.”
9. Bryndon Minter, NFL social-media creative producer
Last week, thinking back on the 28 hours from idea-germination/DM-to-Thomas to complete video with 20 NFL stars standing up for themselves, Minter, who invented and produced the piece, still seems dazed that he ever got it done. “That is still such a crazy time in my life,” he said. “When I think back on it now, it strikes me as a moment that was a catalyst in allowing players to be voices, not just numbers, in the social-justice space.” He and a few peers who work for the NFL were motivated by the word-salad response the league had to the George Floyd murder. Even if helping players call out his big boss would have cost him his job, Minter, 27, thought it would be worth it—and he knew this was not the kind of thing in the buttoned-up NFL that he’d ever get approval. So he just did it. Props to Minter for his principals, and for seeing the big picture. The 23 million people who have watched on social media platforms (led by 3.7 million on Saquon Barkley’s Twitter account) send their thanks.
10. Jamal Adams, Seattle safety
Adams demanded a traded from the Jets in June, concerned about what losing was doing to his mental health. He got his wish in July, going to Seattle for two first-round picks and a third-rounder, and responded by setting the NFL record for sacks by a defensive back (9.5) in a season. But the 2020 image of Adams most will remember is from the Thomas/Minter video. Adams stared into his smart phone in his car and taped these words: “We the NFL condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people,” followed by a fisted Black power salute. That’s what he couldn’t say or do growing up in Texas, and why 2020 was liberating for Adams and many Black players. “I buried it for a long time,” he told me. “I still remember to this day people who have said racial slurs towards me. Now, before every game, I’m always holding up my fist. Because I am happy to be a Black man. I’m proud that I took that stand.”
11. Howard Katz, NFL senior VP of broadcasting
Imagine you’re Katz, and it’s the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 2. Some background: Katz spent months with a four-person crew drawing up the 256-game regular-season schedule, announced May 7 in the middle of a pandemic. Katz and crew then spent weeks during the summer inventing all sorts of alternative slates, preparing for scenarios like what if the season at the start is delayed by a week or two, or paused for a month, or a week has to be moved to January. So now it’s Wednesday, Dec. 2, and the NFL has already moved the Thanksgiving night Baltimore-Pittsburgh game from Thursday to Sunday, and from Sunday to Tuesday, and from Tuesday to Wednesday because of a Ravens outbreak. The game is at the odd time of 3:40 p.m. ET because of NBC programming. So now everyone is waiting for the Ravens’ morning COVID test results to come in because if they have multiple positives, Katz and company will probably have to reschedule the game again, maybe to the dreaded Week 18. Finally, at 11 a.m. ET, the results come back. All clean. Crisis of the year averted. You are Howard Katz, and you can breathe again.
12. Kyle Johnston, Miami head athletic trainer
The Dolphins didn’t have the fewest positive tests in the league, but they were probably the most aggressive team in going beyond league protocols to try to keep COVID at bay. Many teams were vigilant. In Miami, coach Brian Flores encouraged Johnston to add extra safeguards. Johnston did, and shared some with the NFL, to pass along to other teams. Such as this one: To be sure all players and employees were wearing Kinexon tracing and social-distancing devices while at the team facility, Miami installed sensors in doorways to ensure no one left the Kinexon thingie in a locker or desk. By midseason, every Dolphins meeting was on Zoom (limiting close contact between players), no player took a shower at the facility, all dressed in the 100-yard bubble instead of the locker room . . . and coaches wore the more expensive and more protective KN95 masks during games. “Kyle Johnston and our medical staff have done a tremendous job,” Flores said last week. “He’s all over us about masks and distancing.” To be clear: I could have written about several proactive teams: Seattle, Atlanta, Carolina, others. I’d just heard several good things during the year about Johnston and his staff.
13. Josh Allen, Buffalo quarterback
The Bills matter, in a big way, in year three of Allen’s NFL career. Buffalo ended the year on a six-game winning streak, winning the AFC East for the first time in 25 years, finally vanquishing New England—the Bills swept the Pats this year after being 5-33 against them since the turn of the century. Buffalo is poised for a run of greatness if Allen, this season’s breakout star, continues on his bright path. Allen tinkered with his mechanics in the offseason, started strong, went into a month-long valley when he hurt his shoulder, and finished the year on a 9-1 run as a prime MVP candidate, with Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Think of it: Entering the postseason, Allen belongs with the big boys (Mahomes, Rodgers, Wilson, Brady, Roethlisberger, Jackson, Brees) who could own January. And February.
14. Will Hobson and Liz Clarke, Washington Post reporters
Not a good year for Daniel Snyder. But a just year, in part because of the work of Hobson, Clarke and their Washington Post reporter peers who uncovered a seedy boys-will-be-boys club among team executives in how they treated female employees, cheerleaders and female reporters who covered the team. The Post found 40 women to confirm the #MeToo atmosphere, and later reported that the team paid a former female employee $1.6 million in 2009 to settle a sexual-misconduct suit stemming from an incident on Snyder’s private plane. Hobson and Clarke got a former marketing coordinator with the team, Emily Applegate, to reveal the frequent harassment she and another female employee experienced. They wrote of the two employees: “They cried about the realization that their dream job of working in the NFL came with what they characterized as relentless sexual harassment and verbal abuse that was ignored — and, in some cases, condoned — by top team executives.” Goodell’s next tough decision as commissioner may be whether to force Snyder to sell the franchise. The reporting by Hobson and Clarke will be a big factor in that.
15. Christina Mack, epidemiologist/contact tracer
Contact-tracing in 2020, Dr. Sills said, “is absolutely foundational for us . . . the element almost nobody is talking about.” Dr. Mack, who works for longtime NFL health-technology partner IQVIA, is one of the tips of the spear. I could have used NFL tracers Molly Delaney, Leah Triola or Paul Blalock as the headliner too. They’re among the the bloodhounds who have found 36 additional COVID-positive cases within the league to isolate from the general population. Example of the contact-tracing efficiency: Mack noticed one team had a large number of close-contact cases around 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, and was told that was the time players were coming in from practice, with position groups all close to each other. The team changed locker positions so that no player in a position group was near another player in his group in the locker room for the rest of the season. “Felt like a bullet dodged,” Dr. Mack said.
16. Kendall Hinton, Denver “quarterback”
The most 2020 moment, easy, was in Denver on Nov. 29. Saints at Broncos. The day before the game, the NFL ruled that three Denver quarterbacks (all healthy ones on the roster, basically) would not be eligible to play because of sloppy mask-wearing and protocol-adherence. At 5 p.m. that day, 21 hours before the game, receivers coach Zach Azzanni called practice-squad wideout Hinton, who’d never been on an NFL field, and told him: “Get ready, you’re suiting up at quarterback tomorrow.” Hinton played quarterback briefly at Wake Forest but hadn’t thrown a pass on any level in two years. But the Broncos had no one else, and the league was adamant: Play the game with whoever at quarterback. And so it came to be that two hours before the game, QB coach Mike Shula and coordinator Pat Shurmur worked with the quiet Hinton on, of all things, how he spoke in the huddle. “Enunciate,” Hinton was told. “Make sure you’re loud.” It went about as you’d think: Saints 31, Broncos 3. Hinton, one of nine passing. It’s actually surprising there weren’t more of these debacles in the season of COVID.
17. Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City offensive coordinator
Despite learning from the offensive master, Andy Reid, for nine years and being the offensive coordinator on an explosive Super Bowl winner, Bieniemy, who is Black and yearns to be a head coach, hasn’t gotten a job. He’s the top example of the diversity crisis facing the NFL. In 2003, when the Rooney Rule was enacted—requiring teams with a head-coach vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate for the opening—there were three Black head coaches in the league. Starting the 2020 season, there were three Black head coaches in the league. “We don’t talk about it. We don’t like to talk about it,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s highest-ranking Black person in football operations. The league passed three rules intending to broaden the pool, including requiring a second minority coach to interview for each vacancy. Will it help Bieniemy and a pool of justifiably frustrated minority candidates? This hiring cycle will tell.
18. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Kansas City guard/COVID front-line medic
In July, Duvernay-Tardif did what a doctor, not a football player, would do when he opted out of starting on the offensive line for the defending Super Bowl champions in Kansas City. He chose to continue his work as an orderly in a long-term care facility in his native Quebec, helping fight the coronavirus, while also taking online med school classes from Harvard. It was a noble decision, but as Andy Reid said after he spoke at length to Duvernay-Tardif, it’s the decision a medical professional at the time of a pandemic would make. “I’m a huge fan of his, and I was also raised by a doctor,” said Reid, whose mother was a doctor. “I understand the dedication.” I doubt Duvernay-Tardif thought much about the $2.75 million he’d be bypassing on the field to work with long-term patients. He’s earned more, repaid to him in international karma.
19. Jason Licht, Tampa Bay GM
This is strange. But I talked to quite a few GMs—John Lynch, Tom Telesco, Thomas Dimitroff, Brett Veach, Mickey Loomis—who didn’t hate being out of the office for long weeks of the offseason, didn’t hate working remotely, and didn’t hate doing meetings and drafting by videoconference. There was a peacefulness to it, a feeling that they could get a lot of work done when people weren’t walking in and out of the office all day. After the draft, Licht told me: “I’m almost to the point where I like working this way, I’m getting so much done. Going back to the office—it’s going to be different.” Licht had one of the busiest pandemic springs of any GM. He wooed and signed Tom Brady. He traded for Ron Gronkowski. (How was your offseason? Pretty good. Signed two of the top 100 players of all time.) Like his peers, Licht scouted virtually. And on draft night, working the phone from the playroom of his three children, Licht was between trade feelers with Minnesota and Las Vegas when, through a wall, a scream of “MOMMY!!!” rang into the room. Hey, it’s after 9 on a Thursday. Kids are antsy. The highlight, though: Licht traded from 14 to 13 with the Niners and drafted the guy he wanted, tackle Tristan Wirf of Iowa. “First trade ever in a virtual NFL Draft!” Licht cackled. Weird night. Charming night, in a way.
20. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami quarterback
Hate to end this with a bummer. On Dec. 26, 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami’s 2020 Mariano Rivera, came in for an ineffective Tua Tagovailoa at Las Vegas with 10 minutes to go and led field goal, touchdown and field goal drives to win the game. In the final 10 seconds, he completed a 34-yard pass while getting his head twisted by face-mask a la The Exorcist, and the 15-yard foul set up set up a makeable winning field goal with two seconds left. Now Miami was on the verge of a Wild Card berth, and Fitzgerald had never gotten that far in his 15 previous seasons. “I am well aware that I’ve never been to the playoffs, I promise you,” he said after the game. On Thursday, the Dolphins learned Fitzpatrick tested positive for COVID-19. A positive test requires 10 days away from the team, so it’s possible his season’s over. Lots of sad things about this sad time in American life, and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s positive test is probably not high on the list. But like so many things in COVID America, it just stinks.
Just missed the cut:
21. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland quarterback. Had some shaky moments in his first two-plus seasons after being the first pick in the 2018 by the previously 0-16 Browns. But he finished a grand turnaround Sunday with a pesky/dangerous Cleveland team, going to the playoff for the first time in 18 years.
22. Tony Romo, CBS analyst. By wheedling a $17-million-a-year salary out of CBS, Romo raised the bar inordinately for high-profile TV talent in their next contracts.
23. Dan Snyder, Washington owner. Quite a year—at least in infamy. Changed the team name, got into a suing contest with his three minority owners desperate for him to sell, battled the rep that the team was a ‘60s-style frat house with #MeToo stories rampant.
24. Bill Belichick, Patriots coach. Every coach who wins six Super Bowls in 18 years is entitled to a mulligan or four. But Belichick chafed at a late-season Tom Curran question about bad recent drafting (“I’m not going to apologize for our record over the last 20 years”), as if to say, Don’t question the master. Football’s unforgiving, and Belichick’s personnel acumen needs a booster shot.