4 things we learned from the start of the 2020 NFL season, including fan reaction to protests

Between navigating the country’s worst pandemic in a century — not to mention a burgeoning social justice moment among its players — it would not be an understatement to say the past seven months have been a trying grind for the NFL and its teams.

For months, it felt like the regular season would never come, as offseason practices and preseason games got canceled and everyone pondered how the NFL — with so many players and coaches who could potentially be at risk — could possibly pull off the testing and contact tracing necessary for games to be responsibly played without a concentrated bubble.

But ultimately, something amazing happened on Thursday night — they somehow pulled it off!

And while the nationally televised showdown between the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans provided the entire country its first glimpse of pro football in 2020, the Chiefs’ thorough 34-20 victory also offered four storylines to monitor over the coming weeks and months.

Kansas City Chiefs players stand side-by-side prior to their game.
Kansas City Chiefs players, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15), stand for a presentation on social justice before their game against the Houston Texans on Thursday to kick off the 2020 NFL season. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

1. Analysis about fans’ reaction to player statements will be plentiful

Moments before kickoff at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs and the Texans gathered at midfield and locked arms in what was dubbed a “moment of unity.”

On the television broadcast, this appeared to be received with a scattering of boos among the crowd of approximately 16,000 in attendance, though some fans in the stands contested that account, taking to Twitter to say they didn’t hear any booing at all, while others pointed out that some fans were bellowing “CHIIIIIEFS” — a common tradition in Kansas City — not booing.

Others, still, suspected the fans who did boo may have been simply booing the Texans, some of whom were late getting onto the field during the moment of unity.

For what it’s worth, a handful of players and coaches who were asked about this after the game — including the Chiefs’ Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes and Tyrann Mathieu and the Texans’ Bill O’Brien — said they didn’t notice any booing during that moment.

“Being down there, I honestly didn’t hear a lot of booing; I’ve seen a little bit of the videos after,” Mahomes said, his thoughts essentially echoing the other three. “We wanted to show unity and show we were going to come together and fight the good fight, and we hope our fans will support us like they do in the game every single day.”

One player who did think he heard booing was Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, when he was asked about the Texans’ decision to stay in the locker room during the national anthem.

“The booing was unfortunate during that moment — I don’t fully understand that, there was no flag in that, there was nothing involved in that other than two teams coming together to show unity,” Watt said.

Regardless of what happened Thursday — and hey, we’ll get to see how the fans react if Chiefs players have a similar show of unity before the next home game — the social media reaction to the moment served as a stark reminder that in the few NFL stadiums where fans are allowed, the in-the-moment reactions to player-led statements will be closely watched and dissected, especially early in the season.

2. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the truth

Most people in and around the Chiefs’ organization have been calling this for months, but I’ll be darned if the Chiefs’ first-round rookie doesn’t look like the dynamic piece that can make this team look like the Greatest Show On Turf-like unit that we saw for most of the 2018 season, at least until the team released star running back Kareem Hunt.

Edwards-Helaire showed off his trademark quickness and elusiveness, using both to rack up 138 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. Given the Chiefs’ speedy, pass-oriented offense — one that will cause defenses to be proactive toward devoting resources to taking away the deep ball — there won’t be many occasions where Edwards-Helaire will have to run against heavy boxes going forward.

That means he’ll likely be a problem for opposing teams all season long, especially since …

3. Edwards-Helaire can still do more — much more

Edwards-Helaire was targeted only twice and didn’t catch any passes on Thursday. That means the Chiefs didn’t fully show everything the 5-foot-7, 207-pounder can do. Edwards-Helaire is impossible to cover on angle and option routes, and he has good solid, reliable hands. It’s going to be fun to watch all the ways the Chiefs and Reid will unleash him over the course of the season.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire carries the ball against the Houston Texans.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire rushed for 138 yards and one touchdown in his debut. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

4. We still don’t have answers about the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins-less offense

The Texans’ star quarterback is one of the game’s best young players, a Houdini-like figure in the pocket who clearly has a championship ceiling.

But as a fan of the game, someone who likes to see great players reach their ceiling, I am worried about the relentless pressure he faced all night. I also didn’t like how the Texans — who just signed Deshaun Watson to a massive extension — failed to remain competitive despite having an entire offseason to prepare for this one game following their embarrassing divisional-round loss last January when they got outscored 51-7 to close the game.

Fortunately for the Texans, they still have 15 games left to prove they’ll be better without star receiver DeAndre Hopkins. They’ll need more from their receivers, better blocking up front and, yes, better play from Watson, though he is the least of my concerns with that team.

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