For a child of the 1980s, the year 2015 always has been an important landmark — thanks, of course, to the 1989 classic film “Back to the Future Part II,” set in a futuristic version of America in 2015.
Hard to believe, but 2015 is now less than six months away. And while we don’t quite have flying cars or hoverboards yet, the future is definitely now in the NFL, thanks to the multitude of changes being implemented concerning the basic rules of the game and the league’s structure.
Take a step back and marvel at all of the changes that are taking hold. I’m half expecting the league to announce Spacely Sprockets as its next major sponsor.
The field will always be 100 yards and the game will always be 11 on 11. But the NFL in 2015 definitely won’t be your father’s NFL.
To steal a bit from Conan O’Brien: In the year 2015 . . .
■ Extra points will be 32-yard kicks. This is one of the simplest and perhaps overdue changes to the NFL but would also be the most glaring to anyone who’s been frozen in a cave and hasn’t seen an NFL game in a few years.
Why are they snapping the ball from the 15? Mostly because everyone agrees with Bill Belichick that the current format is a waste of our time.
The extra point, currently snapped from the 2-yard line and mimicking a 19-yard field goal, derived from football’s rugby roots in the late 19th century, and wasn’t intended to be a gimme — a 99.5 percent conversion rate over more than 3,500 kicks from the past three seasons.
“That’s just not the way the extra point was put into the game,” Belichick said in January.
So the NFL is experimenting with longer extra points in the first two weeks of the exhibition season this year. Belichick wanted the line of scrimmage at the 25, the NFL originally agreed on the 20, and then settled on the 15. Don’t be surprised if the league implements the new rule for good in 2015.
■ Big Brother is watching. Of course, this is good progress for the NFL, and not quite the same as George Orwell’s sinister vision of government interference.
Starting this season, referees will have the ability to consult with officials in the league office in New York on instant replay calls. Led by head of officials Dean Blandino, this small group will watch every game from the league office, can start reviewing plays before the on-field referee begins even jogging over to the replay booth, and can help the referee make the correct decision while cutting down on the time it takes to do so.
Considering how important each call is in the NFL, and how games can be won or lost over a matter of inches, it’s good that the NFL is centralizing and standardizing the replay process. If all goes well this season, the NFL could soon turn to the full NHL model, in which the league office has final say on all replay calls.
Plus, it’s fun to envision Blandino wearing a monocle and stroking a white cat while watching all of the games from his “evil lair.”
■ Fourteen teams make the playoffs. The playoff field for the 2015 season will be the largest ever, with the NFL expected to go from 12 to 14 teams (seven per conference), its first postseason expansion since 1990. While nothing has been finalized — a vote will likely come at the next owners’ meetings in October — the most realistic plan has only the No. 1 seed in each conference receiving a bye, with 2-7, 3-6, and 4-5 matchups in the first round. The NFL would also likely stretch the Divisional round from two to three days, with at least one playoff game on Monday night, which the league has never done.
■ The NFL Draft won’t be held in New York. It has been held in the Big Apple every year since 1965, but the NFL is taking the draft on the road for the next several years. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the 2015 draft will be in Chicago or Los Angeles, and several other communities, including New England, have expressed interest in hosting it in the future.
■ The Super Bowl will be held in a solar-powered stadium. Technically, the 2015 Super Bowl will be played in February 2016, but just go with us here. Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers’ new home in Santa Clara and the host of Super Bowl 50, has 1,150 solar panels that will generate as much electricity over the course of a year as the 49ers will need for their 10 home games. Levi’s won’t be the first stadium with solar panels — Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia has an even bigger solar setup — but it will be the first that also has a green roof and is LEED certified.
■ Equality barriers have been broken. The NFL is now the first among the four major North American pro sports leagues to draft an openly gay player (Michael Sam). And football isn’t only for men anymore — the league is helping develop two female officials (Conference USA referees Sarah Thomas and Maia Chaka), both of whom will work NFL preseason games this year and will be given a chance to become full-time NFL officials in 2015.
Those are only the major changes coming to the NFL. Now consider several others that are already here or coming soon: “Thursday Night Football” as a full-season package; more instant replay cameras added to the end zones and sidelines; more games played in London (3) than Los Angeles (0); rookie holdouts are ancient history because of a new rookie salary structure; and if and when the Raiders’ stadium squabble with Oakland results in the team leaving O.co Coliseum, it would mark the first time in decades that no NFL games will be played on top of a baseball diamond — the Athletics and Raiders are the last baseball/football combo to share a stadium.
Now, we don’t quite have flying cars or automatic shoelaces like Marty McFly did, but the future is definitely here in the NFL.
Going undrafted can be an advantage
One of the biggest disappointments in a professional football player’s career often occurs when the player isn’t taken in the NFL Draft. But many times a player is better off going undrafted than being taken in the sixth or seventh round, and the Patriots this year are a good example of that.
Receiver Jeremy Gallon, taken in the seventh round, had no choice but to go to the Patriots, is guaranteed nothing outside of his $47,592 signing bonus, and can’t renegotiate his contract until after his third season.
None of the Patriots’ 15 undrafted free agents make as much guaranteed money as Gallon, but a few get close. And not only did they have the ability to sign with the team of their choosing, the undrafted free agents can also renegotiate their contracts after their second season if they turn into stars.
The Patriots spent a total of $129,150 in guaranteed base salaries and signing bonuses on nine undrafted free agents, according to NFL Players Association records, providing clues as to which players have the best chance of cracking the 53-man roster (or at least the practice squad).
Leading the way is Michigan linebacker Cameron Gordon, who got $35,000 guaranteed ($15,000 in signing bonus and $20,000 in salary). The Patriots need to find new depth at linebacker following the departures of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher, and Gordon will be given a good shot to earn a backup role.
The Patriots need to find a big running back to replace LeGarrette Blount, and seem intrigued with Indiana’s Stephen Houston, who is 6 feet, 225 pounds, and was given $22,500 to sign ($7,500 signing bonus, $15,000 salary). The Patriots also spent $35,000 on two tight ends who could crack the roster, especially if Rob Gronkowski isn’t healthy — Asa Watson got $20,000 total to sign, and 6-8 prospect Justin Jones got $15,000.
Speedy running back Roy Finch, who could help in the kicking game, got $10,000 to sign, as did safety Shamiel Gary and cornerback Travis Hawkins. Linebacker Deontae Skinner got $5,000, and tight end Tyler Beck, since cut, got $1,500. The other six undrafted free agents received no guaranteed money.
They’ve had trouble staying out of jams
Given the ugliness revolving around Aaron Hernandez and the Miami bullying scandal, the NFL has spent a lot of time over the past year emphasizing to players the importance of professionalism and staying out of trouble. But apparently the Ravens never got the memo.
Of the 19 player arrests in the NFL this offseason, five have involved Ravens. Most recently, cornerback Jimmy Smith was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct outside a Baltimore bar. Offensive lineman Jah Reid (misdemeanor battery in Key West, Fla.) accepted a pretrial intervention program, as did Ray Rice for felony aggravated assault in Atlantic City. Receiver Deonte Thompson had his felony possession of marijuana charge dismissed, and rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro has a July 31 court date for misdemeanor destruction of property and drunk and disorderly conduct.
The incidents have been relatively minor — outside of Rice’s assault of his then-girlfriend, in which hotel security cameras allegedly showed him dragging her out of an elevator — but collectively reveal a team that needs to work harder to educate its players about staying out of trouble. As pointed out by ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley, the five arrests in a five-month span are one more than the Ravens had in the previous six seasons combined under coach John Harbaugh.
Carrying on the family name
Best of luck to defensive tackle Armond Armstead, who announced his retirement last week after myriad health issues. Armstead, 23, was a promising prospect from Southern Cal whose career was derailed by a heart attack in college, which the family blames on the repeated use of the anti-inflammatory drug Toradol, according to a lawsuit filed against the school. He last played a full season in 2010, and after going undrafted in 2012, starred in Canada for one year before signing with the Patriots last offseason. But Armstead never suited up for the Patriots, although not necessarily only because of his heart issue. He also had surgery for an unspecified infection last July.
Armstead and his family aren’t talking about his story, but he has a younger brother who can carry on the Armstead name in the NFL. Arik Armstead, listed at 6-8 and 296 pounds, is a former Parade All-American who was recruited to play football and basketball at Oregon.
Armstead’s career has been a bit underwhelming, as he is perhaps stretched too thin by playing two sports, and his indecision between playing offensive and defensive line. But Armstead quit basketball this year to focus on football, and some scouts have him projected as a high NFL Draft pick for next year if he switches to the offensive line permanently.
The NFL has had an exclusive deal with Wembley Stadium since it began playing regular-season games in London in 2007, but according to the Sports Business Journal the NFL has begun talking with other venues in London, presumably to pressure Wembley into giving the NFL a more favorable deal or improve the facility when the agreement expires after the 2016 season. You know you’ve arrived as an NFL city when the league starts squeezing you for a better stadium deal . . . Browns owner Jimmy Haslam paid a $92 million fine to the government, on top of the $56 million his company, Pilot Flying J, paid to customers who were victims of rebate fraud, but for Haslam it might be the best money he’s ever spent. The fine will prevent him from prosecution or ever having to admit knowledge of his company’s massive fraud, which will allow him to avoid any punishment from the NFL, which will allow him to keep owning the Browns and put this little mess behind him. Instead, we can now focus on the impending punishment for Colts owner Jim Irsay . . . Speaking of the Colts, they are the latest team to hold an utterly impossible fan competition. The team will award $500,000 to any fan who can guess the kickoff temperature for all four preseason and 16 regular-season games, along with whether the roof will be open or closed at each of their 10 home games. A person wins the money if and only if he correctly predicts all 30 variables, which means no one is going to win the contest. The Rams also offered $100,000 to any fan who could correctly guess the entire 17-week schedule (no one came close), and the Dolphins offered $10,000 last September to a fan who could kick a 60-yard field goal (they moved it to a 40-yarder) . . . Not that we expect an Andre Johnson trade, but only a few teams could easily handle his $10 million salary without forcing him to restructure his contract — Jacksonville ($27 million cap space), Cleveland ($24 million), Cincinnati ($23 million), New York Jets ($22 million), Tennessee, and Philadelphia ($18 million), though it seems unlikely the Texans would trade Johnson to division rivals Jacksonville or Tennessee . . . Great trivia question from NFL.com’s Gil Brandt on Friday: Name the only team that doesn’t have a former NFL player on its coaching staff? The answer, of course, is your New England Patriots, now that Pepper Johnson has left for Buffalo. The Patriots’ coaches played college ball at Wesleyan, John Carroll, RPI, Wisconsin-Superior, Boston University, Muskingum, William & Mary, Yale, Boston College, Houston, Rochester, Drake, and Mississippi State . . . Had a chance to read this summer Bill Walsh’s memoir on leadership, “The Score Takes Care Of Itself,” and it provides an important reminder for coaches on the hot seat and impatient fan bases. Before he won three Super Bowls and revolutionized the NFL with the West Coast offense, Walsh began his head coaching career with a 5-22 record with the 49ers in 1979-80. He bawled his eyes out on the plane ride home after a loss to Miami in November 1980, and thought he was done for good. Good thing he and the 49ers showed patience.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.