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ExtremeRavens: The Sanctuary

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Scientists in Pittsburgh can make footballs talk.


Priya Narasimhan, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and her team of 10 engineering students have developed a "smart football" with a GPS unit and accelerometer, both contained in a half-ounce microchip inside the ball.


The chip can measure the speed, spin, trajectory and — even when it's buried under a pile of players — the precise location of the ball.


The NFL is looking into the technology as a way to make officiating and game timing even more accurate.

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Narasimhan and her team are not the only ones to have developed such a chip. According to a Reuters report, German manufacturer Cairos Technologies has been in talks with the NFL about putting its chips in footballs to determine, say, when the ball has crossed the goal line.


Cairos has done the same thing with soccer balls, creating a system of thin cables under the playing surface that generate magnetic fields that sensors in the ball pick up. That location information is transmitted to a central computer that uses the data to determine when the ball has crossed the goal line.


There are unique challenges to embedding a similar chip in an oblong football, Narasimhan said.


Some of the challenges aren't immediately obvious to everyone. For instance, how do you charge a chip that loses power quickly? The students in Pittsburgh have developed a system similar to the one used for electric toothbrushes.


Then, there's fine-tuning the GPS to mark the precise spot, rather than within a few feet or yards. And the signal needs to be strong enough to pass through multiple bodies that might be covering the ball.


Simply identifying whether a ball has broken the plane of the goal line isn't enough either.


If the player's knee touched the ground before the ball crossed over, for instance, it isn't a touchdown. Narasimhan raises the possibility of putting chips in kneepads, elbow pads and gloves.


In other words, it's all a work in progress.




With seven seconds left in Super Bowl LIV, the Seahawks' 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.


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 the United States but also London?


It might seem far-fetched, but 20 years ago, this would have too: players sharing their every thought on something called Twitter, fans watching games on phones, bright yellow lines that mark first downs and Los Angeles, 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 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 Steelers, said players would wear lighter equipment with improved helmets, shoulder pads and soft rib pads. The late Tex Schramm, general manager of the 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. Raiders coach Tom Flores envisioned everything becoming more specialized, with defensive players substituting on passing or running situations — bingo!


Others were off target. Chiefs coach Marv Levy said end zones would be extended from 10 to 25 yards deep, forever altering goal-line defenses. (Nope.) Oilers coach Bum Phillips said hitting below the waist would be outlawed. (Not even close.)


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 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 the Seahawks upset the Saints 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.


"I think it's a golden age, and technology has made it an even richer experience. … It's not enough to be giving people what they can get at home. You have 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 who get to see something millions of others are tuning in for."


So, what will the game look like in 2020? How will it be delivered to fans in a more efficient, more comprehensive and more realistic way? How will the league address the challenge of making the game so much more compelling to see live — as opposed to watching it from the comfort and convenience of your home — that fans will be willing to spend a lot of money to buy tickets?


Will supersized players continue to get bigger? It was only two decades ago that 300-pounders were rare. Now, every roster is loaded with them. Can 400-pounders be far away?


What about technology making the game safer? Already, there are $1,000 helmets being tested that send specific information to a computer on the sideline, putting a number value on the intensity of a collision and giving the exact location where the impact occurred. For instance, you can know that a running back has had 53 violent hits to the upper right corner of his forehead over the past three weeks and he might need to change the way he's lowering his head.


Will there be a team or two in Los Angeles, which has been without an NFL franchise since the Raiders and Rams left after the 1994 season? Will the league expand overseas and put a team in London? That might sound outrageous, but many league insiders say it's entirely plausible in a continual effort to grow the league's audience.

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