These past few months have been unprecedented in modern times due to the coronavirus pandemic that has enveloped the world. Bars and movie theaters are closed, people don masks to go out to the grocery store, and hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been hospitalized or killed by the COVID-19 disease.
Sports are almost inconsequential compared to the social, economic, and medical impacts of the pandemic, but they have been impacted as much as any industry. Entire college sports programs and professional leagues have been folded, the NBA and NHL have had their seasons suspended, and the MLB season has been delayed.
These are somber times for sports fans.
But there are some positive signs. Several European soccer leagues have resumed play without major incident, and, domestically, MLS, NASCAR, and professional golf have returned in some form. The other three major sports leagues all have plans to return as well in the near future.
That bodes well for the NFL’s usual fall kickoff, right?
Not so fast. First, we need to see if the NBA, NHL, and MLB can actually follow through with their plans to resume/begin their seasons. Then there are the rumblings of discontent between the NFLPA and the league about the preseason and other elements of the league’s plan for the 2020 season.
We just don’t know what the future will hold. Although the league is talking a good game, there’s still a very real possibility that there will be no 2020-2021 NFL season if local, state, and national leadership continues to bungle their response to the coronavirus and the pandemic continues to ravage the country.
Since this is an Arizona Cardinals website, it’s our job to consider that very bleak scenario from an Cardinals perspective. So, here are a few ways a canceled NFL season would impact the Redbirds. Let’s start with the one I’m the least concerned about.
Note: I have absolutely no idea how this would impact player contracts, so I’m not going to consider that aspect here.
Fans, fantasy analysts, and NFL observers alike expect Kyler to make The Leap to the upper echelon of NFL QBs in his second season. Obviously, that can’t happen if there is no season. Kyler would lose his age-22 season and a year’s worth of games to grow more comfortable in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, build a rapport with DeAndre Hopkins and the rest of his receivers, and diagnose NFL defenses. But at the same time, he’d still be just 23 by the time the 2021 season kicks off (assuming it’s not Fury Road out there by then), and he’d be spending that “off” year studying film, working out, and staying sharp. It wouldn’t be ideal by any means, but Kyler would be just fine in this worst-case scenario.
A little more concerning would be the delayed rookie seasons of Isaiah Simmons, Josh Jones, et al. These guys need as many NFL reps—minicamp, training camp, practice, preseason, regular season—as they can get to get acclimated to the NFL life. Delaying their actual rookie season by a full year could potentially stunt their growth. Veteran players know how to manage an NFL offseason—although this would be a greatly extended one—but rookies might not be able to handle it as well, especially if the offseason is mostly virtual. Add to that trying to integrate the 2021 rookie class (if there is one) as well next season and this could become a major headache. We might not have a normal rookie offseason schedule until 2022.
Young players like Kyler and the rookie class would eventually recover from a lost NFL season—their best football is ahead of them. But what about the players playing their best football (or close to it) now? I’m talking about franchise players like Chandler Jones (30) and Patrick Peterson (29), as well as core players like J.R. Sweezy (31), Justin Pugh (29), and Jordan Hicks (28). Not to mention new acquisitions like Devon Kennard (29) and DeAndre Hopkins (28). These guys would all be a year older in 2021—and maybe a step slower, a bit more prone to injury, a bit further away from their peak performance. Losing an entire year of these players’ primes would be devastating.
But not as devastating as potentially missing out on Larry Fitzgerald’s final season. Fitz famously (and seriously) considered retirement after the 2018 season, but he quickly committed to coming back after last season. But if there were no 2020 season, would he want to come back at age 38 (when the season starts) after a year away from football? I very much doubt he would. So we’d miss out on seeing Fitz line up across from DeAndre Hopkins, miss out on the dozen huge plays you know he’d make, miss out on his continued assault on the record books. Fitz was always going to go quietly, but not like this. It would be such an unfair end to the first-ballot Hall of Famer’s career.
The impacts above focused mostly on individual players. But what about the team as a whole? The Cardinals would be entering the 2020 season in Year 2 of the Kliff and Kyler era led by an ascendant offense featuring the newly acquired DeAndre Hopkins and last year’s surprise star Kenyan Drake. We have an exciting rookie class and several new additions on defense. With the playoffs expanded to seven teams per conference, this team has a very real shot to compete for a Wild Card berth. Missing a whole year of football would stall that momentum, with players a little older, a little rustier, a little less familiar with each other. Of course, that goes for every other team in the league, but here in the NFC West, the two teams at the top of the division—the 49ers and the Seahawks—both have much longer-tenured coaches and more overall franchise continuity. The Redbirds’ climb to the top of the division would be much more difficult without the 2020 season to jell.
Finally, not only would a canceled season affect the players and teams in the NFL, but also the fans. Many of us have been desperately following sports news, waiting and hoping for the games to return. Sports have always been a diversion, an outlet, something to look forward to. We need them now more than ever given the constant stream of alarming statistics, dire news reports, and political and social strife that is now inundating our day-to-day lives. If the major sports leagues—and the NFL in particular—are unable to return in 2020, it could have a catastrophic effect on our nation’s psyche—and I don’t say that lightly. They say you don’t know how important something is until it’s gone, and that might very well be the case for sports in America in 2020.
I sure hope I’m wrong, though. So let’s everyone do their part—wash your hands, wear a mask, follow social distancing guidelines—to help our society, and our sports leagues, return to normal.