Time for Part IV of a special five-part futuristic series at Bloguin in which we're fast-forwarding 5,872 days to Jan. 1, 2030. In collaboration with fellow Bloguin outlets Awful Announcing and Crystal Ball Run, This Given Sunday caught up with several of our favorite NFL media types in order to put together our very own football version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Don’t hold us to it, but in 2030, the NFL might look something like this…
Mike Tunison, editor, Kissing Suzy Kolber
Pete Prisco, NFL columnist, CBS Sports
Khaled Elsayed, COO, Pro Football Focus
Joe Fortenbaugh, writer, National Football Post
Rivers McCown, writer, Football Outsiders
Sean Tomlinson, NFL blogger, theScore.com
Barry Petchesky, editor, Deadspin
Will Brinson, NFL writer, CBS Sports
What does the most successful team look like? Are they built on defense or has offense completely taken over? Are we seeing more spread offenses or more read-based running attacks?
Pete Prisco: The passing game hasn't gone away. It's still the only way to win. The read-option was phased out in 2015 when too many quarterbacks got hurt. So it was back to the right way of winning, which is throwing it and throwing it some more. The speed of the defenses, which have gotten smaller but quicker, has helped offset the wide-open passing attacks that we see. There are no more fullbacks, no more blocking tight ends and the strong safety is more of a free safety now who can run.
Barry Petchesky: The periodic swings between offense and defense have continued, with one side getting a leg up on the other for a few years at a time before adjustments are made. We are currently in one of the offensive swings, with even the worst teams throwing for 300 yards a game. One Time curios like the read-option and the spread remain part of the sport, but coaches long figured out that they work best in small and occasional doses.
Mike Tunison: By and large, history tilts toward offense. If safety is the biggest concern, read-based attacks make more sense, as there's less consistently severe contact.
Joe Fortenbaugh: Quarterbacks are far more athletic than we saw at the turn of the millennium. There’s no longer a place for the Carson Palmers and Joe Flaccos of the world. But the game hasn’t changed all the much. It’s still a throw-first league where quality cornerback play and a consistent pass rush can win you games. Sure, there have been fads like the “wildcat” and “read-option,” but give the good defensive coordinators enough time and they’ll find a way to slow down anything.
McCown: It will look more like college football, in so much as that while there's a premium for speed, teams will decide on more distinct styles and it will be harder to project statistically how players will translate when they move from one team to a completely different one. The Dallas Cowboys switch to the Single Wing after Tony Romo's surprise retirement leaves them with no quarterback worth using. The Stanford-style offense is the second-most popular after the Speed Spread. Defenses almost always use five defensive backs, but one of them is more of a roving Bernard Pollard-type with the tackling skills to "play" linebacker. The teams that are ahead of the curve have two of those guys.
Brinson: Offense, offense, offense. Contact's more limited and the game is a shootout.
Tomlinson: The NFL is always cyclical, something we're reminded of nearly every Sunday. So I think this is the real question here: how long does a cycle last? The read-option has grown quickly over the past few seasons, largely because of the young, mobile quarterbacks who run it. I see both that and the passing game in general continuing to grow and expand as the stud, feature running back fades towards being extinct due to the brittle nature of the position. More and more, the championship team will look like the current version of the Saints, an explosive team offensively that's driven by the pass, but one that still has a reliable bend-but-don't-break structure defensively.
What rules have been adopted? Which have been scrapped?
Prisco: They took the facemasks off the helmets in 2020. They just thought all the head hits were a result of the helmet being a weapon, so they went old school. And it has worked. There are fewer head injuries. Now some faces aren't as pretty as they once were, but that was the tradeoff.
Fortenbaugh: Defenders are now immediately ejected for hits to the head, legs and body. As you could imagine, this has caused a few issues for defensive players.
Tomlinson: The most significant rule change we'll see eventually is the implementation of a true target area for tacklers that starts at the shoulders and ends at the knee. There will be groaning and bemoaning, but for the sake of the players — you know, the guys who bring us football every week — a target area will become a necessary change to rid the NFL of Brandon Meriweathers, or at least that mentality.
Elsayed: There is a greater emphasis on healthy and safety if possible.
McCown: Helmet-to-helmet hits are less emphasized, and are only called when they are blatantly obvious. Quarterbacks, however, are still protected. Replay is now done entirely in the booth, though each replay still necessitates a time stoppage for commercials. Officials are around to spot the ball, make subjective calls, and for the sake of ceremony, but sensors in the ball and across the field accurately take care of down, distance, and potential offsides/false start penalty calls.
Have advanced statistics and metrics impacted the way the game is played or how we watch the game?
McCown: Advanced statistics and metrics are present, but do not play the same extent they do in baseball or basketball because it's much harder to churn one play into an absolute proof of guilt or innocence by one player without the play calls, which coaches continue to guard with their lives. Coaches continue to get smarter about utilizing the numbers for the purposes of game theory. This is lost on television, which continues to pander to the lowest common denominator audience outside of ESPN2's expanded NFL Matchup Countdown show that focuses on tape study and has a number of analytical outside minds on the panel.
Petchesky: This generation of broadcasters grew up during the rise of advances statistics, so it's no longer awkward to use them when presenting a game. A graphic showing Win Probability occasionally pops up on screen, and pregame shows routinely refer to a team's or player's defense-adjusted statistics. Coaches, too, approach in-game decisions through a more objective lens. An assistant whose only job is to measure the Win Probability Added decides whether a team will punt, kick a field goal, or go for it on fourth down.
Prisco: They tried to ram that stuff down our throats big time in 2013, but the old refrain backed them off. Two is the most-important number. That's your number of eyes. Tape is what tells the story. Not numbers.
Tomlinson: For advanced stats to truly change how the game is watched and consumed as they have to a degree with baseball, the general public needs to at least partially embrace them. I'd love to be proven wrong, but judging by how often I see quarterback wins referenced each week, I don't see that happening soon. However, advanced stats will surely impact the way the game is played. A handful of front offices have already started advanced stats departments, a trend that will continue and influence the approach to the draft each spring.
Tunison: We're already seeing evidence of teams embracing the concept. There are a handful of teams that either have an analytics department or use them in some fashion. I see no reason why that won't continue.
Elsayed: Teams are still in the phase of understanding what they can do with it and how they can apply it to help their team win. Ultimately you can use it for decision making (and I include spotting trends and reacting on the back of that) in game and for scouting. To me the real value is in scouting because outside of creating a huge scouting department you’re not getting the full picture of prospective NFL talents and free agent signings. That’s where the big gain is for me and I know of some teams who are moving to fully embracing that.
Have special teams been phased out to some degree? That's already beginning to happen now….
Petchesky: Kickoffs have been done away with; all drives now begin on the 20. But kickers are more important than ever: The uprights were narrowed as a response to inflated field goal percentages, so an accurate kicker is prized, while distance kickers are a thing of the past. The longest field goal in the last five years was from 40 yards out.
McCown: No! Expanded rosters save them.
Tunison: Kickoffs and extra points are in danger, in varying degrees. Despite there being a danger of concussions (albeit to a lesser degree than before), I have a hard time seeing kickoffs scrapped entirely. Fans would be let down by the elimination of kickoff returns from the sport.
Prisco: The kickers became too good in 2016, so they took away the field goals from inside 50 yards, eliminated the extra points and kickoffs. Teams still punt, but that's pretty much it for special teams, which have, quite frankly, always been a bit overrated.
Tomlinson: The kickoff being abandoned feels inevitable, because we've already almost reached that point.
Fortenbaugh: Nothing much has changed here. Devin Hester is still returning kicks and Sebastian Janikowski converted a 72-yarder two weeks ago, falling just one yard shy of the NFL record.
Has the rate of injuries decreased or increased?
Petchesky: Injuries have remained fairly steady over recent decades. Players are in incredible shape, with the NFLPA agreeing to year-round OTAs. They are bigger and faster than ever, but the big hits are offset by advances in training and medicine. Head injuries have dropped consistently, with a rash of rules first protecting ball-carriers first from helmet-to-helmet hits, then on "defenseless" players, and finally, the natural outcome, penalizing defenders from making tackles anywhere above the waist. Correspondingly, the NFL has seen a rise in catastrophic knee injuries.
Prisco: They have decreased. The medicine is better. They finally figured out in 2017 that year-round training was the cause of all the problems. Players needed to rest more. So they cut the training in half and told players to get off their feet for at least two months a year.
Elsayed: I would imagine it’s increased. But then I’d say the amount of awareness of injuries has increased so there’s more diagnosis and more caution.
Fortenbaugh: The equipment has made the game a bit safer, but this is still a violent sport played by the biggest, fastest, most aggressive men on the planet. You can make all the changes you want, but injuries are still going to occur when two 235-pound studs with 4.3 40-yard-dash times collide while running full speed at one another.
McCown: The rate of injuries is mostly stagnant. The overall duration of injuries goes up as players and teams are more cautious about sending a guy back out on to the field, particularly after the Janoris Jenkins lawsuit in 2017, where he was sent back in by coaches who didn't understand his concussion symptoms without a proper evaluation and it led to a scary on-field incident.
Tunison: Barring wholesale changes, I don't think the amount of injuries changes so much as the type. Lots of leg and ligament injuries, which is why roster sizes will be expanded.
Which current players or 2014 rookies are still playing in the league in 2030?
Prisco: Andrew Luck is closing in on every passing record that there is to be broken. He remembers when he broke in with Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III and warned them about running too much. They retired four years ago.
Brinson: Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are the new Peyton Manning and Tom Brady
McCown: Jadeveon Clowney is around at the end of his career as a Richard Seymour/John Abraham type, DeAndre Hopkins is the Reggie Wayne or Derrick Mason of the 2020's. And, oh, let's say Blair Walsh is the kicker you still can't believe is around when he's 42.
Tunison: The best long-snapper and quarterback of the 2014 class. Peyton Manning's head is wired to the top of an android and he's the quarterback for the Cardinals. He makes $1 billion per year.
Elsayed: Justin Tucker? Blair Walsh? Kickers only.
Tomlinson: With the rise of the read-option and the danger it presents with quarterbacks taking more hits, career life spans could be shortened. That's why I see Andrew Luck lasting much longer than, say, Robert Griffin III, and he may be the only current young quarterback who's still around.
Fortenbaugh: Only two: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. They share an offseason home in Malibu.
Has officiating or instant replay changed at all?
Petchesky: Instant replay is used on nearly every play. Every official carries a small tablet which shows instantaneous replay from multiple angles of the play that just occurred. If there is even the slightest confusion about a call or ball placement, the referee consults the replay and the entire process is completed within 15 seconds. Coaches' challenges have been done away with altogether.
Tunison: I wouldn't be surprised that, if in addition to coaching challenges, there were a dedicated replay official who decides if non-scoring plays should be reviewed.
Fortenbaugh: The NFL finally eliminated the human element and now uses thousands of cameras and sensors (placed in helmets and jerseys, complete with Nike swooshes) to make sure every call is the correct one. Honestly, I’m not sure why we had humans running around the field botching calls for so long to begin with.
FOOTBALL IN 2030, PART I: THE STATE OF THE NCAA (CRYSTAL BALL RUN)
FOOTBALL IN 2030, PART II: CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT AND OTHER CHANGES IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL (CRYSTAL BALL RUN)
FOOTBALL IN 2030, PART III: THE STATE OF THE NFL (THIS GIVEN SUNDAY)
FOOTBALL IN 2030, PART V: THE EVOLUTION OF FOOTBALL COVERAGE (AWFUL ANNOUNCING)