Peering ahead to September is trickier than ever before.
Thanks to COVID-19, we have no idea when players and coaches will gather, toiling away on secret fields to concoct a product worthy of the playoffs.
Will OTAs unfold in any fashion? Will training camp launch as planned? Will Week 1 materialize on time or be shipped down the line to a date TBD?
We don't know, but football -- when it returns -- will crescendo with an expanded field of 14 playoff teams.
In today's REMOTE EXERCISE, let's pinpoint a gaggle of postseason entrants from a year ago who might struggle to get back to the party based on a shaky fortnight of player transactions:
Houston Texans (2019 record: 10-6)
I've railed against Bill O'Brien in a pair of recent articles. It's clear to all humans that Houston's coach agitated the fan base with last week's airmailing of DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona. In return for the future Hall of Fame pass catcher, O'Brien -- acting as both general manager and Supreme Chancellor -- swapped fourth-rounders, netted a second-round pick and "landed" running back David Johnson. The swap was a comprehensive fleece job by the Cardinals, who, in normal days, would have thrown a street party in Glendale after washing their hands of the $10.2 million price tag on Johnson -- a player they hoped to shed after committing to Kenyan Drake.
Beyond the absurd anti-bounty collected by the Texans, how does BOB pitch this latest power play to his locker room? How does he convince his star quarterback, Deshaun Watson, that Houston's offense sits in a better place after ripping out the attack's beating heart? Hopkins and O'Brien apparently struggled to get along, but moving him on the cheap drops a dirty bomb on the passing game. On the ground, are we sure Johnson -- who hasn't eclipsed 4.0 yards per carry since 2016 -- has a future in Houston?
On the other side of the ball, the Texans did zero to improve their ugly pass defense beyond inking middle-of-the-road DB Eric Murray, a non-starter for much of his four-year career. After trading away Jadeveon Clowney last offseason, the team has now lost stellar behemoth D.J. Reader to the Bengals.
Inside the division, the Colts added Philip Rivers under center and ferocity-drenched DeForest Buckner to the defensive line. The Titans retained both Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry. O'Brien is a master at winning power struggles, but winning the rough-and-tumble AFC South won't come so easy.
Why they might prove me wrong: Watson is a premier talent who could be enough on his own to help the Texans milk 10 wins. For all his quirks, O'Brien is one of the better coaches in the AFC. Rivers could melt in Indy and the Titans might struggle to recreate last year's magic. From where we stand today, though, Houston feels like a team designed to fall short of glory.
New England Patriots (2019 record: 12-4)
It's begun to sink in: Football will be played in New England without Tom Brady under center. The greatest quarterback of all days sounds invigorated after landing with Bruce Arians in Tampa. If Brady is thrilled at the prospect of fresh on-field challenges, I promise you he isn't alone. Bill Belichick now sets sail on a fascinating voyage to navigate the perils of an NFL campaign minus his longtime dance partner.
Whether it's Jarrett Stidham or a figure to be named later, the visual strangeness of seeing anyone else fling passes in Foxborough will only be matched by Brady decked out in red, bay orange and pewter.
To be clear, I'd hesitate to doubt Belichick even if Cardi B were named the starting quarterback. He'd whip that minxstress-crooner into shape by August and have her throwing for 9.1 yards per attempt by Week 3. Still, there's a reality where Stidham or fill-in-the-blank flops, putting the new-look Patriots in the same fix experienced by ham-and-egger squads league-wide.
I almost admire Belichick's flip-you-the-bird approach to the offseason, letting his star quarterback walk out the door just as franchise-tagged left guard Joe Thuney becomes the apple of the coach's eye. With roughly 35 players from last year's squad now employed by the Lions or Dolphins, New England's roster is a mix of familiar faces -- Julian Edelman, Sony Michel, Stephon Gilmore, Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty -- and concerning absences. Parting ways with on-the-mend Stephen Gostkowski doesn't help a special teams unit that burned through kickers last autumn like Bud Heavy units in a Dorchester dive.
Before I bore you with the impact of losing Nate Ebner or signing uber-thicc fullback Danny Vitale, let's be clear: The Patriots would never be mentioned in this space if not for the Brady exodus. The sea change is real. This is a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle for Belichick and friends to solve, the kind that keeps chunky Aunt Beatrice up 'til 3 a.m. with a healthy supply of chardonnay.
The more philosophically-tilted Patriots fans among us will embrace the inevitable bumps in the road. Meathead types will freak out at the first sign of trouble. But expecting smooth sailing toward another AFC title game is nothing short of delusional.
Why they might prove me wrong: Bill Belichick.
Minnesota Vikings (2019 record: 10-6)
Mike Zimmer's defense has looked the same for plenty of autumns in a row. Laced with stars and reliable veterans, Minnesota has ventured into January pretty often because this side of the ball -- if not dominant -- has been ultra-reliable.
In short order, the Vikings have stripped the roster of talented pass rusher Everson Griffen, starting defensive tackle Linval Joseph and three cornerbacks in Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Rhodes.
Rhodes was a predictable departure, but the overall exodus changes the identity of the squad -- with the biggest see-ya-later coming on the other side of the ball.
Trading Stefon Diggs to the Bills strips Minnesota of a bona fide No. 1 wideout, which can't be masked over by the signing of Tajae Sharpe. While Adam Thielen remains, this Vikings receiving group is among the least juicy in the NFC. Extending Kirk Cousins made plenty of sense, but the task ahead is thorny. In a crowded, top-heavy conference, Minnesota spent March moving in the wrong direction.
Why they might prove me wrong: I'd point to an NFC North that looms as winnable, depending on injuries and potential fizzle-out jobs in Detroit and Chicago. Besides, Minnesota appears happy to operate as a run-doused, tight end-heavy attack while using the draft to restock at wideout and across the board on defense. The Diggs trade brought fair value and general manager Rick Spielman can be trusted to identify future fits. It's fair, though, to wonder if all the missing pieces can be filled in one (weird) offseason.