2021 NFL Season
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2021 NFL Season

2021 National Football League season
Regular season
DurationSeptember 9, 2021 (2021-09-09) - January 9, 2022 (2022-01-09)
Playoffs
Start dateJanuary 15, 2022
Super Bowl LVI
DateFebruary 13, 2022
SiteSoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California
Pro Bowl
DateFebruary 6, 2022
SiteAllegiant Stadium, Paradise, Nevada

The 2021 NFL season is scheduled to be the 102nd season of the National Football League (NFL). The league expanded the regular season from a 16-game schedule to 17 games.[1] The regular season is scheduled to start on September 9, 2021, with defending Super Bowl LV champion Tampa Bay hosting Dallas in the NFL Kickoff Game and end on January 9, 2022. The playoffs are scheduled to start on January 15, 2022, and will conclude with Super Bowl LVI, the league's championship game, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, on February 13.

Player movement

The 2021 NFL league year and trading period began on March 17. On March 15, teams were allowed to exercise options for 2021 on players with option clauses in their contracts, submit qualifying offers to their pending restricted free agents, and submit a Minimum Salary Tender to retain exclusive negotiating rights to their players with expiring 2020 contracts and fewer than three accrued seasons of free agent credit. Teams were required to be under the salary cap using the "top 51" definition (in which the 51 highest paid-players on the team's payroll must have a combined salary cap). On March 17, clubs were allowed to contact and begin contract negotiations with players whose contracts had expired and thus became unrestricted free agents.

Free agency

Free agency began on March 17. Notable players to change teams included:

Trades

The following notable trades were made during the 2021 league year:

  • March 17: Detroit traded QB Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for QB Jared Goff, a 2021 third round selection (No. 101), a 2022 first round selection, and a 2023 first round selection.[2]
  • March 17: Philadelphia traded QB Carson Wentz to Indianapolis in exchange for a 2021 third round selection and a conditional 2022 second round selection.[3]
  • March 17: Las Vegas traded C Rodney Hudson and 2021 seventh round selection to Arizona in exchange for a 2021 third round selection.[4]
  • March 17: New England traded OT Marcus Cannon and 2021 fifth and sixth round selections to Houston in exchange for 2021 fourth and sixth round selections.[5]
  • March 17: Houston traded LB Benardrick McKinney and a 2021 seveth round selection to Miami in exchange for DE Shaq Lawson and a 2021 sixth round selection.[6]
  • March 17: Las Vegas traded OT Trent Brown and a 2021 fifth round selection to New England in exchange for a 2021 seventh round selection.[7]
  • April 5: The New York Jets traded QB Sam Darnold to Carolina in exchange for a 2021 sixth round selection and 2022 second and fourth round selections.[8]
  • April 23: Baltimore traded OT Orlando Brown Jr., a 2021 second round selection, and a 2022 sixth round selection to Kansas City for 2021 first, third, and fourth round selections and a 2022 fifth round selection.[9]
  • April 28: Carolina traded QB Teddy Bridgewater to Denver for a 2021 sixth round selection.[10]
  • June 6: Atlanta traded WR Julio Jones and a 2023 sixth round selection to Tennessee in exchange for a 2022 second round selection and a 2023 fourth round selection.[11]
  • July 28: Houston traded WR Randall Cobb to Green Bay in exchange for a 2022 sixth round selection.[12]

Retirements

Notable retirements

Other retirements

Draft

The 2021 NFL Draft was held in Cleveland from April 29 to May 1.[68] Jacksonville, by virtue of having the worst record in 2020, held the first overall selection and selected QB Trevor Lawrence out of Clemson.[69]

Officiating changes

The NFL hired Maia Chaka as its second female official (joining Sarah Thomas) and first African-American female official.[70]

Rule changes

The following rule changes were approved at the NFL Owner's Meeting on April 21:[71]

  • The jersey numbering system was modified as follows:[72]
    • Running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers can wear 1-49 and 80-89
    • Defensive backs can wear 1-49
    • Linebackers can wear 1-59 and 90-99
    • The following remain unchanged: offensive linemen (50-79); defensive linemen (50-79, 90-99); and quarterbacks, punters, and kickers (1-19).
    • Per the league's existing rules, any player who changes his number this season must buy out the inventory of his existing jersey before the change can be made. A player who intends to change his number for the 2022 season can do so without cost.
  • Overtime in preseason games has been eliminated. This will be the first season since 1973 in which overtime is not used in the preseason.[73]
  • All accepted penalties by either team during consecutive extra point or two-point conversion attempts are to be enforced. This closes a loophole that occurred during a 2019 Chicago-Denver game.[74]
  • The penalties for a second forward pass from behind the line of scrimmage and for a pass thrown after the ball returns behind the line will now include a loss of down. This was passed in response to a play in a 2020 Tampa Bay-Los Angeles Rams game.[75]
  • During kickoffs, the receiving team may have no more than nine players in the "set-up zone" (the area between 10 and 25 yards from the kickoff spot).[76]
  • An expansion of the booth-to-official communication on replays, allowing replay officials to advise on "specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present and/or to address game administration issues."[71]

COVID-19 protocols

The league introduced COVID-19 protocols intended to encourage vaccination among players, coaches, and staff. On July 22, the NFL warned teams that if a game postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks among unvaccinated players cannot be made up within the 18-week regular season schedule, the team responsible for the outbreak will be charged with a loss by forfeit and will be responsible for financial compensation to the other team, as normally players on both teams are not paid for canceled games.[77] On July 24, it was reported that the league will fine players $14,650 for each violation of COVID-19 protocol if they are unvaccinated.[78]

2021 deaths

Pro Football Hall of Fame members

Floyd Little
Little spent all nine years of his professional career as a running back with the Denver Broncos and was inducted into the Hall in 2010. He died January 1, age 78.[79]

Others

Preseason

Training camps are scheduled to be held from late July through August.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Game is scheduled for August 5 between Dallas and Pittsburgh. The two teams were previously scheduled to play the 2020 game before it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[80]

Corresponding with the expansion of the regular season to 17 games, the preseason has been reduced to three games per team.[1] NFC teams will each host two preseason games and AFC teams will each host one.[81] There will be a league-wide bye week the weekend of September 4-5, between the final preseason game and the start of the regular season.

Regular season

The NFL released its regular season schedule on May 12.[82] The season will be played over an 18-week schedule beginning on September 9. Each of the league's 32 teams will play 17 games, with one bye week for each team. The regular season will conclude on January 9, 2022; all games during the final weekend will be intra-division games, as it has been since 2010.

The 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) signed by league owners and the National Football League Players Association allowed for an expansion of the regular season from 16 to 17 games. On March 30, 2021, owners approved the expanded schedule.[1] The extra game was added to the league's existing 16-game scheduling formula. Each team will continue to play the other three teams in its own division twice, one game against each of the four teams from a division in its own conference, one game against each of the four teams from a division in the other conference, and one game against each of the remaining two teams in its conference that finished in the same position in their respective divisions the previous season (e.g., the team that finished fourth in its division would play all three other teams in its conference that also finished fourth in their divisions).

The added game is a fifth interconference matchup between divisions that had played each other two years earlier, based on the position in their respective divisions the previous season (e.g. the team that finished fourth in its division would play a club that finished fourth in a division of the other conference). AFC teams would host the extra game in odd-numbered years, including 2021, with NFC teams getting the extra home game in even-numbered years.[83][84]

The division pairings for 2021 are as follows:

Four intra-conference games
AFC East vs AFC South
AFC North vs AFC West
NFC East vs NFC South
NFC West vs NFC North

Four inter-conference games
AFC East vs NFC South
AFC North vs NFC North
AFC South vs NFC West
AFC West vs NFC East

Added game
NFC East at AFC East
NFC West at AFC North
NFC South at AFC South
NFC North at AFC West

Highlights of the 2021 season will include:

Saturday flexible scheduling

When the entire season schedule was released on May 12, the league announced that in Weeks 15 and 18, two games would be moved to their respective Saturdays.

Week 15

Two of the following five designated games will be moved to Saturday, December 18 at 4:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. ET exclusively on NFL Network. The final times of these games will be announced no later than four weeks prior to game day:[88]

Week 18

For the first time in league history, two games with playoff implications will be moved to the last Saturday of the regular season, January 8 at 4:30 pm and 8:15 pm ET airing on ESPN and ABC. This move will be in the same manner that the final Sunday Night Football game will be announced following the conclusion of Week 17.[89][90]

Postseason

The 2021 playoffs are scheduled to begin on the weekend of January 15-16, 2022, with the Wild Card Round. Three Wild Card games will be played in each conference.[91] Three games will be played each day.[91] The league is reportedly considering moving one wild card game from Saturday, January 15 to Monday night, January 17.

In the Divisional Round scheduled for January 22-23, the top seed in the conference will play the lowest remaining seed and the other two remaining teams will play each other. The winners of those games will advance to the Conference Championships scheduled for January 30.[92] Super Bowl LVI is scheduled for February 13 at 6:30 p.m. on NBC at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.[92]

Head coaching and front office changes

Head coaches

Off-season

Team Departing coach Interim coach Incoming coach Reason for leaving Notes
Atlanta Falcons Dan Quinn Raheem Morris Arthur Smith Fired After an 0-5 start, Quinn was fired on October 11, 2020. He had a 43-42 (.506) record during his 5+ season tenure with the Falcons, with two playoff appearances, including one Super Bowl appearance.[93]

Morris, the team's defensive coordinator, was previously the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with a record of 17-31 (.354) and no playoff appearances. He finished out the 2020 season with a 4-7 (.364) record.[94]

Smith served as an assistant coach for the Tennessee Titans from 2011-2020 and most recently served as offensive coordinator for the last two seasons; the Falcons hired Smith on January 16. This would be his first NFL head coaching job.[95]

Detroit Lions Matt Patricia Darrell Bevell Dan Campbell Patricia was fired on November 28, 2020. He had a 13-29-1 (.314) record during his 2+ season tenure with the Lions, with no playoff appearances and finishing both complete seasons in last place in the NFC North.[96]

Bevell, the team's offensive coordinator, was promoted to interim head coach. This was his first head coaching position. He finished out the 2020 season with a 1-4 (.200) record.[96]

Campbell, who had a 5-7 (.417) record as interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins for part of 2015, was hired on January 20. He previously served as the assistant head coach/tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints from 2016 to 2020.[97]

Houston Texans Bill O'Brien Romeo Crennel David Culley After an 0-4 start, O'Brien was fired on October 5, 2020. He had a 52-48 (.520) record during his 6+ season tenure with the Texans, with four AFC South titles.[98]

Crennel, the team's associate head coach, was previously the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, with a combined record of 28-55 (.337) and no playoff appearances. At age 73, he became the oldest head coach in NFL history. He finished out the 2020 season with a 4-8 (.333) record.[99]

On January 29, the Texans hired Culley, whom for the last 42 years, was an assistant coach for several teams, most recently for the Baltimore Ravens. This would be his first head coaching job. Culley became the oldest first-time head coach in NFL history at age 65.[100]

Jacksonville Jaguars Doug Marrone Urban Meyer After 4+ seasons with a 23-43 (.348) record, Marrone was fired on January 4. The Jaguars made the playoffs once during his tenure, advancing to the AFC Championship Game. They finished 1-15 (.063) in 2020, ending the season on a 15-game losing streak.[101]

Meyer, an experienced college football head coach with a combined record of 187-32 (.854) with Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, and Ohio State, and three national championships, was hired on January 14. This would be his first NFL coaching position.[102]

Los Angeles Chargers Anthony Lynn Brandon Staley Lynn was fired on January 4 after four seasons with the team with a 33-31 (.516) record and one playoff appearance. The Chargers finished 7-9 (.438) in 2020.[103]

Staley was hired on January 17. He had spent the previous season as defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams. This was his first head coaching position.[104]

New York Jets Adam Gase Robert Saleh Gase was fired on January 3 after finishing the 2020 season 2-14 (.125). He was 9-23 (.281) in two seasons with the Jets, with no playoff appearances.[105]

Saleh, who was a longtime defensive coach in the NFL and on the college level, was hired on January 14. He was most recently the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator from 2017 to 2020. This was his first head coaching position.[106]

Philadelphia Eagles Doug Pederson Nick Sirianni Pederson was fired on January 11 after 5 seasons with the Eagles, with a total regular season record of 42-37-1 (.531), and a playoff record of 4-2 (.667). His tenure included 3 playoff appearances, 2 NFC East division titles, and a Super Bowl LII title. The Eagles finished 4-11-1 (.281) in 2020.[107][108]

Former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was hired as Eagles' head coach on January 24. This marked Sirianni's first head coaching job.[109]

Front office personnel

Off-season

Team Position Departing office holder Interim replacement Incoming office holder Reason for leaving Notes
Atlanta Falcons General manager Thomas Dimitroff none Terry Fontenot Fired After an 0-5 start, Dimitroff was fired on October 11, 2020, after 12 seasons.[93]

Fontenot was hired on January 18. He spent previous 18 seasons with the New Orleans Saints organization, most recently as vice president/assistant general manager of pro personnel.[110]

Carolina Panthers Marty Hurney none Scott Fitterer Hurney was fired on December 21, 2020, after 14+ seasons in two stints (2002-12, 2017-20). In his time with the Panthers he was responsible for drafting star players such as Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, and Thomas Davis.[111]

Fitterer, former Seattle Seahawks' vice president of football operations, was hired on January 14. He previously served with the Seahawks for 20 seasons in various executive roles.[112]

Denver Broncos John Elway George Paton Resigned Elway announced on January 4 that he was stepping down from his role as general manager after 10 years, although he would remain as president of football operations.[113]

Paton was hired on January 13. He was previously a member of the Minnesota Vikings organization since 2007. This was his first GM position.[114][115]

Detroit Lions Bob Quinn by committee Brad Holmes Fired Quinn was fired on November 28, 2020, after five seasons.[96] A combination of front office personnel would handle GM duties for the remainder of the season.

On January 14, Holmes was hired as new general manager and executive vice president. He spent last 18 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and named director of college scouting since 2013.[116]

Houston Texans Bill O'Brien Jack Easterby Nick Caserio O'Brien was named general manager of the team during the 2020 offseason, after splitting general manager duties with Easterby, the executive vice president of football operations, and other team executives in 2019.[98] Easterby took over GM duties for the rest of the season.[117]

Caserio was hired on January 7. He was a long-time member of the New England Patriots organization, as an offensive assistant, a scout, and their director of player personnel from 2008-2020.[118]

Jacksonville Jaguars David Caldwell Trent Baalke Caldwell was fired on November 29, 2020, after eight seasons.[119]

Baalke, the team's director of player personnel, would serve as interim GM through the end of the season.[119] Previously, he was the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2016. On January 21, 2021, Baalke was named permanent GM.[120]

Washington Football Team Ron Rivera (de facto) none Martin Mayhew N/A After four seasons without an official general manager, the team hired Mayhew on January 22. He previously served as the GM for the Detroit Lions from 2008 to 2015, and had been working in the San Francisco 49ers' front office since 2017.[121]

Stadiums

Stadium changes

  • The Kansas City Chiefs sold naming rights to their home stadium to health insurer GEHA, renaming the facility to GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. It is the first time in the stadium's 50-year history that it has had a naming rights sponsor.[122]
  • The Buffalo Bills sold naming rights to their home stadium to Pittsburgh-based health insurer Highmark, resulting in the stadium being renamed Highmark Stadium.[123]
  • The New Orleans Saints sold naming rights to their home stadium to casino operator Caesars Entertainment, renaming the facility to Caesars Superdome.[124]

COVID-19 restrictions

Aided by the availability of vaccines, by June 29 all 32 NFL teams had received approval to play their games with no restrictions on attendance. This comes after all games in 2020 were played with either a greatly reduced audience or no fans at all due to local or state public health orders.[125]

Uniforms

Uniform changes

  • Cincinnati unveiled new uniforms on April 19. The uniforms are similar to their previous set, but have removed some features such as colored shoulder pads, side panels and outlined nameplates for a toned-down appearance. The team's trademark stripes were left as the most prominent feature.[126]
  • Cleveland will feature a new white uniform reminiscent of their uniform's 1946 design, commemorating the team's 75th anniversary. Helmet sides are divided with a thin white stripe and have corresponding numbering on either side. Jersey numbers are brown with an orange drop shadow.[127]
  • Indianapolis will wear a new throwback uniform on November 28. The design pays homage to the 1956 team, featuring a three-stripe shoulder pattern and helmets with rear logo placement. This design is similar to the one found on the helmet worn with their 2010 alternate uniforms.[128]
  • Jacksonville made its alternate teal jerseys its primary uniform. The team had previously used teal jerseys as the primary uniform from 1995-2011.[129]
  • The Los Angeles Rams revealed a modern throwback variation of their away uniforms on July 13. This design incorporates blue and yellow sleeves, similar to the ones worn on team uniforms from 1978 to 1999.[130]
  • San Francisco unveiled new red throwback uniforms based on the 1994 Super Bowl team on June 30 in celebration of the franchise's 75th anniversary. The uniforms, which feature white numbers with black drop shadows, are counterpart to the all-white 1994 throwback uniforms used by the team since 2018.[131]
  • After eschewing an alternate uniform in 2020, the Green Bay Packers announced a new design that will be worn during the 2021 season. This throwback design will feature green instead of blue, which was the primary color of the team's third uniform from 2010 to 2019.[132]

Media

Broadcast rights

Television

This will be the eighth year under the current broadcast contracts with CBS, ESPN, Fox, and NBC. This includes "cross-flexing" (switching) Sunday afternoon games between CBS and Fox before or during the season, regardless of the conference of the visiting team. NBC airs Sunday Night Football, the Kickoff Game, and the Thanksgiving night game. ESPN airs Monday Night Football, with this season's Week 1 game simulcast on ABC. ESPN will also simulcast one Wild Card Playoff game and the 2022 Pro Bowl on ABC. As part of ESPN's renewal of rights to Monday Night Football, a Saturday doubleheader on the final week of the regular season has been added. Those two games will also air on ABC.[133][134] Thursday Night Football airs on NFL Network, with Fox, Twitch and Prime Video simulcasting 11 of 15 games (weeks 5-15).[135] This is the final season of the Thursday Night Football contract with Fox and NFL Network.[136]

NBC will televise Super Bowl LVI. CBS was originally scheduled to broadcast the game under the current rotation. However, CBS traded the game to NBC in exchange for Super Bowl LV. Super Bowl LVI falls during the 2022 Winter Olympics, the first to be scheduled during an ongoing Olympic Games (NBC also holds the U.S. broadcast rights to the Olympics).[137]

On March 18, the NFL announced its future television deals for 2023-2033, which will see CBS, Fox, and NBC maintain their existing Sunday packages with expanded digital rights for their streaming services, (Paramount+, Tubi, and Peacock, respectively), and Thursday Night Football move exclusively to Amazon and Twitch. ESPN also entered into a new agreement for Monday Night Football beginning in 2022.[133][134] It was later announced in May that Fox and NFL Network had opted out of its final season of Thursday Night Football, so this will be Fox and NFL Network's final season for the package.[136] NBC is maintaining Spanish-language rights to Sunday Night Football for Universo, while its Spanish broadcast network Telemundo will air selected games, including NBC's primetime Wild Card games and for the first time, Super Bowl LVI .[138]

On July 19, ESPN announced an agreement with Omaha Productions, the production company of Peyton Manning, to produce alternate telecasts of Monday Night Football with Manning, his brother Eli, and guest celebrities for ten games each season on ESPN2 and ESPN+, from 2021 through 2023.[139]

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