The Fantastic Future of Football

Over the next decade, NFL players and stadiums will get wired as strategies shift. Are you ready for the two-quarterback offense?

The Stadium Will Be Wired

When the San Francisco 49ers take the field this month for their first game in Levi’s Stadium, they will no doubt nod to the $1.3 billion structure’s cutting-edge design. The 27,000-square-foot garden atop the tower suite. The stunning views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The lower bowl, which will put two thirds of the crowd up close to the action for Super Bowl 50 in 2016. But the big breakthrough? That’s invisible.

In keeping with his vow to build the “most connected stadium in the world,” the franchise’s 33-year-old CEO, Jed York, created a wi-fi system that can accommodate 68,000 mobile devices at once. Instead of directing all eyes to a $40 million scoreboard, like, say, Jerry Jones, the young trailblazer wants to let the 49ers’ digital-savvy fans tailor the experience to suit their needs. “You can plug into the stadium in any way, shape, or form you want,” he says.

Multiple in-house cameras designed by Sony will capture the action in ultra-high-def. Want to replay Colin Kaepernick’s first-down scramble on your cell phone? Done. Zoom in on left guard Mike Iupati? Done. Read a brief bio on the undrafted free agent who just returned a kickoff 104 yards? Done. By using the stadium’s app, you get instant access to content unavailable anywhere else.

In theory, the software will get smarter with use, collecting real-time data on traffic and purchasing habits to make your life simpler. It can already show you the quickest route from your home to the stadium. Help you locate your buddy in section 315. Even tell you which restroom has the shortest line during the halftime rush. But it might one day offer you a flash discount on the jersey belonging to the guy who caught that last touchdown pass. It might anticipate your desire for a steak sandwich with a side of truffle mac and cheese and have it waiting at the counter for you. And you won’t need money to complete the transaction: Everything is digital.

And then, of course, there are the interactive exhibits in the multigallery Hall of Fame, which bring the team’s history to life.

“It’s the Disney experience, the themepark experience, and this stadium takes it to a whole new level,” says Rick Horrow, a Harvard-trained expert in sports business, who has consulted, on the NFL’s dime, on the creation of more than a dozen modern arenas. “The best new stadia will improve on the practices of this one.” 

A 50-Year-Old Quarterback Will Lead the Team

Like most athletes, Tom Brady can’t bear the thought of retirement. Two years ago, he confessed—at age 35—that he’d like to keep playing into his 50s. Yes, that sounds like a joke; even George Blanda, who played QBand kicker, fell short of the feat, retiring in 1975- at age 48. But according to physical-therapy specialist David Reavy, we now know much more about how to prolong careers.

“Most injuries—noncontact injuries—are preventable,” he says. “You overuse tissue, and certain muscles get tight, others shut down, and you keep going. That’s how you get hurt. All your muscles work together. Understanding that and looking at the body holistically are the future of physical therapy.”

As an example of the perils of old-school thinking, Reavy, who counts Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery and NBA guard Dwyane Wade among his clients, points to Kobe Bryant, who went to Germany for experimental blood treatments for an arthritic knee. Though he returned feeling healthy, the Lakers star fractured a bone below the knee in 2013. Why? Because he didn’t address the muscle imbalance. “If Brady takes care of his body,” says Reavy, “he can avoid the overuse injuries that sideline so many players because their bodies are out of whack.”

This strategy doesn’t prevent contact injuries, though, in a sport where they are as common as Corn Flakes. Take Brett Favre, now a 44-year-old grandfather, who holds the all-time records for completions, yards, and TDs. He retired in 2010 after a string of nasty injuries that included a shoulder separation, concussions, a severe ankle sprain, elbow tendinitis, a broken thumb, a sprained lateral collateral ligament in the left knee, ulnar nerve dysregulation, and an ankle stress fracture. Despite all that, he started a record 297 consecutive games (321 if you count the playoffs) with the Packers and the Jets.

In the future, injuries like Favre’s may be cured with stem cell treatments like the one Peyton Manning used to heal his neck. By injecting cells from stromal vascular fraction tissue—also known as fat tissue—into injured areas like they would a cortisone shot, doctors have used the therapy to repair arthritic knees and shoulders. “We’re treating boxers, handball players, golfers,” says Mark Berman of L.A.’s Cell Surgical Network. “We’re in the early days, but we’ve seen a lot of success.”

For all the promise of these miracle cures, though, it’s hard to overlook the data linking football to degenerative brain disease. Favre recently reported that he couldn’t remember a summer’s worth of his daughter’s soccer play. No wonder he declined to come out of retirement when approached by the Rams last year…at age 43. 

—Tyler Graham

That New Uniform Will Elevate Your Game

Though the Wayland-Weston Warriors lost the Massachusetts state title in 2013, thumped 30-0 by a better team, in one regard the squad of seventh graders were without equal: They wore Reebok’s Checklight beanies. Tucked beneath their helmets, the beanies had a black tab that stretched down their necks like a tail with red, yellow, and green lights on it, announcing the severity of each blow to the head. Earn a red light and a kid found himself on the sideline.

In time, the players had learned to modify their style of tackling so as not to invite the hook. Leading with their shoulders instead of their heads, they won the bulk of their games, paving the way for a gear revolution.

The future belongs to “wearable networks,” says Peter Li, CEO of Atlas Wearables, which piqued the NFL’s interest with a wrist-based device that tracks complex movements. The watch can be “trained” to evaluate nearly any action—letting coaches compare a rookie’s passing motion to that of Aaron Rodgers.

Li believes the device will promote safety by teaching players the ideal techniques for blocking, tackling, and route running.

Low-cost motion sensors are working their way into uniforms, too, making it possible to monitor health metrics such as heart rate, fatigue, and dehydration. 

While the NFL plans to put the Atlas watch to the test at the 2015 Combine, Li envisions a future with live telemetry beamed to your TV. Imagine seeing the sheer force of Joe Flacco’s rifle arm—and how it turns to a pop gun when he fails to plant his back foot. Yes, fantasy football will never be the same, nor will scouting…or betting. And video gaming? Whoa.

—Michael Fran

The Running Back Will Be a Robot

Let’s face it—the quickest way to resolve the NFL’s concussion problem is to keep the guys with the brains on the sidelines. Robot carnage worked in Real Steel’s boxing ring, so why not send Fox’s “Cleatus” onto the gridiron? Russ Tedrake, who runs MIT’s Robot Locomotion lab, has agreed to help us explore the options. Last December his team qualified for the 2015 finals of the DARPA Robot Challenge. Sponsored by the military’s secretive R&D office, the competition has been dubbed the Robot Olympics.

What did the robots have to do?

The task was to go into a disaster-response scenario modeled after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and use tools built for humans. For instance, you had to get in a car and drive it. Some teams showed up with robots that had tracks and wheels. The chatter from the world of robotics was that if you tried to do these tasks with a humanoid, you were going to embarrass yourself because the robot was just going to fall down. But that didn’t happen. Humanoid robots won five of the eight spots in the finals. 

Some of the humanoid robots look pretty badass. How would they do in a football game? 

We’ve only got about 16 of them in the world. If we had an eight-on-eight game, there’s going to be a lot of falling down, arms falling off, hands broken. And a lot of broken hearts on the sidelines. Our robots are too fragile. Things break, and they don’t self-heal. That’s a big problem. Also, the game would be short because the robots would run out of batteries in about eight minutes.

OK, but durability and battery life might not be that hard to fix, right?

Well, when you start talking about NFL players laying out for a one-handed grab, they’re performing exquisite reasoning about their capabilities. Our robots can’t think about their dynamics quickly enough to do that. I’ve never seen a robot throw a football, but I can imagine one doing it today. If you have to do it quickly, though, and the laces don’t line up right, that could be tough. 

So the passing game is out. It sounds like a bruising running game. 

Well, it would be fairly slow. In the NFL, you talk about running and rushing. Walking and shoving would be more realistic. But that’s today. We’re on a lightning course right now. Google recently acquired Boston Dynamics, which makes the Atlas hardware we used in the competition, and a few young robotics companies. We’re excited to see a major investment by a corporation that can make big things happen. That’s going to encourage others to jump in the game.

A number of engineers are working on robot soccer players, and they predict that robots could play in the World Cup by midcentury. Do you have any idea when machines could take over the NFL?

If someone were funding the research and we made it a priority, we could probably do something in a few years. But to capture the grace of an NFL player, that’s going to take decades. If we really pushed it, maybe 2035. A huge amount of money goes into sports. I’d love to see anywhere near that amount put into science and engineering. Even for curiosity, if a sports team wanted to build a robot athlete, we’d love to take a crack. 

What would the biggest challenge be?

The hardware is up to the task, or could be fairly quickly. The computational and programming challenge is the major thing between us and the wide receiver making that layout catch. The actuators could probably do it, at least once, but the hard thing is the brain. 

That’s bad news for the concussion problem. You’re saying the one irreplaceable part of an NFL player is his brain.

For now. Then there’s the question of whether robot football would have the same draw for human beings. The rooting effect, the personal aspect, is not going to be in play. You know, is he going to make the clutch throw under pressure? Those are the things that make us watch, I think, and that would be gone. So who knows? 

—Jerry Beilinson

Scouting Reports Will Be Way More Sophisticated

Anyone who watched the Super Bowl knows the Seahawks hardly need more speed. Yet as the 2014 season begins, they’re moving faster than ever. Two years ago, they ditched their DVDs and binders in favor of digital tablets, radically transforming the art of game prep. “It used to take an entire night for two to three guys just to stuff playbooks,” says the team’s video director, Brad Campbell. “That change alone has saved man-hours.”

As soon as Sunday’s game ends, Campbell’s four-man staff can now edit, tag, and upload clips to 70 iPads, so that by the time the team plane lifts off, players and coaches are studying film of their performance. By Monday morning, they’re on to dissecting the opposition. Aided by software designed by DVSport, they can scroll through video of every third-and-short play run by the Rams or every blitz called by the 49ers, even while pedaling along on an exercise bike.

“Before, we made DVDs on Monday night and that was it,” Campbell says. “We couldn’t handle 60 guys wanting cut-ups. Now we can customize clips for each guy.”

That includes adding Fox or CBS footage with close-ups of a rival player’s moves. Using a program designed by GamePlan, Seahawks coaches add plays throughout the year, syncing the changes on the iPads. Better yet, they can erase a playbook the moment a player is cut or traded from the team. 

All this wizardry ends on Sunday, though. The NFL still prohibits computers on the sidelines and in the coaching booths, although Campbell predicts that iPads will one day replace the classic still photos that quarterbacks study between series. According to Campbell, every team uses tablets in some capacity. Remember that viral photo of Peyton Manning soaking his foot in a hot tub while staring into the screen with his helmet on? The 2012 champion Baltimore Ravens were early adopters, too.

In the years ahead, we might see coaches calling plays off iPads instead of clipboards. Unless, of course, someone comes up with an even faster option. 

—Jordan Brenner

America’s Team Will Be Worth $5 Billion

On November 9, the Dallas Cowboys will travel to London’s Wembley Stadium to play the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team’s 2013 struggles notwithstanding, this is a marquee matchup. The Cowboys may not be a big on-field threat—they haven’t won a Super Bowl in 18 years—but off the field, they’re damn near invincible. The storied franchise Jerry Jones bought for $140 million in 1989 was recently appraised by Forbes at nearly $2.3 billion. And that was before Steve Ballmerponied up $2 billion for the NBA’s Clippers.

In 10 years, says economist John Vrooman, the Cowboys could easily fetch $5 billion.

This is the peculiar business of pro football: Win or lose, team owners are destined to make money—piles of it. “Jones sunk $800 million or $900 million into debt at the peak of the financial crisis to build his stadium,” says Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal. “He’s not concerned that a string of 8-8 records is going to stop the gravy train.”

Sure enough, the .500 Cowboys led the league last year with $539 million in revenue. On top of their cut from the NFL’s TV package, they have a 25-year naming-rights deal for AT&T Stadium (even though everyone calls the place JerryWorld). And sponsorship deals with Ford, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and Miller Brewing. And they routinely rank among the leaders in merchandise sales and attendance. Their biggest expense? That’s held in check by a league-wide salary cap.

Jones is no dummy. He fielded three championship teams in 25 years at the helm. He’s found revenue streams his peers had overlooked. And he’s a masterful marketer. That’s why kids in London wear Cowboys T-shirts. Young princes, too. But it doesn’t take a genius to see the opportunities—from the to those uninitiated fans in China and India. “The sleeping giant is the electronic media,” says Vrooman. Right now, Verizon pays the NFL $250 million a year for exclusive smartphone streaming rights.

So if you’re planning to buy a team, better start saving. The next round of broadcast negotiations begins in 2021, and CBS and Fox are hungry for live events. “I don’t think you’re going to see a slowdown in value,” Kaplan says. “The ratings are so high, the networks have to have them.” 

—Josh Ellis

The New Head Coach Will Be a Die-hard Gamer

Steve Clarkson thought it was one of the wildest things he’d witnessed in his three decades as a private coach. He was quizzing his high school quarterbacks on coverages when his eight-year-old son spoke up, suddenly sounding like Peyton Manning. 

“I was like, ‘How does he know this stuff?’ ” Clarkson says. 

Madden Football, the kid explained. 

After asking for a quick tutorial, Clarkson began adding a supervised, 40-minute video game session to his camps. “The coverages are real, the fronts are real,” he says. “Even though it’s pretty subliminal, the game has something to do with their recognition.”

Clarkson isn’t alone in thinking that Madden and the now defunct NCAA Football make for smarter players.

“They learn, Hey, if this blitz comes, I gotta do this, or if that blitz comes, I gotta do that,” says former Penn State assistant Jay Paterno. “It’s not the same as playing, but their mind is in it. I don’t think there’s any question it’s had a major impact.”

Paterno says Penn State’s old coaching staff believed so strongly in that impact, they put their playbook on a memory card designed for NCAA Football to help kids learn the team’s lingo. Paterno credits the EA video game with getting the 2005 freshmen to contribute in a major way right away. 

“They knew the terminology inside and out,” Paterno says. “There were people who thought we were crazy, but what they didn’t realize is that we were getting kids to play the games they were normally playing.”

Art Briles, Baylor’s 58-year-old head coach, admits he’s never thought about the Maddeneffect, but says, “I like it. If you spend time reading the dictionary, you’ll know a lot more words. Spend your time watching football, playing football, you’ll understand the game better. It makes sense.” 

Bruce Feldman

Illustrated by Matthew Woodson

Teams Will Use a Two-QB Offense

Believe it or not, there’s a simple solution to the NFL’s concussion problem. Step one: Scrap the offensive line. Step two: Make everyone an eligible receiver. Step three: Add a second quarterback. Sound crazy? Well, that was the genius behind the thrilling A-11 offense used by California’s Piedmont High School in 2007. With beefy blockers in short supply, coach Kurt Bryan and offensive coordinator Steve Humphries took advantage of a loophole in the rules to develop crazy-looking sets that spread the field and, yes, employed another passer. With 16,632 potential receiver combinations, the A-11 baffled defenses, propelling the tiny school to fame. Better yet, not one Piedmont player suffered serious injury.

“The complexity of the game skyrockets,” says Bryan. “You no longer need 400-pound tackles. Instead you can have versatile 250-pound athletes who can block or move up as a tight end or a slot receiver.”

If you look closely, the Seahawks, the 49ers, and Chip Kelly’s Eagles are already embracing elements of Bryan’s strategy, borrowing bits of the spread offense used by schools like Auburn, Texas Tech, and Oregon. It’s no longer odd to see players in a two-point stance staggered across the line  of scrimmage. And in these new systems, QBs like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin III are blurring the distinction among passer, runner, and receiver.

With a few small changes—revising jersey-numbering requirements, for example, and loosening formation rules (defenses, let’s remember, face almost no restrictions)—the NFL could speed up the process. But the big catalyst will be time. The kids who saw the A-11’s fireworks up close are in their 20s now. By 2025, they’ll be in a position to influence the game’s development.

“It’s evolution,” retired Steeler linebacker James Farrior told ESPN in 2012. “One of those kids in that offense is going to grow up and become an NFL coach, and he’ll have this system in the back of his head.”

—Allen St. John

Fans Will Own a Piece of Johnny Manziel

It’s one thing to pay $3 for an All Pro in a fantasy football league and yet another to invest in a living, breathing player. For fans with a taste for realism, the brokerage firm Fantex has come up with a novel way to sell bits of Vernon Davis. The company paid the 30-year-old 49ers tight end $4 million for a 10 percent stake in his future football-related income—on and off the field. Using an online exchange, it then sold “tracking stocks” tied to those earnings.

For a veteran like Davis, a deal like that makes sense, especially in a sport with few guaranteed contracts. He gets the cash up front—and a highly incentivized commitment from Fantex to grow his brand. For investors, the payoff is sketchier. According to Fantex CEO Buck French, the guys who bought the 421,000 shares in Davis can earn money through dividends, and, if the stock appreciates, they can sell it on the Fantex exchange. “My job is to create value for my shareholders,” French says. “Every investor I’ve talked to, whether it’s someone who bought one share for $10 or the guy who took the max of 5 percent for hundreds of thousands of dollars, they just want to see some payoff.” As proof of concept, the Fantex board voted to pay out a 70-cent per-share dividend in August.

To assign value to a player, Fantex’s quantitative analysis team builds an econometric model. “For Davis we looked at tight ends who were drafted between 1990 and 2010—212 players,” French says. “Using things like statistical production, versatility, injury history, and Super Bowl participation, we estimated Davis would play 14 more years. Looking at similar players, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, we predicted Vernon’s next contract will be four years, $33.4 million.” The number crunchers projected Davis’ endorsements and post-career brand value to be $40 million when adjusted for 11.4 percent risk.

By contrast, Bills quarterback EJ Manuel was valued for his July IPO at $50 million, which includes a 14.6 percent discount for risk because he doesn’t have an established body of NFL work. He has a higher upside, but “opportunity and risk walk hand in hand,” French says. 

Indeed, Arian Foster derailed Fantex’s launch with knee surgery. Given the potential for injury and poor performance, it’s risky to sink real money into an NFL player, but fans love nothing more than to speculate, and Davis’ IPO gives them reason to do so. When he held out from summer workouts, he cited “growing his brand” as a reason to renegotiate his contract. Who knows?

If those first two IPOs go as planned, a hot commodity like Johnny Manziel may well come next. —Sarah Turcotte

Receivers Will Be Even Bigger, Faster, and Stronger

Back in the 1920s, when the NFL was still in its infancy, the average lineman weighed 190 pounds. By 2013, that figure had ballooned to 300, roughly the weight of a baby elephant. Former tackle Aaron Gibson tipped the scales at 440! Is it possible to continue making such leaps in size, or have we reached the outer limits of player evolution? Chris Cooper, professor of biochemistry at the University of Essex and the author of Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat, doesn’t think we’re likely to see 500-pound behemoths running pass routes anytime soon. He believes, however, that there’s room for some new modern marvels. Consider Usain Bolt, who at 6’5″ and 207 pounds is the fastest human on Earth, the kind of physical specimen that could certainly thrive in the NFL. “When Bolt appeared as a sprinter, we didn’t realize someone that tall could run that fast,” says Cooper. “What we don’t know is whether we are going to suddenly see a whole range of very tall sprinters—or if he’s a genetic anomaly.”

As a species, human beings are not evolving into better football players, Cooper explains, so the best way to uncover the next Terrell Owens is by tapping into uncharted regions of the gene pool. “If American football was popular in Europe and China, there would be better teams,” Cooper says. “The performance would improve because more people would be playing the game.”

Even so, the improvements would be marginal. For a significant step forward, we may have to rely on cloning or genetic selection, but that requires knowledge we don’t yet possess. “Even if we had Usain Bolt’s genome, we wouldn’t be sure what makes him Usain Bolt,” Cooper says. “You can make a person superstrong and fast, but that doesn’t make him a great football player. We know a lot about genetics and how it enhances human performance but not enough to tailor-make an athlete in the test tube.” Not yet, anyway.

—Adam Linehan

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Photos by Matthew Woodson