Like everything in our lives this year, the NFL is going to look a little different when it kicks off the 2020-21 season. Thanks to its offseason starting just as the pandemic was taking off, the league has had more time than other major professional sports organizations to prepare for what will be a unique year on the field.
But it’s not just the coronavirus that’s causing some major differences for the upcoming NFL season. Here are some of the changes you may notice as you follow the league this year.
No Preseason Previews
The earliest sign that this NFL season would be unlike any others in recent memory showed itself during the summer, when the league canceled all of its preseason games. Since 1978, all teams have played four preseason exhibition games in the weeks leading up to the first week of regular-season action. Those games offer teams yet another revenue stream, while giving the players some valuable competitive reps and fans — as well as gamblers and pundits — a preview of how each team will look.
The games are perhaps most important for rookies, like new Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, this year’s top draft pick, who will be thrown right into games that actually count for something this year.
Anti-Racist Messages On The Field
The NFL has faced immense backlash in recent years for its lack of support for social justice initiatives and its apparent blackballing of quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the wake of his kneel-down protests during the national anthem. League commissioner Roger Goodell apologized in June for the way the organization had treated its players who had spoken out about systemic racism in the past and pledged league-wide support of the Black Lives Matter movement. One major way the league is backing up that statement is by painting the messages, “End Racism” and “It Takes All Of Us,” in each end zone.
Players Can Honor Victims
The other substantial way the NFL is wading into the anti-racism movement this season is by putting the names of victims front and center. All players will be allowed to wear the names of victims of police brutality and/or racist violence on decals that will go on the back of their helmet, where the word “Buccaneers” is printed in this photo. They can also choose from a list of four league-approved phrases that call out systemic racism to go on the decal, if they prefer. Players will also be able to wear special T-shirts that include the phrase “End Racism” during their pre-game warmups on the field.
The Black National Anthem Will Be Played
One other big gesture being made by the league to its fans and players who support racial equality is by including the song that has historically been called the Black national anthem in its pre-game activities at the start of the year. “Lift Every Voice And Sing” will be played at all NFL stadiums hosting games during Week One of the regular season. The song, which was written in the early 1900s, will be played before “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Washington Football Team
For more than 80 years, the professional football team in our nation’s capital was called the Redskins. That’s going to change this season. The five-time league champions had a lot of success under that name but also drew plenty of controversy over its racist origins. Amid the nationwide soul-searching effort that took place this summer, the team’s brass decided to finally listen to the criticism and change their name and logo.
For now, the squad will be simply called the Washington Football Team and their helmets will be adorned with each player’s jersey number, marking a monumental shift in political consciousness for one of the NFL’s oldest franchises.
Empty (Or Mostly Empty) Stadiums
In the past few months, sports fans have mostly gotten used to watching games without fans in attendance, but we have yet to see an NFL game played that way. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league is following in the footsteps of other sports organizations by playing its games in stadiums that will either be empty or far below capacity. The Browns, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Colts, Cowboys, Dolphins and Jaguars will each allow a small number of fans as soon as Game One, while others team in the league are keeping fans away until further notice.
However, all stadiums will have prerecorded crowd noise piped through their speakers to keep things from feeling too eerie.
More Ads In Your Face
Watching an NFL broadcast is already an exercise in patience, due to the abundance of commercials, but you’ll be hammered with even more advertising this season. To make up for the loss of revenue from limiting capacity at games, teams will sell ads that will be visible near the field during TV broadcasts. For example, you’re likely to see sponsored seat coverings in the rows closest to the field and tarps that include brand logos covering certain seating sections.
Coronavirus Safety Guidelines
Like the other sports leagues that have returned to action during the pandemic, the NFL will attempt to use strict safety guidelines to keep its players from getting and spreading COVID-19. In addition to mandatory testing, players are expected to wear a mask and maintain social distancing when they’re not on the field, whether they are at team facilities or not. Each player was also fitted with a proximity recording device during training camp, which alerted them when they were too close to another person and would track whom they had been in close contact with.
Violations of these policies during the season could result in fines as stiff as $50,000.
More Teams In The Playoffs
Starting this season, there will be even more teams in the hunt for a Super Bowl ring than ever before. Following a vote of NFL owners in March, the league approved the expansion of the playoff field from 12 teams to 14. This means one additional team from both the AFC and NFC will qualify for a berth. In the last 20 years, four teams have earned a wild card slot before going on to win the Super Bowl, and now two more teams will have a chance to pull off that miraculous run.
A Tougher Road To The Super Bowl
The addition of two more teams into the playoff field won’t come without a price for some of the league’s best teams. Previously, the top two seeds from both conferences would get an automatic pass into the second round of the playoffs, taking a bye during wild card weekend. Starting this season, only the top seed from each conference will get a bye, leaving the second-place teams to play an extra game on their route to the Super Bowl. This means we’ll likely have some 12- or 13-win teams at risk of losing their playoff bids to wild card entrants who barely topped .500.
Games Will Air In New Places
The 2020-21 NFL season will see games continuing to air in the usual places, like CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and NFL Network, but a couple more unique networks will join the mix. The league will continue streaming certain games live on Amazon Prime Video but will also add NBC’s new streaming network, Peacock, to its stable, for a wild card playoff game that’s scheduled for Jan. 10, 2021. But perhaps the most eye-catching new network that will air NFL action this season is Nickelodeon. The children’s channel will get to air a Jan. 9 wild card game with a broadcast that’s specifically tailored for younger viewers.
New Teams In The Broadcasting Booth
Fans who tune in to watch NFL games this year will hear several new voices calling the action on some of the league’s most high-profile broadcasts. The established teams of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, who call CBS’s biggest games, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, who call Fox’s biggest games and Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, who anchor NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” will remain intact, but there will be some big changes in other booths.
ESPN has again overhauled its entire “Monday Night Football” team, installing Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick to call the games this year. Meanwhile, Ian Eagle and Charles Davis will be CBS’s new number-two broadcast team, while Kevin Burkhardt and Daryl Johnston will be Fox’s new number-two team.
Tom Brady Won’t Be In A Patriots Uniform
For the first time in his 20-year NFL career, Tom Brady won’t be playing for the New England Patriots. While that’s welcome news for fans of every long-suffering team in the AFC East, it will be jarring for anyone who sits down to watch a game involving either the Pats or his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this season. After a tenure that included a record six Super Bowl wins, the 43-year-old future Hall of Famer signed a two-year deal with the Bucs in March.
Seeing him with a pirate flag on his helmet is going to be strange for everyone at first.
The Bucs Will Look Different In Other Ways, Too
In addition to making a high-profile change at quarterback, the Buccaneers will be wearing new threads on the field this season. Tampa Bay unveiled a trio of new uniforms for the 2020-21 season and made a major alteration to their aesthetics. The new unis will be either grey, white or red up top with either grey or white pants, but the numbers will look drastically different from the ones on last year’s jerseys. The team will also wear black facemasks, which will make their helmets look a bit more like the ones they wore during their Super Bowl run in 2002-03.
New England’s Uniforms Will Also Look Different
Not only will the Patriots have a new man leading them on the field, the NFL’s winningest franchise of this millennium will also have new uniforms. This offseason, the team unveiled all-new on-field gear that looks a little bolder than what they’ve worn in recent years. The new uniforms will have dark blue pants at home and on the road, with either a dark blue or white jersey and bold red cleats. They’re the Patriots, get it?
L.A.’s Stunning New Stadium
It’s been more than a decade since AT&T Stadium opened as arguably the most impressive home field in NFL history, but it may have lost that title with the opening of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. This new building will host home games for both the Chargers and Rams starting this season. With a $5 billion price tag, it is easily the most expensive NFL stadium ever built.
The most impressive feature might be the 360-foot, 4K video scoreboard, which weighs more than 2 million pounds and is the largest video board ever built for professional sports.
The New-Look Rams
The Los Angeles Rams have undergone some major changes this offseason — and we’re not just talking about the departure of Todd Gurley. In addition to opening that brand-new home stadium, the team will look very different when it takes the field. Not only did the team introduce new uniforms, it also tweaked its colors and unveiled a new logo. The bright new uniforms harken back to the team’s days in L.A. during the 1980s, when Eric Dickerson was trampling defenders, while the new logo finds a cool way to incorporate some horns.
The Chargers Also Get A Makeover
The Rams roommates at the new SoFi Stadium will also be wearing a new wardrobe when they take the field this year. The Los Angeles Chargers have a new logo, which removes the navy outline from their iconic lightning bolt, and their new uniform set makes some noticeable changes. For one, the bolt on the shoulders looks a lot more emphatic, and the players will now wear a smaller version of their number on their helmet, instead of on their shoulder.
Thankfully, they didn’t get rid of the powder-blue color scheme that is renowned as one of the most attractive in all of sports.
Philip Rivers Won’t Be Wearing A Lightning Bolt
While the Chargers will be rocking sleek new uniforms this season, one guy that won’t be trying them on is Philip Rivers. The eight-time Pro Bowler had been the starting quarterback for the Chargers since 2006 and had been with the team since 2004 — his entire NFL career. However, Rivers joined Tom Brady in taking his talents to another team by signing a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. His legacy is still one with a lot of unfilled gaps but seeing Rivers — who has never missed a start in 14 seasons — playing for another team will take some getting used to.
More Replay Reviews
The NFL’s team owners voted to expand what’s covered by automatic replay reviews. The new rule will mean that any scoring play or turnover that is taken away by a called penalty will be automatically reviewed. This makes the officials more accountable in game-changing situations and allows their on-field calls to be reversed if video evidence shows there was no penalty. A rule like this will also hopefully protect officials from being blamed when controversial penalties are seen as deciding games.
Kick Returners Get More Protection
Another rule change the league approved for the 2020-21 season will offer more protection for players who are returning kicks or punts. Those players will now be considered defenseless after they’ve caught the ball but before they’ve had time to prepare for a hit from an opposing player. The new rule doesn’t specify an amount of time the kick returner has to still be considered defenseless, making this one up for interpretation from the officials.
It’s always good to offer players more protection, especially in high-impact plays like a kick return, but it’s likely this rule will cause a little controversy at some point this season as kicking units figure out when they are allowed to hit a returner.
Less Clock Manipulation
Longtime New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was infamous for exploiting a loophole that allowed offenses to milk the game clock, so it’s somewhat ironic that the loophole was closed after it was used against him last season. In his team’s 2019-20 playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Titans intentionally took back-to-back delay of game penalties before punting, in order to drain more than a minute from the game clock. Belichick used to love using this questionable method to help stave off comebacks, but the league’s owners agreed to change the rule so that the game clock will not restart in these situations.
More Time On Injured Reserve
When teams are considering placing a player on injured reserve, they will have to plan on being without that player for at least half of their regular-season games. Previously, the IR — which is used for players who suffer the most serious injuries — stated that a player placed on it was able to return to the active roster after eight “weeks.” The new bylaw passed this offseason changes the language to eight “games,” which eliminates the bye week from being counted as part of a player’s time off the active roster. It’s a small distinction but one that could mean the difference between one more win or loss, depending on the player in question.
More Players Can Return From Injured Reserve
Even though the previous bylaw we mentioned will make the language surrounding the IR a bit more strict, teams were granted a new benefit to the distinction this offseason. Previously, every team was allowed to bring back only two players from the IR in a given season, but the owners voted to allow a third player to be brought back to the active roster. So, after they’ve missed the now-mandatory eight games, three different players who were put on the IR will now be able to return to play.
Games Will Be Played In Vegas
For 100 years, the NFL avoided putting one of its home teams in Las Vegas, but that all changes this year. The Raiders have officially said goodbye to Oakland (again) and will play as the Las Vegas Raiders starting this season. Aside from the new city — and the brand-new stadium, which we’ll get to in a moment — the team’s logo and uniforms will stay the same. Of all the franchises that could have settled in Sin City, it’s tough to imagine any fitting into the town’s renegade image better than the Raiders.
A Stadium On The Strip
One of the main factors that led the Raiders to ditch Oakland for Las Vegas was the latter city’s agreement to build them an impressive new stadium. Allegiant Stadium cost nearly $2 billion to build, with $750 million of the bill coming from a tax on the city’s many hotels. Unlike many new stadiums, this one is fully enclosed and it can hold 65,000 fans on game day. One of the building’s most unique features is an 85-foot tall torch that honors the longtime owner of the Raiders, Al Davis, who died in 2011.
No International Games
Since 2007, the NFL has played at least one regular season game outside of the United States. The league has been steadily growing its international presence by holding these games in London and, for the past four years running, Mexico City. However, that streak will end this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The NFL had five international games scheduled this year — four in London and one in Mexico City — but canceled all of them in May, citing health concerns for everyone involved.
The Browns Are Turning Back The Clock
The Cleveland Browns are another historic NFL franchise that unveiled new uniforms this year that remind us of the old days. As you can see, the new Browns uniforms remove much of the text that was on last year’s duds, which included “Cleveland” printed on the chest and “Browns” running up the leg of the pants. The new ones opt for more solid whites and browns, with the striped socks that were worn by Browns teams of the past. Maybe this will help them get their 1960s championship-era mojo back.
The Colts Have New Logos
Messing with the logos on your team’s branding is no small change, and that’s what the Indianapolis Colts did this offseason. Not only did the AFC South contenders make a minor tweak to their iconic horseshoe logo, they also added an entirely new secondary logo to their stable. Only eagle-eyed Colts fans will notice the alteration to the horseshoe — which will now be slightly rounder than before — but the new secondary logo is a block letter C, with an outline of the state of Indiana etched in the center, that will be sewn onto the neckline of this year’s jerseys.
Atlanta’s Jerseys Get A Cool Update
Fans of the Atlanta Falcons will be able to rep their city even more noticeably if they pick up one of the team’s new jerseys for this season. The team has three new primary uniforms that all include “ATL” printed in big letters across the chest. One of the team’s new uniforms is also a red-to-back gradient, which looks pretty slick if you ask us. The Falcons logo will also be even bigger on the helmets now.
More Women On The Field
In the past few seasons, the number of women working as full-time NFL coaches has been steadily growing. This season will see at least eight different women working for four different teams in coaching roles. They include Callie Brownson, who was hired by the Browns to be chief of staff for new head coach Kevin Stefanski, and Jennifer King, who made history when she was hired by the Washington Football Team this offseason. King, pictured here, was the first Black woman to be hired as a full-time coach in league history after coaching at Dartmouth and in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football.
A More Inclusive Super Bowl Experience
After concerns that the 2021 Super Bowl could be delayed, everything is right on schedule to take place in February. The game will be played in Tampa, and all the usual festivities leading up to it are set to take place, with some welcome changes. The annual Super Bowl Experience is one of those signature events, inviting fans to pay about $20 each to attend an indoor, NFL-themed amusement park with autograph sessions, games and the chance to get your photo taken with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The 2021 Super Bowl Experience will be held outdoors, in the interest of safety, and it will be free for anyone to attend.
A New Name In Buffalo
Right before the start of the upcoming NFL season, another historic franchise announced it would be making a change to its home stadium. The Buffalo Bills had played their games at New Era Field since 2017, but the sports apparel company abruptly pulled out of the stadium-naming agreement this offseason, leaving the team with a blank building. In August, the franchise announced its home field would be called Bills Stadium, for this year at least. The name change means the Bills will be one of just five teams in the league that doesn’t have a company’s name on its stadium.