By Robert Weintraub
One of my favorite books when I was younger was a look at future military conflict called "The War in 2020," by Ralph Peters. Written in 1991, it imagined what warfare would look like well into the new century. Sure, it got a lot of things wrong (the book has the USA combating a re-militarized Japan and its battle lasers), but it also correctly called the coming fight against Islamic fundamentalism and the use of the military in drug interdiction, among other prophecies.
So with the National Football League changing right in front of us, practically on a weekly basis, it seemed high time I stepped into Peters' shoes and forecast what pigskin will have in store for us in that fateful year of 2020.
And yes, while Peters tried to see three decades into the future, I am nowhere near that prescient or bold. But think about how different the NFL was in 2006, just seven years ago, when smashing opponents with the helmet was actively encouraged, and celebrated by louts chanting "He got JACKED up!!!"
Here are some ways the NFL might look different by Super Bowl LV.
The breakaway league
As safety protocols begin to turn the league into a glorified seven-on-seven scrimmage, the inevitable occurs. Several investors begin a league devoted to "football without limits," promising "old-school football and a return to the days when men were men." The new outfit doesn't do particularly well, as most old-school aficionados are too addled by dementia to fully back it.
But when a full seven-on-seven league is established, that achieves success. A generation raised on fantasy football, spread offenses and high scoring is ready for a sport that all but eliminates line play and the running game. The new league achieves legitimacy when Brett Rypien, the consensus top overall pick in the 2018 draft (and the nephew of former NFL signal-caller Mark Rypien), spurns the NFL for the new SOSA (Seven On Seven Association). Former Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa gives the league additional juice by suing them for copyright infringement, a case he loses in federal court.
With its safety flank covered by SOSA, the NFL quietly and slowly allows for some of the old violence to creep back into the game. The key moment in the 2020 season is a crushing hit to the neck of Russell Wilson in the NFC Championship Game, a blow once flagged, but not any longer. After the game Wilson retires to play in the SOSA.
No more Dick Vermeils
After a shocking on-field heart attack suffered by a prominent coach (fortunately not a fatal one), the NFL institutes maximum working hours for all coaches, capping their "billable hours" per day at 12 for head coaches and 10 for assistants, not counting travel or game day. There is much grumbling at first from the coaching ranks about how "unprepared" teams will be, but for the most part, few notice any difference in the level of play on the field. Wives and families of the coaches, along with severely underpaid video assistants, unanimously applaud the new edict.
Few things irritate fans, coaches and players like the arbitrary spot of the ball that decides whether a team punts or gets a fresh set of downs. Sure, the refs try their best, but accurately spotting where a player is down from as much as 50 yards away amid a scrum of tumbling bodies hardly befits a sport so tied to exactitude.
Fortunately, the NFL in 2020 no longer relies on the failing vision of a middle-aged business executive moonlighting as a referee. The latest game-changing invention from Sportvision, the geniuses who gave fans the First & Ten yellow line, among other gadgetry, is the AccuSpotter. A relative of the Hawk-Eye system in tennis, the AccuSpotter is a combination of microchips placed inside the balls and special cameras placed around the stadium that break the field down into a finely reproduced gridiron, which can place the ball within one/one millionth of an inch anywhere on the field. A special ref dedicated to AccuSpotter monitors the action on an iPad-like device, resetting the ball once the player gets up from the ground.
Alas, since the 10-yard long chain system still is in place, the archaic human element remains.
Cover your ears, kids
In an effort to further enhance the in-game experience for paying customers, the NFL lets fans purchase custom headsets that allow them to listen in on the coaching crosstalk between the head man on the field and the various assistants in the booth, and even the phone calls down to the quarterback when the defense is on the field. At first there is much hue and cry over potential secrets being revealed, but the NFL points to NASCAR, which has let fans listen to the chatter between driver, crew chief and spotter for years without issue.
And indeed, once put in to practice, fans enjoy the fly-on-the-wall experience of hearing "I-Tight Slot Fake 42 Dive 456 X" moments before the play is run, without anyone being able to affect the game by signaling to the defense -- it's simply too confusing to pass along. More worrying to the NFL is the endless cursing, belching and Five-Hour Energy swilling over the airwaves, leading to the league issuing "Rules of Headset Behavior" to all 32 teams. Fines for broaching these rules are responsible for a new record in charitable donations in the first year they are instituted.
Part of the reason the teams give in on allowing fans to listen to their conversations is much of the playcalling is now transferred from sideline to players digitally. All players wear faceshields embedded with heads-up displays, much like the kind worn by fighter pilots. These are synced to the digital game plan. Formations and play sheets are scrolled through and highlighted by the coach on his tablet device in the coaching booth, and each player can see the process and receives the call in real time right in front of his face.
It takes some getting used to, and at first there is a surfeit of players colliding into each other between plays as they concentrate their vision on the display and not the field in front of them. But once everyone gets used to the system, huddles are eliminated, and the game's tempo, already fast, shifts into hyperspeed
Filming another team's practices becomes far easier with the widespread availability of individually owned drone planes, capable of high-precision filming from several miles over the field without detection. Jerry Jones buys a fleet in order to spy on the goings on not just in the NFC East but across the country. "Ah'm just curious by nature," he says.
Teams react by moving all activities indoors, but thermal imaging renders this useless. Bill Belichick sets the new standard for drone countermeasures by establishing missile systems around the Patriots facility. In October, 2020 he launches at a suspected New York Jets-operated drone; it misses, but in a related event, the Pats club the Jets that Sunday 49-11.
A new wave in metrics-based analytics sweeps the league when a football-obsessed Stanford grad who "worships Nate Silver" develops a replacement for the Wonderlic psychological profile that accurately measures players' "love of the game." The test, dubbed the "Give A Crap-lic," initially has a very high success rate in weeding out the college stars who simply don't have the will to adjust to the pro game, either because they lose their edge after getting paid huge sums or because they can't handle the day-to-day grind of it all.
But the bloom will wear off the rose by 2025, when players who score poorly on the test are so amped to prove it wrong that they become excellent pros, and the process starts anew.
A fourth down "Go/Don't Go" chart, similar to the one used for two-point conversions, becomes status quo on NFL sidelines. Coaches go for it roughly 80 percent of the time, unless inside their own 25-yard line, needing 15 or more yards to convert, or are well ahead in the waning minutes.
As a result, teams are loathe to waste a roster spot on pure punters (even though rosters have been expanded to 65 players), so all specialists become hybrids, having to be able to kick, punt, kick off and hold. Many also play a position, often safety or wideout, connecting the game to its two-way origins.
A female position player gains a spot on a team's practice squad. She never plays in a game but is a household name regardless.
Teams establish developmental academies across Africa and the South Pacific, mimicking baseball's model in Latin America. By 2030, the NFL will be as globally represented as Premier League soccer.
Foreign ownership comprises roughly 40 percent of the league, including the two new London-based franchises, which will begin play in 2025.
A group of former players sues NFL Films, alleging the propaganda unit "glorified toughness and violence far out of proportion to what was necessary to play professional football." The suit is dismissed, but Films, rudderless without Steve Sabol and no longer relevant, goes out of business anyway. Greg Cosell becomes the object of a bidding war for his services.
Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.