TAMPA, Fla. — The many lessons learned from 2020 will be needed as the NFL moves forward, commissioner Roger Goodell noted Thursday in his annual state of the league news conference ahead of the Super Bowl.
Held before both in-person and virtual audiences and staged outside of the arena that is home to the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, Goodell said developments ranging from dealing with the coronavirus pandemic to minority coaching hires to scheduling to the NFL's working relationship with the players' union all will be major topics.
"I don't know when normal will occur again, or if normal will occur again," he said. "I know we have learned to work in a very difficult environment, and we will do it again. That is one of the things we learned ... hearing clubs and the NFLPA saying our relationship has never been stronger, I interpret that as a trust that has been built here that will take us forward and will be the long-lasting legacy of this season."
That legacy, on the positive side, includes something other major sports leagues and organizations couldn't manage: playing a full season, uninterrupted, with the championship game on time despite COVID-19.
"This was an extraordinary collective effort," Goodell said. "There's so many people that had to work together to get this done. There were doubters, people that didn't believe we could do it — we had a lot of unknowns ourselves. We believed that staying on schedule and working to try to get 256 games done — as we try to say, 'avoid the asterisk,' I think we were able to do that."
The negative part of this season's legacy, one that has plagued a league in which 70% of the players are minorities, has been the head coach hiring cycle. Goodell said the NFL is not satisfied with only two minorities having been hired for seven head coach openings: The New York Jets brought on board Robert Saleh, the first NFL coach who is known to be Muslim and the son of Lebanese immigrants, and the Houston Texans hired David Culley, making him only the third Black head coach currently in the league.
"We had two minority coaches hired, and it was not what we expected," the commissioner said, "and not what we expect going forward."
Goodell noted three African-American general managers were hired in this cycle, with more diversity also seen among coordinators, something the NFL can build on.
Asked if the league would discuss future seasons having a hiring freeze on head coaches until after the Super Bowl, Goodell said everything that could enhance diversity would be explored.
The offseason structure for the league is so uncertain that Goodell preferred not to be specific about training camps and preseason games for 2021, though he did say the NFL plans to hold international games next season. There's no timeline for when the league has to decide whether to go ahead with international games in 2021, however.
"We hope to get to be there," he said. "We're planning for it. We'll make that decision whenever we have enough information to do so."
Cleveland Browns offensive lineman JC Tretter, president of the league's players' union, has suggested there is no need for required minicamps and other workouts at team facilities, given how the NFL got through 2020 without them.
Goodell, though, mentioned the opportunities younger players have to improve or just to make teams through offseason activites and preseason games. He added the NFL will look into what changes from the pandemic season are worth keeping even if COVID-19 is no longer a factor, but the fact that coaches and players were able to remotely work through the playbooks in 2020 showed the league something.
Said Goodell: "The virtuals are going to be a part of our life for a long time."
Other noteworthy moments from the commissioner's conference:
— Goodell said it's far too early to talk about whether unvaccinated players will be playing next season or if fans will need to be vaccinated to attend games in 2021. The NFL hopes most of society is vaccinated by summer because it's in the best interest of the country. If the NFL's protocols must be altered, Goodell said the league will do so.
The NFL is endorsing the use of vaccines for the coronavirus pandemic by hosting 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers at Super Bowl LV on Sunday in Tampa.
— An investigation into allegations of sexual harassment in the Washington Football Team's organization will be finished soon. Beth Wilkinson was hired after a report in the Washington Post that 15 female employees team alleged sexual harassment and a poor working culture in the organization. Goodell said franchise owner Daniel Snyder has begun to make changes and is welcoming the probe.
"They asked for this type of review and recommendations on this," he said.
— Goodell acknowledged that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick deserves recognition and appreciation for bringing up issues of social justice and racism. Kaepernick highlighted those matters in the 2016 season when he kneeled during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality.
Goodell publicly apologized to Kaepernick last year for the league not listening to him enough and taking his concerns more seriously. Kaepernick has been unable to get a contract with any other team after being let go after the 2016 season.
Goodell said team owners and the league have worked with players to identify issues in their communities and that he is pleased with the commitment from the players and support from the owners.