ARE 400-POUND LINEMEN A POSSIBILITY? WHAT...
With seven seconds left in Super Bowl LIV, Seattle’s Andrew Luck makes the biggest play of his NFL career. The quarterback scrambles right and dives for the goal line. Officials signal the winning touchdown.
Millions of delirious Seahawks fans tear off their 3-D glasses in celebration. Thousands more dial up instant replays on their hologram-projection TVs, reliving the play from every conceivable angle.
Although the London Jaguars say they tackled Luck short of the goal line, the microchip inside the football doesn’t lie. The game is over, and celebratory fireworks light the sky over Los Angeles.
Welcome to the future. This is one scenario illustrating what the NFL experience might be like in the next decade, a 2020 vision, if you will. Chips that determine whether the ball has crossed the goal line? Holograms that simulate the game being played on a chessboard? Teams not only in L.A., but also London?
It might seem far-fetched, but 20 years ago, these would have too: players sharing their every thought on something called Twitter, fans watching games on personal wireless telephones, bright yellow lines that mark first downs, and the nation’s second-largest market without an NFL franchise for this long.
Move over, Jets. The NFL is going Jetsons.
“We cannot be complacent in what we do,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We have to continue to find ways to grow the game, to reach new fans, to continue to provide quality. That’s what the NFL represents. Innovation is a big part of our initiative.”
No one can be precisely sure where technology will take the league in 10 years, and trying to guess is a fun but often fruitless pursuit.
In 1979, for instance, Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford talked to people in and around the NFL about what pro football might be like in the year 2000.
Some people were on the mark.
Dan Rooney, then president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said players would wear lighter equipment with improved helmets, shoulder pads and soft rib pads. The late Tex Schramm, former general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, astutely predicted there would be a “little metal fleck” in the football that could detect whether someone crossed the goal line -- technology that now exists but has yet to be implemented. Tom Flores, coach of the Oakland Raiders, envisioned everything becoming more specialized, with defensive players substituting on passing or running situations -- bingo!
Others were off target. Marv Levy, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, said end zones would be extended from 10 to 25 yards deep, forever altering goal-line defenses. (Nope.) Houston Oilers Coach Bum Phillips said that by 2000, hitting below the waist would be outlawed. (Not even close.)
The most outrageous predictions in the story came from inventor Byron Donzis, credited with developing a urethane vest to protect players from rib injuries. His vision for football in 2000 brings to mind the absent-minded professor concocting “Flubber.” He pictured several teams with women at quarterback because they have a higher threshold of pain; quarterbacks with computer readouts on their visors to calculate whether a run or pass was best, and biomechanical devices allowing receivers to jump higher, running backs to run faster, and quarterbacks to throw the ball 150 yards on a much larger field.
As it happened, most changes to the game itself -- with the exception of instant replay to assist officiating -- have been minor rule tweaks. The incredible technological advances have been made in how and where we watch football, and how much information is at our fingertips.
Not so long ago, we used to wait for halftime of the “Monday Night Football” game in hopes that Howard Cosell would show us a five-second highlight of our team from the day before. Now, if we haven’t seen every highlight 10 times on “SportsCenter,” the NFL Network and the Web, we just haven’t been paying attention.
The day after Seattle upset New Orleans in the first round of this season’s playoffs, Goodell received a satellite-phone call from adventurer Ed Viesturs, who had watched his hometown Seahawks from an Antarctic ice field.
“I don’t think life has ever been better for a fan of our game,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s chief marketing officer.
“It think it’s a golden age, and technology has made it an even richer experience. We need to be able to deliver that experience in stadium, and then you need more in stadium. It’s not enough to be giving people what they can get at home. You’ve got to be able to add on the whole social dimension of ultimately why you go to the stadium, to belong to a unique and privileged group of people that get to see something that millions of others are tuning in for.”
So what will the game look like in 2020? How will it be delivered to fans in a more efficient, more comprehensive and more realistic way? How will the league address the challenge of making the game so much more compelling to see live -- as opposed to watching it from the comfort and convenience of your home -- that fans will be willing to spend a lot of money to buy tickets?
Will super-sized players continue to get bigger? It was only two decades ago that 300-pounders were rare. Now, every roster is loaded with them. Can 400-pounders be too far away?
What about technology making the game safer? Already, there are $1,000 helmets being tested that send specific information to a computer on the sideline, putting a number value on the intensity of a collision and giving the exact location where the impact occurred. So, for instance, you can know that a running back has had 53 violent hits to the upper right corner of his forehead over the last three weeks, and he might need to change the way he’s lowering his head.
Will there be a team or two in L.A., which has been without an NFL franchise since the Raiders and Rams left after the 1994 season? Will the league expand overseas and put a team in London? That might sound outrageous, but many league insiders say it’s entirely plausible in an effort to continually increase the league’s audience.
And what about the rules and strategies of the game itself? Bill Polian, president of the Indianapolis Colts and among the league’s most respected football minds, envisions the field being widened in part to make matters safer for players.
“We’ve played this game for over 100 years now, and the players just keep getting bigger and faster and taller, and the field dimension has stayed the same,” said Polian, a member of the league’s competition committee, which studies potential changes to the game. “If you want to make it safer, spread them out.”
He said that increasing the width of the field, which is dimensionally possible in virtually every stadium, “would be something that certainly I would look at as a means of making the game a bit safer, and doing away with some of these real shattering hits, particularly on receivers.
“It may be too radical, but it certainly makes sense to me.”
What’s more, Polian thinks NFL offenses will look increasingly like the passing-based spread offenses that have become so popular in college football.
“I think the advent of the running quarterback is here and will only grow,” he said. “You’ll see many more spread-offense principles come into the National Football League. That trend is upward.
“And on defense, with the rules constantly evolving to make the game safer, I think you’ll see an even further explosion in the passing game, not unlike what’s happened at the college level. It will be tougher to separate receivers from the ball, and it will be tougher to play coverage.
“I think you’ll see scoring continue to rise, and passing-game numbers continue to grow.”
Emerging technologies could change the way quarterbacks are scouted.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and elsewhere, have developed tiny microchips that are implanted in footballs and can detect, among many other things, how fast the ball travels and the rate at which it spirals.
So a scout can know that this particular college prospect throws a pass similar to the speed and trajectory of a Peyton Manning pass.
That information might be useful.
In many ways, the future is now. At a Pro Bowl practice last week, Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick wore a tiny camera on his helmet and the footage was posted on NFL.com, giving football fans a chance to see how a play develops from his perspective.
It’s all part of the blank canvas the league has before it.
“When you see the people from Silicon Valley and places like that work their magic, it’s a really profound experience,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “We’re all going to be able to reap the benefits.”