Expect the unexpected early in NFL season amid COVID-19

The fundamental factors that decide football games still apply: talent, strategy, preparation.

But this year they’re joined by a new one: COVID-19.

Although the NFL made it through training camps without the disease outbreaks some feared, the pandemic changed how teams prepared for the season. It prompted changes in some roster rules, anticipating the possibility of coronavirus infections. It could affect games, championships and careers even if the microscopic streaker is kept off the field.

Watching the 2020 season, fans should bear in mind one general theory heard around Rams camp this summer: Play in the first few weeks could be sloppier than usual, producing more random results, keeping standings bunched, leaving playoff races to be decided by which teams peak the highest in November and December.

Assuming the season has a November and December.

Some factors to look out for:

EARLY MISTAKES

As an example, the cancelation of NFL preseason games meant many players have experienced virtually no tackling this year.

Said Rams coach Sean McVay after two rookies fumbled when hit in the team’s second intrasquad scrimmage at SoFi Stadium on Aug. 29: “Especially with some of our younger players, you can never simulate the way a defense attacks the football when these games count. I think that’s where, if you’re not really mindful of it, you’ll see a lot of pre-snap penalties and some of these balls that are going to be put on the ground early on. That’s going to be a big emphasis for us over the next few weeks.”

MENTAL ERRORS

Scrapping offseason practices as well as preseason games meant less on-the-field learning, which could affect units with new coordinators, schemes and key players. This might be bad news for the Chargers’ offense, with a new quarterback, and the Rams’ defense, with big changes in coaching, personnel and approach. Or, potentially, it could be an advantage for teams making changes, since opponents won’t know what to expect.

“Just having a new (coordinator) in general is tough,” Rams defensive end Michael Brockers said. “I think early on, the communication between players is a really big issue.

“The best thing is that they (other teams) don’t know what we’re going to do.”

MEDICAL MATTERS

Obviously, teams could be hurt by the loss of important players to positive tests for COVID-19, or, less obviously, by injuries resulting from the unorthodox preseason (although the league worked hard to head them off). Worse, in the scenario envisioned as training camps opened, teams could suffer the loss of entire position groups to the virus. Nearly 70 NFL players opted out of the season.

The league revised rules to give teams more leeway to replace infected players on their 53-man active rosters with members of their practice squads. Those squads are enlarged from 10 to 16 players and now may include up to six players with NFL experience. Four players per team may be protected from being signed away by other teams from Tuesday through Sunday.

There’s a chance your team’s biggest game could be decided by a practice-squad guy, like a baseball pennant race being won by a September call-up.

CANCELATIONS

The NFL created a schedule with flexibility in case of early-season virus outbreaks, giving Week 2 opponents the same bye week in case those games have to be made up, and giving each team a non-division home and road game in Weeks 3 and 4 to keep things equitable if those games are canceled.

But equitability is more equal for some teams than others. The L.A. teams might not mind missing their Week 2-3-4 opponents. For the Rams, that stretch includes games at Philadelphia and Buffalo, and for the Chargers, it includes games at home against Kansas City and at Tampa Bay.

DEAL OR NO DEAL

Roster cutdown days saw fewer players claimed on waivers this year after teams lost the chance to scout preseason games and scrimmages. Midseason trades could be reduced, too, because of the reduction of upcoming salary caps and uncertainty about the 2021 draft and the value of picks. This doesn’t sound likely, but it’s something to watch.

EMPTY STANDS

The Rams, Chargers and most other teams will have no fans at home games until further notice, while some will allow limited attendance. NFL guidelines for fake crowd noise will try to keep things fair, but that might be difficult.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff said communicating on the field might be different — presumably easier — for a road team playing against, say, the Seahawks.

“Especially at places that you’re used to it being loud, in particular, Seattle,” Goff said. “There will be a difference, obviously, for us if there are no fans, and how we operate and how we want to do things.”

To sum up: Expect the unexpected early. Hope your team hits its stride sooner than later.

“That is a challenge early on,” Goff said, “to be sharp and to show that we’ve been doing the right things in training camp and come out on the right foot.”