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A pandemic? Stadiums without fans? Social justice tensions? Why 2020 could be the NFL’s craziest season yet.
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A pandemic? Stadiums without fans? Social justice tensions? Why 2020 could be the NFL’s craziest season yet.

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The elbow to the ribs came before 3 a.m. on a Sunday in late August, an abrupt wake-up call that Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy wasn’t ready for.

“A forearm shiver,” Nagy said.

Stacey Nagy wanted her husband to know his iPhone was rattling again, with someone desperately needing his attention. Three-plus hours before sunrise. On a weekend.

Bears head athletic trainer Andre Tucker, who is also the team’s infection control officer this season, needed Nagy’s attention. Results from the previous day’s COVID-19 testing had come back, and the Bears suddenly had nine positives.

As Nagy wiped the sleep from his eyes, he initially felt a combination of frustration, disappointment and dread. After all the measures the Bears had taken to safeguard their facilities, after all the buy-in Nagy had gotten from players and coaches and team personnel in modifying their behaviors to stay safe and mitigate risk at Halas Hall, the Bears coach couldn’t believe the Jenga tower was about to topple.

“It’s just hard when you hear that,” Nagy said.

Six hours passed before anxiety turned to relief when the NFL and its COVID-19 testing lab partner, BioReference, acknowledged the Bears’ nine positive tests were false positives. The same was true for 68 other individuals on 10 other teams around the league.

It was all just a mistake, a lab error, a scare.

Still, the chaos and uncertainty of that morning was another reminder that 2020 is going to 2020 for as long as it is allowed to.

Every morning and every night, Nagy reminds himself, something new could pop up that neither he nor anyone inside the Bears organization has dealt with before.

This is the year of the contingency plan, Nagy has repeated, the season in which an ability to hit a curveball will be as valuable as any.

Some of the NFL’s most repeated cliches take on greater meaning now.

“Control what you can control,” Nagy said. “Expect the unexpected.”

The Bears must remain ready to problem solve on an hourly basis. Who knows what’s coming next?

Three days after the COVID-19 testing scare, running back David Montgomery left the practice field at Halas Hall in agony after suffering a groin injury on a slip and fall during a routine handoff drill.

“For sure I thought I tore something,” Montgomery said.

Luckily for the Bears, he hadn’t. Just a strain.

A day after that, the Bears canceled practice at the players’ request, instead devoting attention to an emotional team meeting to discuss the nation’s ongoing racial tension and social unrest that stemmed from the Kenosha police shooting and paralyzation of Jacob Blake less than 25 miles from Lake Forest.

Bears players felt an obligation to discuss how they can become more active in creating societal change.

“A lot of people tell us to shut up and play football,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “But we are people who have families and kids that can be affected by this. So it’s important that we use our platform to speak up.”

All of these things -- a pandemic, surprise injuries, social justice issues -- will continue to define the 2020 NFL season, a year many in the league believe might be more unpredictable than any before it.

The first of 256 regular-season games was played Thursday night with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs downing the Houston Texans 34-20 at Arrowhead Stadium. But for the next 17 weeks and another month of playoff action after that, a league known for parity and unpredictability might set new standards for wild twists and unforeseen developments.

Study those power rankings now. Come January some of those teams ranked in the mid-20s might be preparing for playoff football. At the same time, major favorites might be more vulnerable to slip on a banana peel and land in a 7-9 puddle of disappointment.

Who knows which teams will stay the healthiest, not only sidestepping the coronavirus but avoiding a rash of soft tissue injuries as well?

Who knows which teams will be quickest to establish their identity after an offseason without any on-field work and training camps that basically were cut in half?

Who knows which players can adapt best to playing games without fans, without that natural injection of adrenaline that comes with a packed house?

Everyone should remain ready for surprises.

‘It’s going to feel like a junior college game’

Bears running back Cordarrelle Patterson needed a minute to remember the last time he played a game without a massive crowd.

This is Patterson’s eighth NFL season, and he has been privileged to play his home games at Soldier Field and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Before that, he performed for the “Black Hole” maniacs in Oakland, Calif. and in three electrified stadiums in the Twin Cities with the Minnesota Vikings.

Patterson’s one season at the University of Tennessee regularly featured games in front of 100,000-plus in the SEC.

So yeah, Sunday’s trip into an empty Ford Field to play the Detroit Lions in Week 1 will be strange.

“It’s going to feel like a junior college game,” Patterson said with a laugh.

Six teams ago, Patterson’s final home game for Hutchinson Community College in November 2011 came in front of 5,200 fans at Gowans Stadium in Kansas. Maybe this will be a bit like that.

For most of Patterson’s time in the NFL, his pregame ritual has included playing catch with random fans in the stands. That routine will have to be adapted this year.

It’s a small twist. But it’s a twist nonetheless.

“Who am I going to throw the football to?” Patterson wondered. “That’s going to be the hardest thing for me. That’s going to hurt me.”

Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks also admitted he’ll miss some of the Soldier Field regulars who have become a part of his game-day experience: “There are some faces in that crowd that I’m used to seeing when I suit up and get my lather going that I’m going to miss.”

But when Hicks was asked how players will find new ways to manufacture the adrenaline rushes they get from charging out of the tunnel to the full-throated roars of the crowd, he grinned.

“I bring my own juice,” he said. “When I get fired up and get going, I’m ready to play football. There are a lot of guys on this team who feel the same way. It’s competition at the end of the day.”

To that end, Nagy believes the Bears’ controlled scrimmage Aug. 29 at Soldier Field offered at least a little preparation for the emptiness that will be unmistakable Sunday.

“At first it’s weird when you run out and there’s nobody in the crowd,” Nagy said.

But the adaptation period, he said, should be quick. Nagy noted the intensity in the NBA playoffs in the fan-free bubble near Orlando, Fla.

“It’s not taking any of the emotions out of those guys,” he said. “There’s a lot of fist pumping. There’s a lot of cheering up and down the bench. These guys are all playing for the love of the game. (Our) players will feel that.”

‘You just don’t know what you’re going to get.’

Quite simply, the number of variables this season might be greater than ever. For the Bears, Nagy has stressed a need for his offense to establish an identity as soon as possible.

In a normal year, that chore would have begun in early May and continued through on-field work at organized team activities, minicamp, a full six-week training camp and four preseason games. This year, almost none of that was available to the Bears or any other team, so there’s an element of flying blind into Week 1.

In truth, Nagy has little idea how much improvement his offense has made since it finished 2019 in the sewer.

And the Bears' first true test will come this weekend against a Lions defense that has six new starters and a new coordinator. The Bears have very little relevant film to study to identify the true strengths and weaknesses of this Lions defense. Not to mention, it’s hard for the Mitch Trubisky-led offense to truly understand who they are yet.

More than ever, the trial-and-error phase that teams usually tend to in the spring and summer will leak into the fall, perhaps deep into October for some.

“It’s the unknown,” Nagy said. “You just don’t know what you’re going to get.”

As Nagy has stressed since March, though, a solution-oriented mindset has to remain central to the Bears' efforts. On the field. In meetings. Now too, perhaps, on trips as the Bears get used to new travel logistics and altered routines.

In a new normal where almost nothing is normal, complaints have to be replaced by ideas and answers. Frustration has to be tempered with acceptance that turns into action.

The Bears are one of those hard-to-figure teams with league observers having little idea what direction this season will take the team. Is a return to the playoffs feasible? Absolutely. Is a sub-.500 disappointment possible? No doubt.

Here in Week 1, after the Bears’ shortened but still high-profile quarterback competition ended with Trubisky retaining his starting role, the loudest conversation in Chicago centers around when backup Nick Foles might take over. Sports talk radio stations are holding promotional contests on that guessing game.

Week 4? Week 7? Not at all?

Uncertainty is the only certainty

Even Bears Chairman George McCaskey hasn’t been able to get a true feel for who the 2020 Bears will be or what the season will look like.

Said McCaskey: “The commissioner told us in our league meeting last week that our 101st season is going to be unlike any of the previous 100. So yeah, there will be challenges. We think the team that best adapts to those challenges will have a better chance of winning.”

As he does annually, McCaskey announced his best-case vision.

“The goal every year,” he said, “is to win the Super Bowl.”

That, of course, hasn’t happened in 35 years. And the Bears haven’t even won a playoff game since 2010. So who knows what this season will hold?

“Two years ago we made a great run and fell short,” McCaskey said. “Last year we regressed. So we need to find out which team this is. Is it the team that took the NFL by storm two years ago? Or is it the team that fell back last year?”

As the season begins, no one can say.

Will all of this end with a surprise citywide -- and likely socially distanced -- celebration? Or will the Bears be left to hit the reset button yet again?

In a year where uncertainty is the only certainty, everyone had better buckle in and be ready for anything.


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