While the 2020 NFL season is officially underway, things were still a bit different during Week 1. Beyond some notable uniform changes—Tom Brady made his Tampa Bay Buccaneers debut while Cam Newton replaced him in New England—no team allowed a full complement of fans into their stadium. Bill Belichick, for one, immediately noticed that difference.
While the Patriots coach is never the most verbose man, he only uttered a single word when asked about the atmosphere on Sunday. That answer, however, perfectly explained the challenges that NFL teams are facing.
The New England Patriots won’t have any home fans to start the season
Unlike other sports leagues, the NFL doesn’t have a unilateral policy about allowing fans in stadiums. Instead, each team gets to make its own decision; that means that the New England Patriots will start the year with an empty stadium.
“Following consultation with the Massachusetts Reopening Advisory Board, Gillette Stadium officials learned today that we will not be permitted to host fans at any events through at least the end of September,” the team explained in an official statement. “As a result, the Patriots home opener on September 13 and the game on September 27, as well as the next three Revolution home matches on August 20, 29, and September 2, will be played without fans in attendance.”
Once September ends, however, the next steps aren’t clear. Earlier in the summer, Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported that the Patriots were among the teams “working on a ‘pods’ system of attendance,” allowing fans to with their own group while remaining socially distanced from others. At this point, though, New England fans will just have to wait and see what unfolds.
Bill Belichick says the atmosphere was like ‘practice’
During Week 1, the New England Patriots won their opening game against the Miami Dolphins in fairly comfortable fashion. Cam Newton turned in a solid performance and, after the final whistle, Bill Belichick was in midseason form.
During his postgame press conference, Belichick fielded a question about the lack of fans in Gillette Stadium. “What was the atmosphere like in the stadium without fans there,” a reporter asked. “Can you compare it to anything else you’ve experienced in your football career?”
Without missing a beat or changing his expression, Belichick simply responded, “practice.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Bill Belichick’s answer was entertaining, but it points to a legitimate challenge
As you would imagine, Bill Belichick’s one-word response was a hit on social media. The answer wasn’t just entertaining, though; it points out a legitimate challenge to life without fans.
While it’s easy to say that professional athletes should be able to perform under any circumstances, humans are creatures of habit. If you’ve played in front of raucous crowds for the past five seasons, things will feel different in an empty stadium. If things feel more like practice than a game, it’s easy to step off the gas and give 95% percent instead of the full 100.
“I feel like the fans pick you up,” LA Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald explained, according to Fox Sports. “The fans are what makes the game exciting. The fans would give you that extra juice when you’re tired and fatigued. When you make that big play and you hear 80,000 fans going crazy, that pumps you up. If you don’t have that in the game, I think that just takes the fun out of it.”
Legendary receiver Jerry Rice also voiced a similar opinion during one of his radio appearances, saying that fans helped inspire him to be his best every Sunday.
Without fans in the stands, players and coaches have to pick up the slack and ensure that everyone is ready to go once they take the field. Based on everything we know about Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots, though, they won’t have a problem adjusting to whatever 2020 throws their way.