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Preparing For A Football Season Defined By Pandemic

2020: The year we’ll all remember but will want to forget...

NFL: Pro Bowl Experience Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

So here we are. Just a few weeks away from the 2020 NFL season. Exactly 20 days away from kickoff, where your Houston Texans will take on the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs in the very first game of the year. All that we’ve written, speculated, and cursed onto this team will be washed away in the undulating waves of a new football season.

But something is off. Usually, the entire country is taking these last weeks to board the hype train of a new NFL season and preparing for new football related drama to occupy our psyche every weekend. This year, it feels simultaneously smaller and bigger at the same time. A cloud of unnerving is beset on this upcoming season.

As much as we attempt to ignore it or pretend that any sort of public event doesn’t have a crater-sized asterisk attached, COVID-19 will hang over the football season like it has hovered atop of life itself since the beginning of the year. It’s a menacing and disruptive reality that has quite literally redefined what it means to be a person during its unexpected reign over humanity. While some individuals’ lives have been more impacted than others, daily activities have dramatically changed for everyone.

An aberration of this magnitude will continue to affect everything. Even in the sport full of individuals that we love to infect with celebrity and the cult of personality, the perception of players has been shockingly humanized. The scale of COVID-19 has made larger than life superstars look no different than you and me (well, to an extent). Just like us, they’ve had pains trying to adapt to a new world filled with protective procedures, isolation, and social distancing. Numerous stories have been told about the newfound challenges that face rookies entering the NFL, including the complete virtualization of rookie minicamp. Undrafted free agents, once hopeful that they would hear their phone ring, must now face a world where that opportunity may never come calling. Even Tom Brady, the impenetrable face of the NFL, states, “I think conversations we probably would’ve had in April, we’re having now.” The Texans aren’t immune to these growing pains, either. David Johnson, our new RB shadowed in controversy, stated that he has trouble paying attention during prolonged Zoom meetings.

David Johnson

For me, watching it, I hate to say it but I kind of space off watching Zoom... It’s tough for me to learn that way but on the field, I can stay focused a lot more.

While this is not exactly... encouraging... to hear out of a new feature back acquired in a trade that saw the Texans part with a Hall of Famer, David Johnson knows better than any of us the shoes that he is filling. He’s more than ready to step onto the field and prove of us all wrong, and his drive cannot be denied. This virtual sloppiness should not be a testament to his work ethic; it’s simply another reminder that NFL players are just as human as we are. Preparing for both a physically and mentally taxing job is already demanding on its own, so when attempting to adapt their regimen into a context that requires as little interpersonal interaction as humanly possible, errors are bound to arise. They’re still getting used to things just like we are.

Will this abbreviated and mostly virtual offseason training affect the team in ways we’ll see on the field? Well, look no further than our own lives: some of us had a fairly painless transition to virtual work, some have had either awful growing pains or remain on the front lines to brave the invisible storm (to which we will be forever indebted), and others had mild difficulty at first but have since adapted to work-in-bed. While the spectrum of social distancing pains is a tick higher for athletes that require physical interaction to properly work, their experiences are otherwise similar to ours. Which means for some players, this year’s changes will mean little to their on-field aptitude; to others, it will mean the world.

For seasoned veterans, like most of the Texans’ starting players who have had plenty of time to acclimate themselves to the O’Brien way, it will likely result only in mild impairment or confusion during live games. But football is a team sport, meaning the less accustomed players who had less time and fewer resources to prepare will inevitably flounder in their appearances. This list includes the aforementioned rookies and undraftees, as well as players entering their first season as Texans. Those that will see significant playing time include Ross Blacklock, Jonathan Greenard (maybe?), Eric Murray, Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, and David Johnson. This isn’t exactly the list I was hoping to see any of these guys on, but that is the reality of a pandemic. It is unforgiving and relentless in its advance.

Cooks, Cobb, Johnson, and Murray, all players with several seasons under their belt, will in all likelihood not exhibit many tangible errors. Even though they’re probably experiencing a similar sort of delay of discord that Brady mentioned, they still will be able to rely on their experience to guide them through an already tumultuous season. Ross Blacklock and Jonathan Greenard, however, have scarcely had a chance to prepare for the NFL landscape. Luckily, the Texans aren’t as reliant on rookies as most other NFL teams, but the inevitable rocky start will have dramatic impacts on how our defense is constructed week by week.

The players aren’t the only ones having to improvise their training. The coaches also bear the burden of sculpting their playbooks around a pandemic, determining what should be left on the table and what should be cut away, and how to instruct and aid their players via a computer screen. This offseason forced most NFL coaches to take more classes in curriculum theory and pedagogy than any would’ve expected. Anthony Weaver, Tim Kelly, and Tracey Smith have had more than enough upheaval for their inaugural seasons, and their ability to adapt to uncertain circumstances even more important than most players. Thankfully, they were all in-house hires and carry years of experience with the Texans, but accepting a new gig during a pandemic is certainly a unique challenge. Either way, we’ll know how they fared in a few weeks.

Ultimately, the Texans are fortunate that their roster doesn’t require as much hands-on support as others yet will still see the results of a rushed training camp manifest on game day. We should absolutely not look upon their failures in this regard with a critical eye. There is no protocol for developing an NFL team during a pandemic, and we shouldn’t chastise them if they fail to surpass our otherworldly expectations during a pandemic. While David Johnson’s inability to stay focused during Zoom meetings will inevitably hurt his performance to some extent, he should not be blamed for acting human during a time unlike any other. It is still very possible that this season is ravaged further by the pandemic, our dreams of a Super Bowl dashed by illness and/or cancellation. This is seen as an inescapable reality, where little blame is placed on teams due to the unrelenting force of COVID-19. It should be acknowledged that when its relentless brutality affects the sport in less direct ways, such as the occasional gaffe or error, it is still the same reality nonetheless.

When entering this season, try to keep the reality of the world, and the knowledge that it has affected our team, in the back of your mind. While watching football at all may bring back some degree of normalcy, when Deshaun Watson misses a few third down passes to Randall Cobb, when Ross Blacklock has a few bad games, or when David Johnson doesn’t immediately go on a redemption run, there is likely more afoot than just bad play. All of our lives, even theirs, have been thrown into chaos because of a raging pandemic. Nothing has gone quite as planned this year, and the NFL/Texans aren’t going to be an exception. After all, there is still something much larger than football going on.

Check me out on Twitter: @JoeCritz