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Fans shouldn’t get their hopes up for a normal NFL offseason

The NFL Combine has already fallen victim to the continuing COVID pandemic.

NFL Combine - Day 3
The Underwear Olympics are pretty much dead for this year.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

One widely-accepted reason for the cratering of the 2020 Dallas Cowboys was that they had nothing resembling a normal offseason to work with due to the COVID-19 restrictions put in place by the NFL. Getting back to normal is seen as a major component in setting things right this year. However, that has already taken a severe blow with word that the NFL Combine is not going to happen, at least in a way we would recognize. The 2021 offseason is already shaping up to be another virtual and limited affair for the league.

While things have not been formally decided, Albert Breer reports in the article linked above that things seemed headed in a definite direction.

League officials—with medical people, team personnel and National Football Scouting president Jeff Foster on the line—held a call Friday to discuss again how to proceed with the run-up to the 2021 NFL draft. According to well-placed sources, the idea of having the combine in Indianapolis in any sort of traditional manner on time is dead, and the overwhelming likelihood is that the performance and medical components are split up.

The apparent approach will be to decentralize things. For the medical checks, the big issue appears to be making sure everything is standardized and the results are reliable. Early indications are that the NFL may try to have a small number of locations throughout the country so they don’t have to try and police a myriad of medical testing locations.

Concepts centered on regionalized medical checks, with teams allowed to send one or two people (either doctors or trainers) each to attend. Teams made clear to the NFL that the gathering of medical information was the one piece of the combine that was most vital and hardest for them to replicate independently. The likelihood now is the NFL will have the checks at hospitals in places where large numbers of players are doing combine prep—like Florida, California, Arizona and Texas (85 percent of prospects are working out in those four states)—to cut down on players’ travel. Also worth noting: many team docs traveling to those sites will have been vaccinated.

As for the variety of drills and performance measurements that have led to the Combine being dubbed the Underwear Olympics, that will almost certainly be done at college campuses across the nation.

More formalized pro days to replace the lost workouts. This would mean either team or league officials conducting drills and testing on campus, with everything standardized and information dispersed as it would be at the combine.

Most of the rest of the impacts have already been experienced, as the cancellation of pre-draft visits was among the first precautions the league enforced last year. In that regard, the Cowboys seemed to do well, resulting in a draft class that produced four rookie starters during the season - five, if you count Ben DiNucci’s lone game, which we try to avoid.

There is still hope that things could improve enough to allow other offseason activities to be reinstated, like minicamps and OTAs. However, there are warning signs that we may still be a long way from that happening with the pandemic still raging.

The Cowboys, and the entire league, have to plan for the worst case scenario of doing things the same way they did last year. It turned into a lost season for Dallas, and now they have to be ready to go through installing yet another defense under extremely limiting conditions. Even worse, if Kellen Moore is lured away by the Philadelphia Eagles to try and fix the dysfunctional situation there, including a quarterback who apparently at least partially self-inflicted his own meltdown last year, they will be forced to do so on both sides of the ball.

There is some hope that Dan Quinn’s defense will be less complicated and easier to install, relying on concepts that most of the veterans are familiar with from the pre-Mike Nolan days. And Mike McCarthy would likely take the lead if Moore does make a risky jump into the fetid waters of the Philadelphia organization. He might even take the offensive coordinator job and/or play-calling himself. His intimate familiarity with what the team did last year would be ameliorating.

Still, the loss of a second offseason, or significant cutbacks from what we were accustomed to, is a major challenge. It will at best hamper things this year, and at worse could have some of the same carryover effects that helped mire the Cowboys in the nether reaches of the standings in 2020.