The 2020 NFL season was the best year for football yet. With COVID protocols, no fans in the stands, role players having to step up into bigger positions, and the incredible games all year long, this season kept us interested from start to finish. Week 1 gave us some thrilling upsets and unpredictable outcomes, and this consistency kept up until the self-destruction of the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Congratulations to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for bringing home their 2nd Super Bowl, and to Tom Brady for bringing home his 7th, locking his spot as the GOAT for the unforeseeable future.
Photo: Associated Press
In this blog, I'll be cover my top 5 plays, controversial moments, the biggest surprises, and the best moments throughout the season. There were a lot to choose from, so if I missed something, please feel free to reach out and I will acknowledge it at a later date. I have highlighted some other key factors to the season in the "Final Notes" section, so what you're looking for may be down there.
Top 5 Plays
#5: Sam Darnold speeds past Broncos D
Sam Darnold's run against the Broncos was one of the most surprising athletic feats from a quarterback this year (the other being Daniel Jones, if he didn't get sniped from the nosebleeds). After evading a sack from middle linebacker Alexander Johnson, Darnold stepped up and tucked the ball to run. After a few steps, he saw cornerback AJ Bouye coming in from the right side. Darnold took a hard step forward and juked past Bouye to the right. He read his blockers downfield and ran past every Broncos defender for a touchdown.
#4: Alvin Kamara's checkdown to the house
Who would've thought a flat route could turn into a huge play? On the snap of the ball, Kamara ran from the backfield towards the left sideline. Brees pumped once, and checked the ball down to Kamara in the flat. As he caught the pass, he evaded two tackles of a Packers defensive back and linebacker. He allowed his center, Erik McCoy, to get out in front and pick up another block. Coasting down the field, Kamara looked for a cutback lane, all while breaking another tackle. Ten yards out from the endzone, Kamara got a block on his right side from tight end Josh Hill, giving him the perfect cut to the endzone. He high-stepped through another tackle, before he got caught from behind while falling into the endzone to score.
#3: Lamar to Hollywood Brown on 4th down
The story behind this play is wild. After Lamar briefly exited the game at the start of the 4th quarter, Trace McSorley came in and tried to put the Ravens on his back. He played decent, until a crucial 3rd down snap where he twisted his knee on a read option. After a long injury timeout, Lamar re-entered the game with 2:03 left. On 4th and 5, Lamar scrambled to the right, looking for a lane to run, until he saw Marquise "Hollywood" Brown wide open in between the right-side hash and numbers. Hollywood caught the pass and strolled into the end zone on a 44 yard completion. The Ravens would tie the game, and eventually win after getting the ball back from the Browns.
#2: Fitzmagic gets mauled and hits Mack Hollins
One of the most improbable plays of the year happened in the tightest of situations. With the Dolphins down by 2 with 19 seconds left in the game, Ryan Fitzpatrick knew he had to take control. After stepping up into the pocket, Fitzmagic loaded up the chuck the ball down field. Right before his arm started to come forward, Arden Key grabbed Ryan by the facemask, obstructing any view he had of the receiver. Despite this, he uncorked a deep ball down the left side to a wide open Mack Hollins for the first down. This would put the Dolphins is field goal range, where they would kick the game winning field goal and claim victory, 26-25.
#1: Hail Murray
Are you surprised? I have a in-depth breakdown of the play in my Week 10 Recap, which is posted at the bottom of this page, but I'll summarize. Kyler Murray, in his first Hail Mary attempt ever, took the snap and felt immediate pressure. He scrambled to the left, only to be pursued by Mario Addison. He took a step forward, and then quickly shifted laterally to escape the sack. After running all the way to the numbers, he flipped his hips back to the right, loaded up, and took a shot to the endzone. His favorite target, DeAndre Hopkins, barely had to move. It was a perfectly placed pass to one of the best receivers in the league. D-Hop jumped over three defenders and came down with the ball. This sealed the Cardinals victory, and would be the height of their season.
Top 5 Controversial Moments
#5: Saints COVID protocol situations
The Saints have been hit with fines and punishments more than any NFL team this year in regards to COVID. During Week 2's game, Sean Payton was seen not wearing a mask multiple times on the sideline, resulting in a fine of $250,000 to the Saints and $100,000 to Sean Payton. Fast forward to Week 9, the team had celebrated a win with minimal players wearing masks. The NFL dinged the Saints again, this time with a $500,000 fine and stripping away a seventh-round draft pick. During Week 17, Kamara had tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Saints last regular season game of the season. Initially, sources indicated the Kamara did not contract the virus from anyone in the Saints organization, and had gotten it while he was away from the team facility. After thorough investigation, it was determined that Kamara got the virus from someone inside the facility who was not a member of the Saints organization. A punishment has yet to be determined, but expect a $1,000,000 fine as well as a multiple draft picks being taken away, as high as the second-round.
#4: Officiating in the Super Bowl
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the game easily. If they replayed the game and no penalties were thrown, it is almost guaranteed the Bucs would still come out on top. After a solid postseason of officiating, there were multiple calls that were inaccurate during the Super Bowl. The first being against Chris Jones, who had some post-play antics with a Bucs offensive linemen. After the play, the offensive linemen would not let go of Chris Jones's jersey. After Jones tried to get off, the linemen gave him a little shove. Jones retaliated and open-palmed the linemen in the chest. Flags began to fly in on a seemingly harmless play. Jones was called for unnecessary roughness, resulting in an automatic first down and, later, a near touchdown for the Bucs if not for an impressive goal line stand by the Chiefs. The second call was against Charvarius Ward, who was called for holding on Mike Evans that negated an interception. On the play, Charvarius barely touched Evans the entire route, and was arguably shoved by Evans before the ball was thrown. That same drive, the game's first touchdown was scored on a flat route to Rob Gronkowski. On the following drive, Brady took a deep shot to Evans down the left side. Bashaud Breeland was beat on the route, and as he tried to catch up, tripped over himself and fell into the back of Evans. Pass interference was called and put the Bucs in scoring position. That same drive, Brady targeted Evans as he was running towards the endzone, but sailed the ball into the stands. Tyrann Mathieu, who was in coverage on Evans, was called for pass interference on an uncatchable ball. The Bucs scored on a touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, locking in an early victory and their second Super Bowl. These four penalties may have changed some of the outcomes of the game, but I believe the Bucs would have won either way.
#3: Bucs sign Antonio Brown
We all know Brady has been a fan of Antonio Brown since he arrived in New England in the early part of 2019. AB was the best receiver in the NFL during the 2010's, and if it weren't for some recent off-field antics, would be considered with some of the best receivers in NFL history. After some sexual abuse allegations, claiming he was done with football on multiple occasions, and a failed rap career, AB found his way back to the NFL and was teamed up with Tom Brady once again; this time, in Tampa Bay. In 12 total games (regular season and playoffs) during the 2020 season, Brown made a significant impact on the Bucs, bringing in 53 catches for 564 yards and 6 TDs. These aren't crazy numbers for the Bucs receiver, but it was enough to help them win a Super Bowl and rejuvenate his career. It's even more impressive when you consider there are other big time play makers on the offense like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski. I'm a big fan of Antonio Brown and I believe he was going through a mental health crisis during his time it Pittsburgh. This escalated over the course of two years, until he finally received help and was able to come back to the sport he loves. I hope the Bucs bring him back and he can prove why he is still a top 10 receiver in the league.
Photo: USA Today
#2: Deshaun Watson wanting out of Houston
This is the juiciest story of the 2021 offseason. After dealing away superstar players for subpar compensation in return (Jadeveon Clowney in 2019 for Jacob Martin and Barkevious Mingo, and a 2020 third-round pick, DeAndre Hopkins in 2020 for David Johnson and a 2020 second-round pick), Deshaun Watson had made it clear he does not want to remain in Houston. To make matters worse, Deshaun was told he was going to be a part of the hiring process for a new General Manager and head coach for the Texans. This sounded like a great idea, except the Texans ignored Watson and didn't include him in anything regarding the hiring process. Watson has sent out a variety of tweets and public statements demanding a trade. The Texans have not given any leeway and have no interest in trading away their franchise QB. JJ Watt also requested a trade and was ultimately released by Houston.
#1: NFL's decision making around COVID
The NFL turned a lot of heads this season regarding some decisions around COVID. The first reason for this was the decision to not using a bubble. The NBA saw incredible success using this method, as there were very few COVID cases across the NBA, and even saw a period where no COVID cases popped up for a month. The NFL decided a bubble would be incredibly hard to pull off, especially with almost 3,000 players and 1,000 personnel members to worry about, not to mention the amount of fields that would need to be used. To make matters more questionable, the NFL allowed individual states to decide how many fans could attend games, rather than the league setting the number themselves. Pair that with the scheduling changes, allowing full contact at practice, and some players and organizations breaking rules, it is easy to see how this could have gotten out of control. With all of that being said, the NFL was relatively safe and was able to play every game this year; more on that later.
Top 5 Biggest Surprises
#5: Broncos not having any QBs against the Saints
Even during COVID, no one expected this to happen. During the week leading up to the Broncos game versus the Saints, Jeff Driskel, one of the backups for Denver, tested positive for COVID. Earlier that week, all of the QBs were watching film together, maskless, and were deemed as high-risk close contacts. This resulted in the Broncos having to turn to practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton for their game against the Saints. Despite posting a 0.0 passer rating, the wristband he wore was sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to commemorate Hinton's heart to go out and give it his all in the least ideal of situations.
#4: Taylor Heinicke's Wild Card performance
Due to an injury, Alex Smith was not able to start in Washington's Wild-Card game. With Dwayne Haskins released and Kyle Allen on injury reserve, WFT turned to Taylor Heinicke, who was studying for finals at Old Dominion when he got the call he would be joining the Washington Football Team for the end of the year. The result? Heinicke had, arguably, the best playoff QB performance that year. His passing numbers were decent, hitting 59.1% of his passes for 306 yards, 1 TD while throwing 1 INT. He did a great job running the ball 6 times for 46 yards and 1 TD. Although his passing numbers don't jump out at you, most of his incompletions were either drops, tipped passes, or throw aways. His interception was tipped at the line, which wasn't his fault. PFF awarded Heinicke a 92 overall grade after considering these facts, which resulted in the second highest QB grade for the postseason.
#3: Stefon Diggs and D-Hop lighting it up on new teams
It is rare for a new receiver to go to a new team and dominate, so for two receivers, on new teams, to be either near or at the top of the league is impressive. Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins were both traded to new teams in the 2020 offseason, giving young QBs Josh Allen and Kyler Murray incredible receiving options. Both receivers finished in the top 3 for yardage and receptions, with Diggs finishing at the #1 spot in both categories. Diggs closed out 2020 with 127 catches for 1,535 yards and 8 TDs, while D-Hop brought in 115 catches for 1,407 yards and 6 TDs. Both receivers also led the league in targets with 166 and 160 respectively. Both look to make even stronger impacts going into the second year with their new teams, especially in the TD category.
#2: James Robinson's impressive rookie campaign
In a year where late-round draft picks and undrafted players didn't have much opportunity to make their mark, James Robinson stepped up to the plate in a big way. After releasing Leonard Fournette, the Jags turned to James as the lead back for their squad. He compiled an impressive rookie campaign, tallying 1,070 yards and 7 TDs rushing, while hauling in 60 catches for 344 yards and 3 TDs. This is even more impressive considering his 4.64s 40 yard dash, which is relatively slow for the running back position. Despite this, he had a great rookie year and looks to be the main bell cow for years to come in Jacksonville.
#1: The Brown's making the Playoffs
Finally! The Cleveland Browns make the playoffs for the first time since 2002! To boot, they got their first postseason win since 1994! Football fans everywhere were ecstatic for the Browns this year, as they have been the worst team in the NFL since their last playoff appearance. How did it happen? Baker Mayfield had the best year of his young career, the running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt worked flawlessly, Jarvis Landry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Rashard Higgins were able to fill the void left by Odell Beckham Jr's injury, the tight end grouping of Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant, and David Njoku worked well, the offensive line was the best in the NFL, and the defense stepped up when it needed to. Kevin Stefanski also drew up the perfect scheme for this style of offense. After finishing 11-5 and thwarting the Steelers in the Wild Card round, the Browns look to carry this momentum into the 2021 season.
Top 5 Best Moments
#5: The NFL playing all 269 games with no cancellations
NFL teams, with fans at games, no bubble, full contact at practice, and little travel restrictions, were able to play every single game without a single cancelation. This is an amazing feat that other leagues may not be able to pull off (the NBA is struggling with COVID at this moment). Out of 959,860 tests, only 0.08% of the entire NFL, including players and personnel, tested positive for COVID. In reality, there were only two major outbreaks within the Titans and Ravens organizations. Although a lot of questions were raised about how the NFL was handling COVID, the players, personnel, and organizations did a great job following protocols and making sure everyone around them was safe.
#4: Week 1
I remember going out to do some shopping before the Texans and Chiefs game for the first match-up of the season. I was blaring NFL themes from FOX, CBS, and ESPN in my car while hyping myself up for the season. This was the most excited I ever was for the NFL and Week 1 did not disappoint. The Chiefs showed why they are still a team to be feared, The Cardinals upset the Super Bowl runner-up San Francisco 49ers, the Bears had a clutch comeback win against the Lions, the Jags upset the Colts, and we saw kicking mishaps all around. It was an exciting first week of football and set the tone for the remainder of the season.
#3: Tom Brady winning his 7th Super Bowl
Hate him or love him, everyone enjoyed Tom Brady getting his 7th ring and cementing his claim as the GOAT. In a crazy game against the Chiefs, Brady showed he can still pass the ball efficiently at age 43. Some people were counting out the Bucs after Week 13, where they sat 7-5, out of the playoff berth. The Bucs went on an 8 game win streak, capped off with a Super Bowl title, all while Brady shut up his haters and proved why he could still play for another 2 to 3 years. Not much to say here, Brady is the GOAT and we should be happy we get to watch someone dominate the way he does.
#2: BLM in the NFL
Say what you want about the Black Lives Matter movement, it made the NFL better this year. After a summer full of protests, social justice movements, and overall improved education on the hardships the black community faces, the NFL did something that was shunned away years prior. Goodell came out in a statement and acknowledged that black lives do matter, and the NFL has neglected those who have tried to make that apparent in the past, most notably, Colin Kaepernick. The NFL put statements "End Racism" and "It Takes All of Us" on both end lines, players were allowed to put either names or statements on the backside bottom of their helmets, Alicia Keys rendition of the Black National Anthem, written by brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson in 1905, was played before all Week 1 games and the Super Bowl, players were allowed to kneel in protest of inequality and police brutality across the nation, and teams canceled practices in order to have in-depth conversations about racist actions that were being brought to light. For the first time in a long time, it seemed as the NFL was truly banded together to fight for one common goal outside of the sport of football. The work done this season and the work that will continue to be done will change the future and help reshape the course of our history.
#1: Alex Smith's Resurgence
Wow. What an unbelievable comeback story. On November 18th, 2018, the Washington Football Team was playing the Houston Texans. Both teams sat at 6-3, battling for a playoff spot. With 7:56 left in the third quarter, Alex Smith dropped back to pass. After feeling pressure from Kareem Jackson on a blitz and JJ Watt ripping past offensive linemen, Smith dropped back and braced for a sack. The three of their bodies contorted and all of their weight was on Alex Smith's right leg. Alex's body crunch and so did his leg, as he suffered a compound fracture in both his tibia and fibula. He went in for emergency surgery to address the fracture. A few days after this initial procedure, a flesh-eating bacteria began to do further damage to Smith's leg. His physician, Dr. Robin West, stated "We're doing the best we can. And right now, our first priority is we're going to save his life. And then we're going to do our best to save his leg. And anything beyond that is a miracle." If the medical professionals were unable to clear away the bacteria, they were going to amputate his leg in order to save his life. Almost one year and 17 surgeries later, Alex Smith was seen walking for the first time at FedEx field. Ten months after that, he was cleared to return to the field. On October 11th, 2020, Alex Smith made his return to his first NFL game in nearly 2 years. A few weeks after, he would take over the starting role for the Washington Football Team, posting a 5-1 record as a starter, helping them clinch a playoff berth. Fast forward to today, Alex Smith is the Comeback Player of the Year and looking to re-sign with the Washington Football Team. He had some calf issues this season, even while wearing a titanium brace in order to help stabilize his leg, so expect those to be rehabbed and worked on during the offseason. All in all, Alex proved that anything is possible and you should never give up, no matter the circumstance.
Photo: The Washington Post
Some other things that I didn't mention above was the potential fall of a dynasty that is the New England Patriots, the New York Jets botching the security of the number 1 overall pick, the chemistry between Tua and Fitzmagic, Justin Herbert and Justin Jefferson's record breaking rookie seasons, Aldon Smith recovering from drug & alcohol abuse and returning to football after 5 years, and the firing of multiple head coaches across the league. The 2020 season checked all the boxes, new teams made it to the playoffs, MVP level talent from young players, and records broken. Expect all of that and more in the 2021 season, as we move past the pandemic and move towards normalcy.