There was no worry about COVID-19 on Feb. 2 when a packed crowd at Hard Rock Stadium watched Patrick Mahomes rally the Chiefs past the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.
No one in the stands wore masks and there was no talk of social distancing and the schools and restaurants and gyms and bars were open, and we turned our lonely sports eyes to spring training and to March Madness.
We didn’t expect March Madness would be the beginning of a pandemic that turned our world — turned the whole damn world — upside down.
We didn’t expect Breonna Taylor.
We didn’t expect George Floyd.
We didn’t expect Jacob Blake.
We didn’t expect the deadly twin viruses of COVID-19 and racism to frighten many of us and awaken some of us to Black Lives Matter.
And now, somehow and some way, against all odds, following a virtual offseason, following the cancellation of preseason games, the NFL on Thursday night (Texans at Chiefs) is prepared to give us a season.
A season like no other.
For however long it will last.
So we give you Serby’s annual 50 Most Fascinating People:
1. SOCIAL JUSTICE ACTIVISTS (2019 rank: NR)
Commissioner Roger Goodell has vowed to be all-in, and the wheels of substantive activism are finally in motion inside all 32 NFL organizations. The movement will be ever-present and omnipresent from Week 1 to Super Bowl LV … and beyond. The protests and push for further awareness and awakening will manifest themselves in various forms.
2. INFECTION CONTROL OFFICERS (NR)
The merciless, murderous virus has so far been contained by the NFL’s vigilance, but it will remain a threat to all 32 teams, especially when they begin to travel, especially when autumn arrives, and no one will be immune from the COVID-19 reserve list. Can the NFL really give us a season?
3. THE FANS (NR): Some stadiums will house some fans, others won’t. Wear a mask and don’t high-five or scream in your neighbor’s face.
4. TOM BRADY (12): Welcome to Tompa Bay. The mission: Win a seventh Super Bowl without Bill Belichick before Belichick wins a seventh Super Bowl without Brady. GOAT vs. GOAT.
5. PATRICK MAHOMES (1): The Chiefs’ defending Super Bowl MVP is armed with a historic 10-year contract worth up to $503 million because no deficit is too large for him to overcome, no throw, no-look or not, is impossible for him to make. Married to Chiefs, engaged to high school sweetheart Brittany Matthews.
6. LAMAR JACKSON (29): The 2019 regular-season MVP won’t sneak up on anyone this season. But he’s so dynamic it might not matter. Mahomes takes your breath away, but this dual threat is Most Exciting.
7. BILL BELICHICK (41): Life After Tom Brady. Life With Cam Newton. Don’t expect him to tank for Trevor Lawrence.
8. JON GRUDEN/MARK DAVIS (39/NR): The NFL’s big gamble — slot receivers and slot machines. Is there really room in the same town for Pete Rose and Gruden?
9. CAM NEWTON (NR): A big enough ego not to worry about succeeding Brady, and a $7.5 million chip on his shoulder with a monster free-agent deal waiting for him following the season.
10. BRUCE ARIANS (34): The Cool Uncle will be a breath of fresh air for Brady … and for the media. Mr. Risk-it or Biscuit has been a quote machine throughout his career. With Brady as his quarterback, everyone will pay far more attention.
11. DAK PRESCOTT (NR): He’s the quarterback of America’s Team, so all eyes are on him as he chases that elusive long-term deal amid the great expectations.
12. JOE BURROW (NR): Heisman Trophy winner. National champion at LSU. First pick of the NFL draft. And now, The Cincinnati Kid. Hope at last for the Bengals.
13. BAKER MAYFIELD (5): Cleveland got him a new head coach (Kevin Stefanski) and upgraded his offensive line, and now that he’s slimmed down, it’s about time the first pick of the 2018 NFL Draft regains his swag and plays like one.
14. PHILIP RIVERS (37): Old Man Rivers chases that elusive Super Bowl ring with … the Colts.
15. ROB GRONKOWSKI (21): One of the leaders in the clubhouse for Comeback Player of Year following his temporary retirement. Bet that Gronk will be more irreverent under Arians than he ever was under Belichick.
16. ANDY REID (NR): Still beloved and universally respected after getting the Super Bowl monkey off his back — and Big Red is signed through 2025. Show Super Bowl ring, get free cheeseburger.
17. CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY (NR): Highest-paid RB ($16 million AAV) because he’s much more than just a RB (303 receptions and 15 TDs in three seasons).
18. MIKE McCARTHY (NR): We’ll see if the year away from the sideline will give him the perspective and strength it will take to be America’s Coach for Jerry Jones.
19. BEN ROETHLISBERGER (NR): Can he win his third Super Bowl for the Steelers at age 38 after missing virtually all of 2019?
20. DREW BREES (31): He apologized enough for his tone-deaf anthem remarks to appease most of his teammates as he tries one last time at age 41 to win a second Super Bowl ring.
21. ANDREW BERRY (NR): The league’s youngest (32) general manager and one of only two black GMs (Chris Grier). The Browns got it right.
22. TREVOR LAWRENCE (NR): Casts a giant Tank For Trevor shadow over the season. Especially in Jacksonville. Especially if his head coach at Clemson, Dabo Swinney, winds up there.
23. COLIN KAEPERNICK (NR): If the blackballing doesn’t end now, it never will. He’ll be front and center in the news every time a quarterback — or a protest — goes down.
24. THE BOSA BROS. (NR): Big Brother Joey just cashed in on a five-year, $135 million contract ($102 million guaranteed). Little Brother Nick’s nine sacks as a rookie are just an appetizer.
25. THE WATT BROS. (NR): Big Brother J.J. has 96 career sacks and is a five-time Pro Bowler and living Texans legend. Middle brother Derek is a fullback and tenacious blocker and Steelers teammate of Little Brother T.J., who has 34.5 sacks in three seasons.
26. DESHAUN WATSON (27): He’s been everything Swinney promised he would be, and he’ll have to carry the Texans without DeAndre Hopkins. An MVP candidate.
27. TONY ROMO (28): He’ll stay with CBS through 2022 for $16 million a year, a better analyst than quarterback, and he was a pretty good quarterback. Smooth teammate Jim Nantz might be inclined to parrot Terrell Owens: “That’s my quarterback.”
28. TROY AIKMAN (NR): A pandemic football season means more eyes glued to televisions, to Fox, to Aikman and Joe Buck.
29. SAQUON BARKLEY (19): The classy, generational More Than A RB who plays for the New York Football Giants.
30. TEDDY BRIDGEWATER (NR): Such an easy guy to root for at Carolina after he overcame that devastating knee injury and waited four years for a starting gig.
31. AARON RODGERS (13): The Pack didn’t draft him a new wide receiver when they opted for QB Jordan Love, and he’ll be 37 in December. So much for the good news: he and Danica split.
32. CHASE YOUNG (NR): NFC offensive tackles and quarterbacks had better hope he isn’t better than the Bosa Bros.
33. KYLER MURRAY (2): There are no more questions about his height, and now he gets to target Hopkins. Scare Raid.
34. JERRY JONES (10): It’s been XXV years since he won his third Super Bowl, and it’s killing him. And he’ll let everyone know how much. Where will he stand on the anthem?
35. DANIEL SNYDER (NR): He’ll be scrambling for a new team nickname and a fumigated front office for his Washington Football Team.
36. DALLAS COWBOYS CHEERLEADERS (NR): Out of sight because of the pandemic, for the first time since they debuted in 1972, but not out of mind.
37. RUSSELL WILSON (NR): Ground-and-pound Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will keep it close until DangeRuss wins it in the fourth quarter.
38. AL RIVERON (4): He returns as the league’s top replay official, with help this season from Perry Fewell and Walt Anderson. Good luck to them all: They’ll need it, as always.
39. ODELL BECKHAM JR. (14): He’s healthy and blond again, and our former New York Drama King swears he has unfinished business in Cleveland. So nobody come get him.
40. SAM DARNOLD/DANIEL JONES (20/3): New York football’s Young Guns. Year 44 of Life After Joe Namath for the Jets. Year 2 of The Life After Eli Manning for the Giants. Darnold, the quarterback Dave Gettleman didn’t draft. Jones, the quarterback Gettleman did draft.
41. SARAH THOMAS (24): The first female to earn a playoff officiating assignment in 2019. Worked Vikings-49ers in January. Could a Super Bowl be next?
42. TUA TAGOVAILOA (40): His comeback from a dislocated hip and posterior wall fracture suffered last Nov. 16 against Mississippi State will see him take over from Ryan Fitzpatrick sooner rather than later.
43. ZOOM (NR): With zero locker-room access, the 32 public relations and IT departments will continue their diligent efforts to fill the void each week with player and coach interviews. If you bought the wildly bullish stock at the beginning of the pandemic, at least there’s that.
44. PRESIDENT TRUMP (NR): He’ll be looking for allies on the anthem front, and the pandemic hasn’t exactly kept him 6 feet away from Twitter. And don’t know if you’ve heard, it’s an election year.
45. GARDNER MINSHEW: (NR) Let’s enjoy Minshew Mania and The Mustache while we can.
46. AARON DONALD (33): Only the best defensive player in the league, and Ram Tough.
47. JAMAL ADAMS (NR): The President mouthed his way out of New York and will be a Seahawk For Life once he cashes in after the season. Could he help Pete Carroll overtake the 49ers?
48. MYLES GARRETT (NR): The $125 million man is encouraged not to remove any quarterback’s helmet and swing it at his exposed head.
49. TYREEK HILL (NR): The most exciting deep threat in the game, and Mahomes is his quarterback.
50. TAYSOM HILL (36): Sean Payton’s diabolical Swiss Army knife who can throw touchdown passes, catch touchdown passes and torment special teams. No relation to Tyreek.
WHO DROPPED OFF LAST YEAR’S LIST?
Eli Manning (3); Freddie Kitchens (6); Jimmy Garoppolo (7); Carson Wentz (8); Nick Foles (9); Andrew Luck (11); Le’Veon Bell (15); Kliff Kingsbury (16); Antonio Brown (17); Sean McVay (18); Dwayne Haskins (22); Vic Fangio (23); Gregg Williams (25); Jalen Ramsey (26); Ezekiel Elliott (30); Eddy Pineiro (32); Jacoby Brissett (35); Carli Lloyd (38); Tua Tagovailoa (40); Adam Gase (42); Travis Frederick (43); JuJu Smith-Schuster (44); Gil Brandt (45); Peyton Manning (46); Matthew Berry (47); Mike Pereira (48); DeMaurice Smith (49); Roger Goodell (50)
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