More than the youth of Patrick Mahomes or the agelessness of Tom Brady, the most compelling story surrounding this year's Super Bowl was that it was happening at all.
It took nearly 1 million COVID tests, thousands of Zoom meetings, a dozen or so rescheduled games and an untold amount of flexibility for the NFL to not miss a single of its 269 regular-season and postseason games in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
Game No. 269, the Super Bowl, is set to be a fascinating matchup of young (Mahomes) vs. old (Brady) — the Kansas City Chiefs against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It's to be played Sunday in a one-third-full and socially distanced stadium and with millions of fingers crossed around the country. T he NFL and society, in general, are hoping America's biggest sports celebration won't turn into the mother of superspreader events, either at the stadium or at the inevitable thousands of high-fiving, chip-dipping, hug-it-out Super Bowl parties planned across the land.
With the reality that the most important results of the Super Bowl — the spike, or lack of spike, in COVID numbers — wouldn't be known until well after the final score was posted and most of the $4.3 billion in expected wagers are settled, the NFL still scored points by merely making it to the finish line without any major disruptions.
"The fact that every team played the correct number of games. and that most people did not get sick, is a real testament to their perseverance in making it happen," said Dennis Deninger, who teaches a Super Bowl and Society class for Syracuse's sports management department.
The resiliency of the players and the league stood out as a bright note this winter, as the coronavirus ravaged the United States and the world. The NFL's ability to keep the show moving — albeit imperfectly — reinforced the sport's strong footing in American culture. It also generated debate about whether the country and the league have their priorities straight, given that resources devoted to playing football could have conceivably been expended elsewhere.
"In some ways, you say, it doesn't feel right to be talking about sports and thinking about sports in the middle of a pandemic," said Ketra Armstrong, the director at University of Michigan's Center for Race and Ethnicity in Sport. "But when you think the role sports can play for the psyche of the country, and you understand the level people are going to to deliver sports, you can appreciate" the effort the NFL made to make the season happen.
And, in fact, the NFL's efforts benefitted more than simply the league's own interests. Using as a backbone of its research the approximately 957,000 tests it conducted on more than 7,500 players and employees, the NFL collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control to publish a paper describing testing protocols, mitigation strategies and contact-tracing measures that could also be useful in "high-density environments" such as schools and long-term care facilities.
A key conclusion from the paper was that "although the protocols implemented by the NFL were resource-intensive" — i.e., the league had plenty of money and manpower to implement a testing program few other organizations would dream of — many of the lessons learned were valuable.
"The idea was to test frequently, to identify when you had a positive, and to isolate and trace closely if you did," commissioner Roger Goodell said, while taking a victory lap of sorts earlier in the week at his annual Super Bowl news conference. "We don't think there was a safer place to be than at an NFL facility that year. We never doubted that for a second."
The season was far from perfect. Because of rescheduling, there were games played on every day of the week, including Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The Titans, Ravens, Browns and Steelers were among those that endured high-profile outbreaks that threatened not only their rosters but the league's entire operation. In the season's biggest debacle, the Broncos were forced to play a game with a wide receiver playing quarterback after everyone in the QB group got put under quarantine on late notice.
Goodell said all decisions were made in service of prioritizing safety over everything, including the NFL's longstanding calling-card — competitive balance.
And yet, as Goodell pointed out, offense came at a record pace, and 70 percent of this season's games were decided by eight points or less — reinforcing that, even in a pandemic, anyone can beat anyone on any given Sunday in the NFL.
As the playoffs wore on, some developments started feeling more normal, even if they didn't always reflect well on the league.
There was the weeklong wait to see if Mahomes would play in the AFC championship game following his placement in the league's much-debated "concussion protocol" after his head slammed to the turf in the previous week's win. Mahomes returned a week after the scary incident and led the Chiefs to the Super Bowl.
The two biggest off-field news items centered on a high-stakes quarterback carousel, with marquee signal-callers Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford swapping teams (Goff to the Lions and Stafford to the Rams) and DeShaun Watson of the Texans demanding a trade.
More troubling was the annual reminder of the NFL's generally lackluster record in hiring minorities for coaching and front-office positions.
"We had two minority coaches hired and it was not what we expected," the commissioner said of the seven head-coaching vacancies in the league this year. "And not what we expect going forward."
It undermined progress made earlier in the season when Goodell, taking the temperature of a country agitated by increasing calls for social justice, conceded that the league should have paid more heed to Colin Kaepernick when he started his own form of protest by kneeling on the sidelines four seasons ago.
"We know the NFL has failed miserably in many regards in being socially responsible, culturally responsible and showing it has a racial conscience," Armstrong said. "What you hope is that they can take advantage of this unique moment to maximize the power of sport. There's a lot they can do. A lot more they should do."
Clearly, though, the focus of this season was not on the NFL's imperfections, but rather on the games themselves. With a few months to see what other sports did right and wrong, the NFL came up with a plan, revised it, revised it again, and got all its games in, albeit in front of mostly empty stadiums. Goodell said a total of 1.2 million people attended games that, in a normal season, would have been seen live by up to 17 million.
The capper to it all was a marquee matchup, to be played before a crowd of 22,000, featuring the two biggest names in football: Brady vs. Mahomes.
"The NFL, and a lot of sports, served as examples for organizations in corporate America about how, if you put your mind to it, you can find ways to contain the virus, and continue doing what you do," Deninger said.