SALT LAKE CITY — The last time two NFL teams lined up, the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers were playing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy and Andy Reid was still seeking his first championship as a head coach.
Oh, what a weird seven months — thanks in large part to a pandemic — it’s been since then.
Reid, of course, got that Super Bowl ring as his Chiefs rallied with 21 points in the fourth quarter to beat the 49ers in the 2020 Super Bowl back on Feb. 2. His team recently received their championship rings, celebrating the franchise’s first title in 50 years.
With the novel coronavirus pandemic altering sports around the world, the NFL has had to adjust, too, including no preseason games this season. So when the Chiefs face the Houston Texans on Thursday night in the 2020 opener, it will be the first time since early February that two NFL teams will have the chance to shake off the rust and actually play a game.
Even with all the uncertainty that looms around the year, why should Utahns tune in to the 2020 season? Glad you asked.
Can the Chiefs repeat?
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a former BYU player and graduate assistant, Reid has plenty of fans in Utah.
Now heading into his 22nd season as an NFL head coach, Reid and his team look like strong contenders for years to come after locking up long-term deals with quarterback Patrick Mahomes, defensive tackle Chris Jones and tight end Travis Kelce this offseason.
The Chiefs also employ a handful of Utah ties on their roster, most notably former BYU safety Daniel Sorensen, who stepped in for injured Juan Thornhill and started every game during Kansas City’s playoff run last year and made several key plays. Sorensen, known as Dirty Dan for his relentless work ethic, will again contribute on defense and special teams.
Former Utah State running Darwin Thompson is back for his second season in Kansas City, and former Layton High receiver Marcus Kemp missed last season with an injury, but he recently re-signed for a fourth season with the Chiefs.
“This is a weird one because of the pandemic,” CBS Sports reported Reid saying earlier this week of how his team has responded as defending champions. “Nobody got to go out. You always worry about guys celebrating and coaches celebrating and all this, well there wasn’t a whole lot of celebrating going on because we were confined to our homes.
“The thing I can go off of now is just the way the guys have worked and they’ve worked their tail off. I’m proud of them for that. They came back with a great attitude. I think everybody — probably around the league this is true, but everybody is just so glad to get back playing. There’s a great energy.”
COVID and social justice impact
Speaking of COVID-19, it’s created plenty of change. One local — former Utah, Snow College and Bingham High defensive tackle Star Lotulelei who’s now with the Buffalo Bills — chose to take the NFL’s option to opt out of the 2020 season because of the coronavirus.
Other Utah ties have also gone on the COVID-19 reserve list at some point. On Wednesday, former BYU linebacker Fred Warner, a budding star on the San Francisco 49ers defense, came off the COVID-19 reserve list, just four days before the 49ers host Arizona in their Week 1 opener.
“I can’t talk about it too much of his week away but Fred has been as reliable of a player as we’ve had. It’s great to get him back today. We were obviously pretty nervous about that. But he’s good to go and we’re very grateful he’s gonna be here,” San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday.
Right now, it’s full steam ahead for the NFL, though it will be flexible if changes become necessary due to the pandemic.
“We’re prepared if we have to do that,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said of making schedule changes, according to NBC Sports. “We’ve obviously gone through work on that basis with teams. There will be potential competitive inequities that will be required this season because of the virus and because of the circumstances that we wouldn’t do in other years. That’s going to be a reality of 2020. If we feel like we have an outbreak, that’s going to be driven by medical decisions — not competitive decisions.”
How, too, will the social justice movements that have occurred around the United States this summer be recognized during the NFL’s 2020 season? Recently, a player-led movement lead to a two-day postponement of the NBA’s postseason in Orlando — other leagues followed, including Major League Baseball, the WNBA and Major League Soccer — as players urged for the conversation concerning police brutality and racial injustice not be pushed to the back burner.
Earlier this offseason, the NFL pledged to commit $250 million over 10 years to a fund to combat systemic racism and support the battle against racial injustices faced by African Americans. The NFL has also announced it plans on playing “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” widely considered the Black national anthem, along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games.
“I’m hurting and pissed off, like everybody else. I’m tired like everybody else. I want to see something different, but it’s going to take leadership. We don’t have that leadership right now,” former Utah State linebacker and current Seattle Seahawk Bobby Wagner said in June as protests happened across the United States.
When asked this week if players and/or his coaching staff would be a part of any demonstration this week in support of social justice initiatives, Reid said, “We’ll see how it goes, as it all works out as we go forward. ... You know where our heart is and how we feel. I’m so proud of our guys for actually getting out and doing (things), the way they’ve handled it. I have full trust in them, as I think they do the coaches. We’ll go from there, see how it all works out on Thursday.”
The University of Utah leads the way among locals with 20 on active rosters as of Wednesday. The Utes’ rookie class is especially impressive, as seven Utah players were taken in April’s NFL draft and another four Ute rookies made practice squads.
Heading into Week 1, former Utah lockdown corner Jaylon Johnson is listed as a starter for the Chicago Bears. He’ll face veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions in his NFL debut.
“I would expect every quarterback to go after the rookie; that’s what I would do if I was a quarterback,” Johnson said in a media session Wednesday. “For me, it’s just about preparing myself to be able to make plays in those positions, and if I give up plays, just keep a strong mindset to just keep pushing.”
Utah’s all-time leading rusher, Zack Moss, is another rookie expected to make an immediate impact in the NFL, as he joins a Buffalo Bills backfield that includes second-year Devin Singletary, who broke out as a rookie and is the team’s returning starter.
“He’s just a rookie and so we have to manage expectations and he’s got a lot of work to do,” Buffalo coach Sean McDermott said of Moss, Democrat & Chronicle reported. “That said he certainly has shown in a short amount of time that he’s smart, that he’s physical, that he loves football, and that he’s willing to be a team player and that’s really what we can say at this point.”
The biggest name in the NFL to switch teams this offseason was six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady, who moved on after 20 seasons in New England to a new challenge with Tampa Bay.
There are a handful of Utah ties who are in new environments this year as well. Former BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy, a former Patriot teammate of Brady’s, signed a lucrative deal with the Miami Dolphins. Two former Utah State linebackers were also on the move in free agency: Nick Vigil from Cincinnati to the Los Angeles Chargers, and Kyler Fackrell from Green Bay to the New York Giants. Former Utah running back Devontae Booker said goodbye to Denver and hello to Las Vegas, joining an AFC West rival of his old team.
“Now that I’m here, shoot, I’m a rival to them. I just got to go out there and do my job,” Booker, who will provide running back depth for the Raiders, said Monday during a press conference.
Van Noy, a starter in Miami, is looking forward to helping the Dolphins snap their playoff victory drought.
“I hope we can be successful for this city. This city hasn’t won a playoff game in 20 years, and that’s one of our goals,” Van Noy said, according to the Sun Sentinel. “We’re reaching pretty high, and we hope we can obtain it and bring this city some good football.”
Established stars and their next move
For two quarterbacks on opposite sides of the BYU-Utah rivalry, it’s been an event-filled offseason. Former Cougar quarterback Taysom Hill signed a two-year, $21 million extension with New Orleans and is now listed as the backup going into the Saints’ opener against Tampa Bay. Former Ute quarterback Alex Smith, meanwhile, made the Washington Football Team’s 53-man active roster, as he continues to recover from a devastating leg injury in November 2018 that nearly led to having his leg amputated.
How Hill, who’s also used extensively at other offensive positions and on special teams, and Smith end up being utilized this season is worth watching.
The state of Utah is well-represented on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL, and among the league’s top defenders is Wagner. Can he and the Seahawks, who employ a handful of other locals, make a playoff run? The five-time All-Pro Wagner has a Super Bowl ring, though it’s been seven years.
In San Francisco, can Warner and the 49ers find the right formula to challenge for a championship again? The same can be asked of former Utah safety and current Saint Marcus Williams, who like Warner, has been a starter since he entered the league.
“I felt like I competed at a high level last year,” Warner said in a video conference with media in early August. “I think my peers, they saw that. It probably wasn’t reflected as much in the awards last year when it came to All-Pro and those types of things. But obviously, we got to the Super Bowl and that’s all I care about. And continuing to become the best player I can be for this team so that we can make it back to that game and make sure the outcome is how we want it.”