The NFL took a major step this season by authorizing the use of tablets on the sidelines and in coaches' booths. Most everyone from coaches to players to video directors to league executives say it has been a step in the right direction.
Through their $400 million five-year agreement with Microsoft, the league approved in-game usage of the Surface device. Microsoft had been working on the technology for 18 months "getting this right," says James Bernstrom, the company's product marketing director.
"We talked to coaches and players, had the video directors working with us," he adds. "They are the subject matter experts."
So far, with a minimal number of problems — of course, the really nasty weather that often hits late in the schedule could provide some challenges — the Surface tablets have gone over well.
"We are pretty technologically savvy here," Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo says. "Yeah, we like the tablets. They have been good for us."
And the Giants already have had to deal with weather issues.
"It helped out (at Seattle), it was a little rainy, a little misty," McAdoo says. "Paper sometimes is a little tough to handle. We just wiped the screen and kept working, the (tablet) was nice, it was effective."
Each team gets 25 Surfaces per game, 13 for the sideline and 12 for the coaches' booth. The tablets upstairs are plugged directly into the wireless system, but the units on the field must use Wifi.
That has presented some minor problems, mostly in the preseason.
"We did a lot of learning in the preseason that has helped us ever since," says Brian Rolapp, the chief executive officer of NFL Network. "If you look at a stadium on any given game day and looked at all the wireless functionality — sideline to press box to the fans to EMS to the broadcaster, that's a lot of use of that invisible wireless spectrum. The technology teams worked very hard to make sure the bandwidth would work.
"You can't have these things go down because of bandwidth problems. One of the reasons to have these is they provide color photos delivered quickly. Teams can't be waiting for a download."
What the players and coaches get to see are clear, concise photos of previous plays delivered more rapidly than under any previous system. There's more depth and variety to those photos.
And there's more that can be done with the photos delivered by the Surfaces.
"Sometimes you just like having the picture to look at and to draw on; you can draw on this and blow it up. It's a good clear picture," says Giants special teams coordinator Tom Quinn. "It's just a little different having to get used to it. I guess I am starting to show my age."
Quinn is 46, but as Rolapp notes, age has nothing to do with how the tablets are being utilized or accepted. Indeed, Rolapp has gotten positive feedback from coaches of all ages and levels of experience.
"Coaches are smart people and we are in a world that a smart phone is no longer an optional piece of equipment and I don't think coaches are an exception," he says. "Everyone is trying to get used to it and doing some things differently, but these guys are all quick studies."
Adds Seahawks director of video Brad Campbell: "It would surprise you how quickly the older coaches have done it and they might have even more input in the future."
Not everyone can identify the technology being used — Bears quarterback Jay Cutler called it a "knockoff iPad" before praising the innovation for "working great."
Campbell marvels at the durability of the tablets, noting that players often will drop them as they head back on the field, or they get bumped around while passed among huge men. He calls the Surface "battle tested and rugged."
He's also eager to see what's ahead. So is Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
"I like the color and clarity and more pictures of the same play," Manning says. "You can see exactly what happened before the snap and after and during the play. With the technology going so smoothly and quickly, I am sure they will advance it more and hopefully add video."
His teammate, linebacker and special teams ace Spencer Paysinger, also is eager for what is next.
"It's the first of many steps," he says. "Watching actual plays, why wouldn't it be video next? This league is trying to get more and every platform we can to dissect the other team."
Campbell recognizes what the players envision.
"The video thing," Campbell says, "the league always has stayed away from that and there might be a lot of logistical issues, but could it be possible down the road, yeah."
Rolapp mentions a different potential use for video on the tablets.
"It's not farfetched to think those Surfaces could be used to make the video replay process with an officiating crew more efficient," he says. "Right now we have the hood, but perhaps we could see an official use a Surface.
"There are a couple things we are thinking about; the technology leap would not be that great."
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