2020: A Year Of Spreading Viruses and Defenses?
If there is a 2020 NFL season, it will follow a sparse, COVID-19-influenced offseason. With the fewest practices, the fewest reps, and the least contact. Such an offseason is poised to exacerbate the NFL's trend towards pass-heavy football, and away from power running.
The run game
It will be difficult for NFL teams to prepare their running games in 2020 for myriad reasons. The most obvious one? Passing the football is an exercise in "social distancing." All nine routes in the classic route tree involve being more than 6 feet apart. Players can work on their timing and routes, as much as they need to, whilst observing local and state guidelines. This is just the latest blow to the ability of NFL teams to hone their run game execution.
It is well-documented that due to restrictions on practice time imposed by the 2011 CBA, the ability of NFL teams to coach up offensive linemen has declined. You can practice timing and route combinations with 7-on-7 drills, in shells, or after practice. You cannot practice offensive line execution in any way that does not involve pads popping. Bill Belichick noted this in 2017, saying not only can the teamwork of line play only be simulated with full contact, but that practicing without pads reinforces bad fundamentals.
The other widely-recognized factor contributing to the decline in offensive line play: the rise of college spread offenses. Today, college offensive lineman often line up in the two-point stance instead of the three-point stance, lack experience processing different looks or making calls, and are generally less prepared for pro-style football than they have been in the past.
Now, what does this all mean for New England?
On the defensive side of the ball, an increasingly pass-happy 2020 season should play into New England's strength: defending the pass. Not only is the secondary the best unit on the team, but it will be more difficult than ever for opposing offensive linemen to work together against pass rush games and blitzes, which the Patriots have leaned on over the past 2 seasons to great effect.
Offensively, the question marks are greater. With the acquisition of Cam Newton, the Patriots project to rely on the run game and quick passing to score. The good news is that they are returning 4 of 5 starters. The bad news is that they have new blocking players in the fold at FB and TE, as well as a gaping hole at RT. If the team's execution running the ball lags, it will be difficult to score points at all.
At any rate, don't be surprised if NFL teams break records in 2020 for pass-first proclivity. It would have been interesting to see if the Patriots became a base dime team, but the Chung and Hightower opt-outs make that less likely to happen.
And one thing can be certain. Less practice, less contact, and less opportunity to coach - all of these things can only magnify the difference between the effective and ineffective programs in the NFL. If teams can't work harder, then it becomes about who can work smarter. You have to like the odds at 1 Patriot Place.