NEW ORLEANS - When the Super Bowl kicks off five years from now ... well, maybe there won't be a kickoff, for safety reasons.
Maybe the NFL will have an 18-game season, players all HGH-tested, some openly gay ones on rosters and a team in London - the London Bridges?
Maybe the rarity will be quarterbacks who can't run the option, unless teams decide the pounding they take isn't worth it and retreat to pure pocket passers.
Crystal balls aren't binoculars. You can't see the future. But you can make a case for some or all of the above by Super Bowl LII (52) in 2018.
Expect surprises. Who would have guessed five years ago that players would be getting in hot water on Twitter, or that draft analysts would be speculating whether an imaginary girlfriend would hurt the status of one of the nation's top linebackers?
Who would have thought President Barack Obama would offer an opinion that if he had a son he might not have let him play football? Past presidents Dwight Eisenhower (West Point) and Gerald Ford (University of Michigan) played collegiate football. But this is a different era.
Jonathan Ogden, former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle and newly selected member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, says he is not worried about the NFL's future.
"I know what they're trying to do with the NFL, trying to make it safer. ... But I think the game itself is so great," Ogden says. "At the end of the day they're going to make the right decisions and ... do (what it takes) to make sure that it continues to be that."
Concussions and their long-term effects, however, are front and center. The NFL has further cracked down on illegal hits to the head. There have been heightened efforts to spot concussions and keep players sidelined until they are cleared by a team physician and an independent consultant.
Safety-related rules figure to evolve further. The quest continues for better helmets. Medical research continues on the long-term effects of playing the game, such as depression and dementia.
At Super Bowl time last year, more than 300 former players were suing the NFL, claiming the league it knowingly and negligently failed to protect them from concussions and the effects over decades. Now, more than 4,000 former players are involved in such lawsuits.
The lawsuits, consolidated in federal court in Philadelphia, could be going through the judicial system for years, maybe even until 2018.
Might concussion concerns dull the appeal of the nation's dominant professional sport? If enough parents have misgivings, will that affect the flow of talent? If rules are further stiffened to limit head contact, will it be football?
By 2018, we might see trends emerging to verify or dispel those possibilities. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is quick to say the league can't just stand pat.
"We cannot assume that our success is going to continue just because we have been successful. ... Innovation is not just some theme," Goodell said. "It is something that we feel in our core and something we are always going to live by, to try to make things better."
Will rules changes become extreme?
In 2011, the NFL moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35, resulting in more touchbacks and fewer returns. The idea: reduce full-bore collisions.
During the last offseason, Goodell heard about a proposal by Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Greg Schiano: Instead of kicking off, give the kicking team the ball at its own 30-yard line in a fourh-and-15 situation. The choice would be to go for a first down or punt.
"If they want to make kickoffs safer, then make them like punts," says Mike Pereira, former NFL vice president of officiating and now a Fox TV analyst on referee calls during games. "Make the receiving team have more players up on the front line so that everybody is retreating."
Do that, Pereira says, to avoid the "full-on, head-on, locomotive collisions."
As he puts it: "You have to be down on the field to recognize how really violent - and 'violence' isn't the word that the league likes to use - but how really violent these hits are."
Goodell says the No. 1 priority is to "take the head out of the game," with the bulk of rules changes for safety protecting the heads of quarterbacks and receivers.
Pereira doesn't think better safety rules will jeopardize appeal.
"In some ways people are overreacting a little bit. They were saying the same thing back in the '90s when they kind of codified in the rulebook for protection of the quarterback," he says.
"People said, 'Oh, the game's going to get ruined.' Well, it didn't get ruined. And it won't get ruined now. Goodell, I think he's genuine in his desire to extend the length of players' careers. I think the game will be fine. It will be different, but it will be fine."
The NFL game is wide open already with spread formations and no-huddle offenses. Look for more.
"Now there is more skill being displayed,'' says former NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp, newly selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "You see the third and fourth corner (defensive back), the third and fourth receiver. ... It ain't a tough guy competition. It's about skill now."
This Super Bowl saw the Ravens' Joe Flacco, the classic drop-back passer, and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, a runner and passer.
Quarterbacks Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers took the play called the read option to new NFL heights this season. The quarterback can fake a handoff and run himself.
But quarterbacks can take a beating. Griffin, who ran it the most, suffered a concussion and two knee injuries, the second requiring surgery. We'll see how popular the read option will be in five years.
"I think it will have staying power in the league," 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh says. " ... It's just a very versatile type offense, and it forces you to defend a lot of different elements on the offensive attack."
A collision of minds
In addition to diagnosed concussions, researchers are looking at whether the countless sub-concussive blows to the head in football might take a cumulative toll that leads to the brain damage CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Chicago neurosurgeon Julian Bailes suggests having offensive and defensive linemen start out standing up - in a two-point stance - instead of putting a hand down and colliding head-to-head from a three-point stance.
That idea does not have any traction right now with the NFL rulesmakers. Marshall Yanda, Pro Bowl guard with the Baltimore Ravens, says he has never heard the suggestion and doesn't know if it would help.
"We play the game a lot in a two-point stance on third down and long situations," Yanda says. "... I think there would still be those collisions, because there are a lot of athletes in this league and they can still get going with speed out of the two-point real quick."
Defenders and runners are at risk when they collide head-to-head, which is legal under NFL rules. The league is looking at ways to better protect runners.
Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk has doubts whether that can be accomplished. "It's almost impossible to make a form-fitting tackle and not use your head," he says. " ... (It's) like trying to hug somebody around their waist and not touch them with your head.''
USA Football, a youth organization partnered with the NFL and the NFL Players Association, is promoting a "Heads Up Football" program aimed at teaching youngsters to tackle without using the head.
"Both of my sons are playing. ... I cringe when they get hit, yes," Faulk says. "I now understand why my mom wasn't okay watching me play."
He looks at the NFL differently.
"There's a reason why we get rewarded handsomely for being successful in this game," Faulk says. "Unfortunately, there is a risk at everything. I feel bad for everyone or anyone that's suffering from ... any ailment that the game has left them with. And I also feel good for everyone who, like myself, gets to live the life like I've lived because of the game.''
Might football become even more the sport of choice for youngsters who want to climb from the lower rungs of the economic ladder?
Gil Brandt, former personnel boss of the Dallas Cowboys, is a longtime observer of football talent from high school through the pros. He says he still see players coming from areas where football isn't the only way out.
"The community where I live in Dallas, Highland Park, is an above average community based on income per capita. And they have more kids come out (for football) every year," says Brandt.
"USA Football has done a great thing. ... I think that what you have to legislate against and worry about are these part-time coaches that coach some of these youth teams that are not versed in safety. And they say you've got to be tough."
But football can be a means to an end.
The Niners' defensive tackle Ray McDonald is from Pahokee, Fla., a talent hotbed in South Florida. Defensive end Pernell McPhee and wide receiver Anquan Boldin of the Ravens also are from Pahokee, called "The Muck" because of its rich, dark soil which produces sugar cane. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it has a population of about 7,000, with a median household income of $34,159.
"It's a small town, so there's really not a whole lot to do. You're going to want to play football and be good at it," McDonald says. "I guess that's why we have so many from that area.
"I think that guys had the drive to get out of town and prove themselves."
Will there be openly gay players?
Off the field, the NFL figures to evolve, too
Defensive back Chris Culliver of the 49ers said during a Super Bowl media day interview with comedian Artie Lange that he would not accept a gay teammate. Culliver later apologized. "They were very ugly comments, and that's not what I feel in my heart," he said.
We'll see what NFL players feel if openly gay players emerge. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis didn't want to discuss it: "That's a world issue, not a locker room issue."
On paper, the NFL and the union have labor peace assured through 2020, when their contract will expire. But that doesn't mean there won't be dispute. The league wants testing for human growth hormone (HGH). The union has balked, wanting more proof the blood test is valid.
More disputes figure to arise. "But we have to find solutions for the best interests of the game," Goodell says.
Another issue: whether to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games. "We will not make changes if we can't do it in a safe and effective way," says Goodell.
Next season, two NFL games will be played in England. How about a franchise in the United Kingdom?
"What's the next step beyond the two games? Should we move to three? Should we consider other alternatives to continue to accelerate the growth of the game in the UK?" Goodell says.
How about that franchise in the United Kingdom in, say, five years?
London Fog? London Towers? Or London Bridges, falling down?
Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY Sports