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Using predictions from 33 years ago to forecast the NFL’s future

One of the readers over at ProFootballTalk pointed Mike Florio to a great piece in the SI Vault from 1979. In it, Frank Deford speaks to prominent people in the world of professional football about where the sport would be in the year 2000. With the beauty of hindsight plus a dozen years, let's go through some of the predictions Deford collected in an attempt gain some perspective and maybe even draw some new conclusions.

"In the year 2000, there won't be any contact below the waist." — Bum Phillips, Head Coach, Houston Oilers

Deford laughed this one off, but Phillips was sort of prophetic here because he was already predicting that the game would become less violent and rules would be placed on defensive players to protect offensive ones. Instead, the NFL has focused on hits above the neck, but it seems low hits are becoming more of a focal point, too. One day, it may very well be torso or a flag, in which case we can expect 80 points in every game.

"The 25-yard end zone is the single greatest thing that could change the game. The whole concept of goal-line defenses would change with that." — Marv Levy, Head Coach, Kansas City Chiefs

Of course, they've had 20-yard end zones in the CFL forever. And it does indeed change the game. It's a major reason why that league has far more points despite having fewer downs. This, though, will never happen.

"Players will look a lot different: lighter equipment, more formfitting shoulder pads, a different type of helmet, soft rib pads." — Dan Rooney, President, Pittsburgh Steelers

Good on Dan for thinking technology at that point. We're seeing more of these equipment-oriented innovations every few years. I wouldn't say they look a lot different, but they certainly look more svelte.

"By 2000 there'll be pari-mutuel betting on every play in every game in the NFL." — Byron Donzis

This is something that has absolutely come true. Joe Fortenbaugh, who covers the NFL from a betting perspective in Las Vegas, tells me that Cantor Gaming has "revolutionized in-game wagering," giving bettors a chance to put money on teams at any point during games.

"You can also bet on whether or not drives will end in punts, points or turnovers," Fortenbaugh tells me, adding that you can even "bet on whether or not teams will get first downs, with odds constantly shifting depending on down and distance." 

Expect this to continue to grow and become more commonplace.

"There'll be a little metal fleck in the football, so you can tell for sure whether the guy with the ball got over the goal line or was pushed back." — Tex Schramm, General Manager, Dallas Cowboys

That's available, I'm sure, but we don't use it. However, we have much better replay now than we did then. I'd imagine, though, that this will be adopted in the next 10 or 20 years.

"Everything will become more specialized. On defense, you'll get pass rushers and run defenders, first-down and third-down defensive ends. You'll see relief quarterbacks." — Tom Flores, Head Coach, Oakland Raiders

Of course this comes from the Raiders. Ridiculous, and as long as quarterbacks are in such high demand and game-day rosters are limited to 46 players, it'll never happen.

"I think you'll have a lot of women playing quarterback by 2000. For one thing, they have a higher threshold of pain." — Byron Donzis

Sure, but also smaller bones and muscles. I hope that was a joke. 

"I don't think there'll be a franchise in a poor-weather area without a domed stadium. And you won't see franchises moving into 50,000-seat baseball-oriented stadiums." —Tex Schramm

Schramm does it again. He nailed the second part and is well on his way with the first part. Cleveland and Buffalo have already discussed stadiums with retractable roofs and it appears as though the Vikings' next venue will also have one.

"Maybe the football players will come from someplace else. The best lineman in the country might be on the streets of L.A., and not at USC—and we'll find a way to find him." — Bum Phillips

Don't know that this has necessarily happened. In fact, I'd say the football world is still pretty narrow in its approach to finding talent. It's not like soccer or baseball, where they'll go to all corners of the earth to mine talent. Then again, football's less of an international game. Even so, it's hard to be found if you aren't able to play at an elite school.

"It's a very tough, very hard game, and I think more and more it's going to be played by the so-called underprivileged. It's too tough, too physical a game for a society that's become so affluent. Kids can get the same great cardiovascular exercise from soccer." — Marv Levy

This has actually come up a lot lately. Levy might have been a little off with 2000, but I believe this will absolutely be true by 2020. The more we find out about what these guys are doing to their bodies, the less likely middle-class parents are to sign their kids up.

"The quarterback will have a calculator in his helmet. It will be on his Lexan visor, so he'll be able to see readouts based on percentages and statistics to determine the ideal play to run." — Byron Donzis

And that quarterback will be a female, right Byron? He might have been right about the technology being available (I think), but this would obviously never be permitted anyway.

"The coaches will begin to dress alike, and maybe there will be a machine out there doing the coach's job. It'll be second and four, the guy will punch a button on his chest and—wonk, wonk, wonk—he'll say, 'O.K., run off tackle.' " — John Madden, Former Coach, Oakland Raiders

I think this is partially true in that coaching staffs now use advanced stats and sabermetrics more commonly and that has an effect on how the game is played, but it's still such an organic, instinctual sport. And until machines can grip the emotional aspect of the game, I don't think they'll be trusted in those moments. So give it at least five, six years….

I think the part that interests me the most is that in all 12 of those predictions, the word "concussion" was never uttered. Thirty-three years later, the head trauma dilemma is the single biggest obstacle the sport faces going forward. And yet then, we didn't even see it coming. 

Makes you wonder what we're missing right now. And if we survive this era, if we'll be laughing at ourselves in 2045 for again failing to forecast the future of our game.

Brad Gagnon

About Brad Gagnon

Brad Gagnon has been passionate about both sports and mass media since he was in diapers -- a passion that won't die until he's in them again. Based in Toronto, he's worked as a national NFL blog editor at theScore.com (covering Super Bowls XLIV, XLV and XLVI), a producer and writer at theScore Television Network and a host, reporter and play-by-play voice at Rogers TV. His work has also appeared at Deadspin, FoxSports.com, The Guardian, The Hockey News and elsewhere at Bloguin, but his day gig has him covering all things NFC East for Bleacher Report.

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