The soft leather helmets of the 1920s gave way to hard leather in the 30s, internal padding in the 50s, and face masks for every player in the 60s. Equipment-makers introduced more interior padding and polycarbonate materials in the 70s and 80s. Today, with so much attention focused on the long-term effects of concussions and repeated hits to the head, the quest to build a safer helmet has gotten more serious, and labs like the one at Virginia Tech pound different football helmets with intense, repeated force to see which can stand up to the most abuse.
NFL helmet-makers Riddell and Schutt have introduced headgear features including sensors that automatically register data about head impacts and plates that can move independently of each other.
Artificial turf certainly sounded like a good idea—the fake stuff would provide a playing surface that would remain solid despite rain or snow, unlike natural grass, which becomes a soupy brown mess by the end of the first quarter. But AstroTurf of old wasn't much better than a thinly veiled concrete surface.
The rise of FieldTurf, first used in the NFL in Seattle in 2002, has led to the proliferation of new varieties of artificial playing surfaces that meld the durability and ease of artificial surfaces with a softer, more cushioned, grass-like feel. Now more than half of NFL teams use some sort of artificial surface. They can choose between industry-pioneering FieldTurf, which uses a mix of polyethylene fibers, sands, rubber, and other materials, and competitors such as DESSO GrassMaster turf that intertwines artificial fibers with natural turf for better wear and durability. Long gone are NFL-size rug burns from AstroTurf's heyday.
Football is the perfect sport for TV, and NFL broadcasts have gotten so good that Commissioner Roger Goodell now openly frets that stadium attendance is in trouble because everybody wants to watch the game at home. Credit HDTV. CBS broadcast the first high-definition NFL game back in 1998, a New York-only test of the technology. By 2004 networks broadcast more than 70 percent of games in HD. By 2008 virtually all NFL games were available in HD, and networks continue to increase camera abilities, using either 1080i (slower frame rate, higher resolution) or 720p technology (faster frame rate, lower resolution) to wow in-home viewers.
Things might get even sharper. The new ESPN and NFL deal, which starts in 2014, includes the rights for 3D broadcasts. And Fox Sports already uses a single 4K HD camera in an NFL broadcast each week to help with slow-motion instant replay. While both technologies may take years to enter the mainstream, they could do what HD did before them: make what we know about watching NFL broadcasts seem awfully blurry.
The NFL got a little ahead of itself with instant replay. The league debuted its first system in 1986, but the process of rewinding physical tape proved sluggish and provided grainy footage, so the league scrapped the idea before the 1993 season. Instant replay made a comeback in 1999 and has improved with new video technology.
Today the litany of angles and camera styles offers an unprecedented set of looks at every play. High-resolution 1080i cameras allow a clear view of, say, whether a player stepped out of bounds, while the lower-resolution but higher-frame-rate 720p progressive cameras can get a better view on bang-bang plays, such as a fumble. In a new addition this year, the fans see the exact same replays on the stadium's big screen as the lead referee watches "under the hood." Unfortunately, in many venues, the views the fans get have a higher resolution than those on dinky 26-inch monitors.
While the Cleveland Browns first put a radio inside a helmet in 1956, helmet-radio technology really got going in 1994. But it wasn't until this year that it was substantially improved.
Since '94, teams have had analog radio communication from a single coach's headset into the ears of a single player on offense and a single player on defense (signified by those lime-green dots on the back of a helmet) via small speakers in each earhole. But teams complained about the 1- to 2-second delay and the spotty reception; there are incidents of a Madonna rehearsal from a nearby arena piped into a quarterback's helmet during a game in Oakland, Calif., or a San Francisco player hearing Southwest Airlines pilots' chitchat.
The NFL eradicated most of those issues this season by introducing Nebraska-based Gubser & Schnakenberg's digital system. The league claims it now uses more than 260 million different encryption codes to protect teams' frequencies. Still, coaches need to talk quickly during the 40-second play clock, as the transmission shuts off after just 25 seconds.
1st & 10 Line
Remember the old days, before the football field was covered in imaginary lines? If you watched the NFL before 1998 you do. That was when Sportvision introduced the bright yellow 1st & 10 line to let television viewers easily see where the first-down marker was. Fifteen years later it's a crucial part of any football telecast, and broadcasters are adding more lines and colors by the year. Now we have lines showing us the line of scrimmage, boxes showing us down and distance, and our favorite, the red line marking what yard line an offense must reach to give a field-goal kicker any realistic chance of making his kick.
The patented video overlay technology allows players to move over these imaginary lines, giving viewers the feeling that the lines are actually painted on the field. They're now used in-stadium on giant video boards.
Pencil this into historical advancements that were great for their time but lasted too long. Watch enough NFL games and you're bound to see players on the sideline huddled around an old-fashioned black-and-white photo of previous plays. Because of NFL rules (rumored to change soon) that forbid the use of any computers or such technology on the sideline, teams still print out pictures of in-game formations and on black-and-white printers upstairs. Runners slap them together in binders and physically bring them to the sidelines for players and coaches to swarm over during the game. While this was certainly a groundbreaking technological move when it first happened decades ago, giving teams infinitely more knowledge than they had before, it's kind of silly to see it today. What once seemed ripe for a Polaroid sponsorship now appears plain inefficient.
These days nearly every team in the NFL uses an iPad or similar tablet in some capacity, whether as an official playbook or simply a video-calling device. While computers still aren't allowed anywhere near the field in the minutes before or during a game, the iPad is seen everywhere else during a strategy-heavy NFL week.
When they use tablet playbooks, teams can sync the password-protected devices together, allowing coaches to make one digital change that updates on the fly to every player's device. Teams have custom-designed apps for the playbooks, allowing personalization based on a coach's whim. Players can make notes about plays directly into the program and even choose video links for more research. Using iPads instead of ripping hundreds of DVDs each week saves the team time and money, and makes it more likely players will invest in watching the instructional clips. The iPads also serve as a way to stay connected. The Ravens, for example, use it to post strength and conditioning updates, sync practice schedules and meeting calendars, and share team correspondence.
The NFL is all about bigger. So is Texas. It makes sense, then, that the vanguard of NFL hugeness is the new Cowboys Stadium and its 72-foot-tall, 160-foot-wide LED display at an equivalent 1080p screen resolution. (Don't call it a JumboTron; that's a product-specific name owned by Sony and the Dallas scoreboard is Mitsubishi-made). On the other side of the state, the Houston Texans will continue the giant screen craze before next season by adding two Mitsubishi video boards at 277 feet wide each, located on the edges of the stadium. The 14,549 total feet of display surface will give Houston the widest displays in professional sports.
These giant screens aren't just for fans. Now coaches use them during games to review plays and decide whether to challenge officiating rulings. Players use them, especially in the open field, to help see where defenders and would-be tacklers roam. It seems we just can't get away from watching TV, no matter who we are. Or where.
For nearly a century, NFL uniforms weren't much more than oversized cotton sweatshirts. The long-sleeved look and loose fit—even when some teams went to a mesh fabric—made grabbing, pulling, and holding an easy task.
A major change came in 1997 when the Denver Broncos unveiled a new side panel made of stretchy fabric. Now the entire uniform is stretchy, and tight. If you look at a lineman's uniform, the fabric has shrunk so much that sleeves have nearly disappeared, giving opposing players no grip. At the same time, teams began wearing Under Armour-style sub-layer apparel to stay warm (or cool) even in an ultrathin uniform.
Today the leading edge of uniform tech is smart materials. Many of the base-layer products, such as Under Armour's Coreshort, include compression characteristics to help stabilize muscles and decrease injury potential. Companies make apparel that whisks water away and has lightweight, high-density foam for added protection. Nike's new NFL uniform contains nine different materials for purposes such as thermal cooling and snapping the uniform into place to make it harder to grab. Uniforms that allow running backs to shed one more would-be tackler may be the best advancement yet. Unless you're on defense.
This article first appears on PopularMechanics.Com