Monday, December 20
NFL: Rising Colts ready for Y2K
By Kevin Jackson

 Want a good idea of how unpredictable the NFL has become? Just go back to August and see how many preseason publications picked the Rams and Colts to win division titles. Or try to find anyone who figured the Broncos and Jets would both be sitting in last place.

Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning is clearly the NFL's quarterback of the future.
So, even though it's become impossible to predict what will happen in the league next month -- let alone next season -- we're ready to forecast the next century in the NFL.

Our crystal ball says ...

1. The Colts will be the NFL's next great dynasty
OK, so we're not exactly going out on a limb here. But common sense says that Indianapolis has the skill-position talent in place to dominate the next decade -- especially if the Colts can keep Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison together.

Already known as the "Triplets II," Indy's power trio has drawn countless comparisons to Dallas' Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. Jimmy Johnson is so convinced that the young Colts represent the Y2K version of his former Cowboys trio, he might retire as Dolphins coach at the end of the season, rather than trying to battle these kids in any future AFC East races.

Colts GM Bill Polian also has flashbacks when he sees Manning throwing to Harrison or handing off to James -- flashbacks of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed dominating for those powerful Bills teams that Polian built.

Buffalo played in four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. The Bills lost twice to the Cowboys, who won a total of three Super Bowls during the decade. Sounds like Super Sunday might become an annual holiday in the Hoosier State.

2. Walter Payton's career rushing record will be broken
At the time of his death in early November, Payton still held the NFL's most hallowed record, with his 16,726 rushing yards in his 13-year career from 1975 to 1987. However, Payton's mark should be eclipsed early in the next decade -- perhaps as early as 2001, and maybe by more than one running back.

Detroit's Barry Sanders, who retired abruptly before the '99 season, remains just 1,457 yards short of Payton's mark. Should Sanders return to the NFL next season -- as many experts feel he will -- the 31-year-old would presumably have more than enough yards left in the gas tank to set a new record.

Then there's Dallas' Emmitt Smith. The 30-year-old back has taken a ton of hits and logged nearly 3,200 carries in his career. But he still has managed to reach the 1,000-yard mark in nine consecutive seasons, and currently sits just 2,995 yards short of Payton. Smith has averaged 90.3 yards per game during his career. At the pace, he'll need 33 more games to break the record -- which projects to the 15th game of the 2001 season.

3. Another generation of stars will retire without rings
Dan Marino is the first to come to mind. It's becoming clear that the Dolphins quarterback isn't surrounded with enough talent to follow John Elway's lead and retire as a champion.

Several other players likely will end their career without hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Check out these candidates: The Bills' Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas, the Vikings' Cris Carter and Randall Cunningham, the Chiefs' Derrick Thomas, the Jets' Bryan Cox, the Patriots' Bruce Armstrong, the Raiders' Tim Brown and the Steelers' Dermontti Dawson.

4. Artificial turf will disappear
Although frugal owners are still clinging to the "surface of the 1970s," artificial turf is slowly starting to vanish. New England, Kansas City and Chicago already have switched from turf to natural grass, and Seattle, Pittsburgh and the two New York teams will soon make the change.

Obviously, the league will have six teams (the Colts, Saints, Falcons, Vikings, Lions and Rams) playing in domed stadiums in 2000, but we're betting that eventually will change. And, if it doesn't, they'll learn how to use the real stuff indoors.

5. A fatal injury will occur on the playing field
It's a sad fact in the NFL: Injuries continue to gradually get worse. Each week, we seem to see another player immobilized and carted off the field on a stretcher.

The league hasn't had a player die during a game since Detroit wide receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed and died of a heart attack on Oct. 24, 1971. Hughes' death is the only fatality in modern NFL history, but as players get bigger and faster, that likely will change.

6. Expansion to Canada, Mexico and ... L.A.
The NFL has had its eye on Toronto for several years, and that would produce a natural rivalry with Buffalo. The league has drawn huge crowds for preseason games in Mexico City. Conventional wisdom says the league will expand outside the United States at some point in the next century.

And, of course, pro football will eventually return to Los Angeles. Expect to hear disgruntled owners threatening to move to L.A. until the nation's second-biggest TV market actually gets a club.

7. The free-agency system will be changed dramatically
Perhaps the worst thing to happen to an NFL player is to be labeled his team's "franchise player." You can bet the NFL Players Association will be looking to make some major changes to the free-agency system ... and soon.

The same goes for the clubs, who seem to be unhappy with the salary cap and free agency. When both sides aren't happy, changes are sure to follow.

8. A true minor-league system will develop
Right now, it looks like it will be NFL Europe, although the success of Kurt Warner definitely will cause a lot of NFL coaches to consider sending their young quarterbacks to the fast-paced Arena League. And perhaps the CFL will fit somewhere.

No matter the league, the NFL eventually will develop a full-blown minor-league system, giving teams a place to develop young talent.

9. The NFL will play on a wider field
Baseball lowered the pitching mound. The NBA installed a 24-second clock, outlawed hand-checking and briefly moved in the 3-point line. The NFL has taken steps to protect its quarterbacks and make life nearly impossible for a defender in pass coverage -- not to mention adding the two-point conversion.

What do all those moves have in common? They were all designed to increase scoring, because that's what sports fans want to see.

As NFL players continue to get bigger, it makes sense that the league might take a page from the CFL's book and expand a playing field that is currently 53.3 yards wide (160 feet). But don't worry, we don't see those 20-yard end zones or the three-down system in the NFL's future.

10. Interactivity will enhance the viewing experience
Let's make one thing clear: We will never see a day in which the fans are calling the plays. However, it's very possible that fans will be able to enhance their viewing experience for pro football.

ESPN and ABC already are experimenting with enhanced TV, and you can bet that some day, viewers will be able to select camera angles and replays for NFL telecasts.

They just won't be telling the coaches what to do. Ever.

Kevin Jackson is the NFL editor for