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2020 VISION / ON THE FIELD

Are 400-pound Linemen A Possibility? What Will The Field Look Like? Could It Be Widened? Will The Game Require Extra Officials? Are Replay Changes On The Horizon? Could Microchips Be Placed In Nfl Balls? Will There Be 12 Players Per Side? What Will Helmets Look Like? What About Pads And Uniforms? Are Helmet Cameras In The Future? Will There Be 18 Games? How About 34 Teams? Will Any Of This Happen By 2020?

As the league and its fans benefit from a golden age of technology, predicting the future isn't easy, but it appears big changes are inevitable

January 30, 2011|Sam Farmer

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.

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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."

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