“They generated their own enthusiasm,” Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said of his players after a victory Monday night over the New York Giants at fan-less MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. “They played with emotion. They were just happy to play the game, and I thought it was reflected in the spirit in which they played.”
With Week 2′s slate of games set to begin with Thursday night’s Cincinnati Bengals-Cleveland Browns matchup in Cleveland, the NFL can only hope that the on-field product remains compelling. Few knew what to expect after teams were prohibited from practicing during a remote-only offseason and preseason games were eliminated as part of the league’s reaction to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“It could have been a lot worse,” a team executive said. “I thought it might be more ragged. It certainly wasn’t flawless out there, from what I saw. You would hope it keeps getting better. But there was intensity. Guys were hitting. The fundamentals were okay, the blocking and tackling. It wasn’t too sloppy on offense. You didn’t just see penalties and turnovers and mistakes all over the place.”
The 87 combined passing and rushing touchdowns in Week 1 were the most ever in a season’s opening week, according to the NFL. Teams averaged a combined 47.4 points per game, down from last season’s 48.5 points per game in Week 1 but still the fifth-most in history.
Penalties were down significantly, with 12.5 per game compared to 19.3 per game in Week 1 of last season. There were only 18 offensive holding penalties across the league, down from 82 last season.
“We were all knocking the rust off,” Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said after his team’s triumph at home over the Houston Texans in the NFL’s season opener. “But I’m proud of the guys. I don’t want to take away from that. I’m proud of how they handled this.”
Among those with significant room for improvement are Tom Brady, who threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, in his Buccaneers debut in a loss at New Orleans after leaving the New England Patriots in the offseason. Brady is perhaps the sport’s greatest-ever quarterback, but he wasn’t able to make a seamless Week 1 transition to his new team after such a disrupted adjustment period.
Kickers, too, had their issues. They converted only 71.6 percent of their field goal attempts in Week 1, down from 84.2 percent during last season’s opening week.
“If anyone is surprised at the kicking struggles this week,” former NFL kicker Jay Feely, now an analyst for CBS, wrote on Twitter, “they shouldn’t be. There were no preseason games. You can try to simulate pressure and game like conditions in practice but nothing is the same.”
Bengals kicker Randy Bullock missed a 31-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds of a three-point loss Sunday to the Los Angeles Chargers. Former Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed three field goals and an extra point before connecting on a game-winning field goal in his Tennessee Titans debut Monday night in Denver.
“A lot of kicking is timing and rhythm, doing the same thing over and over again,” Gostkowski said. “Hopefully I can get back on track and get my timing and rhythm back down.”
The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to a ramp-up period for players during training camp before full-scale practices could begin in mid-August. The league at first shortened the preseason schedule, then agreed to skip it entirely as the NFLPA had sought.
If play remains crisp in the season’s early stages, there might be calls for preseason games to be eliminated permanently. That seems unlikely, however, given that those games are a source of revenue for teams, while coaches also value them for player evaluation. The preseason already is set to be shortened when a 17-game regular season goes into effect, perhaps as soon as next year, under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement ratified this year by team owners and the NFLPA.
In the meantime, this season will continue to play out under unprecedented conditions. Only two teams, the Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars, had fans in the stands for home games in Week 1. The Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys plan to have fans in attendance in Week 2.
Players and coaches will have to continue to adjust. Reid said he’d told his Chiefs players on the night before the season opener that concentrating on the fundamentals would be even more crucial than usual.
“This wasn’t perfect, by any means. … We can all do better,” Reid said.