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In the NFL, balancing technology with tradition.
Fans are certainly aware of how technology has changed their experience of watching games. They may not always notice, though, how technology has changed the game itself — for the betterment of the league, coaches and players, and even the fans.
Television may have changed the league more than any other technology, and it certainly enabled many of the league’s biggest advancements. It fueled the dramatic increase in the NFL’s popularity and profitability. The instant replay system emerged from — and was a result of — improved broadcast technology. Teams use footage to evaluate and coach players, and the league uses it to grade officials. Television also has led clubs to upgrade stadiums — including the installation of enormous video displays — to compete with the viewing experience at home.
Television isn’t the only technology to have affected the game. Advancements have allowed the NFL to evaluate and improve officiating and protect players. Technology helps players and teams communicate and gives coaches the tools needed to create game plans and to adjust them on the fly.
It speeds up the pace of games, ensures that each contest runs fairly and smoothly and improves the fan experience — for those watching on television and those at the games.
State-of-the-art technology powers the command center the league uses to monitor games and evaluate its officials, drives the instant replay system that assists officials in getting calls right, and enables the wireless communications coaches, players and officials use during games.
Technology provides players with electronic playbooks and position-specific game film on club-provided tablets. As the game unfolds, coaches can dissect opponents’ offense and defense on league-provided tablets.
Technology also helps better protect the players. Its impact is felt in sturdier playing surfaces and more advanced pads and helmets. It allows teams to keep electronic medical records to better treat players and allows certified athletic trainers to use video to spot possible concussions and other potential injuries during games.
All of this technology presents challenges for NFL Football Operations staff. This is particularly demanding on gameday, when it all must operate smoothly for a fast-paced, time-sensitive, live event that at best is unpredictable and is sometimes played in bad weather. Making it all work requires attention to detail and the technical knowledge to troubleshoot on the fly.
Game Operations staff must check every system before a game, identify and prevent radio frequency conflicts, and address technological problems, even as the action continues. A tremendous amount of coordination is required — not only internally, but also with teams, broadcasters, stadium staff and emergency services.
Each week, NFL event frequency coordinators must navigate countless spectrum conflicts. Licensed bandwidth from the Federal Communications Commission continues to shrink as demand continues to grow. Frequency coordinators make sure anyone using a wireless microphone, walkie-talkie or radio is on the correct channel to allow as many people as possible to access the bandwidth they need. Without this, the long list of people who need to access the spectrum each game could find themselves fighting over the same frequencies and unable to perform their jobs properly.
“That massive collision is happening in our stadiums every weekend,” said Michelle McKenna, the league’s chief information officer. “That has to get solved — whether we buy, rent or partner with someone who owns frequency.”
Beyond making these technologies work seamlessly, NFL Football Operations faces a delicate balance: determining how to innovate while respecting and preserving the game’s traditions, integrity and competitive equity. That is their challenge, now and in the future.
All new technology must integrate smoothly with what is already in place, and the value it provides must be worth the effort needed to support it.
“I try to make sure it is not tech for tech’s sake. It’s tech to make the game better, safer, move faster.”
Michelle McKenna-Doyle, NFL Chief Information Officer
Over the years, individual teams have pushed the envelope, trying to gain even the slightest advantage. When that happens, the league must step in and ensure that new technology adopted for NFL sidelines is available to both teams and is ready for prime time. Often the only way to test new technology for in-game use is to “test it on the field on the largest stage in sports, right out there for the world to see,” McKenna said.
The league has demonstrated its ability to find this balance over the years in its implementation of coach-to-player communications, instant replay and the use of Microsoft Surface tablets.
The experiment with electronic coach-to-player communications began in 1956. According to the that’s when Ohio inventors John Campbell and George Sarles presented Hall of Fame coach of the Cleveland Browns with a radio receiver they had developed. They suggested Brown place the device in the quarterback’s helmet and relay calls to him directly, rather than sending in plays with substitute players.
Brown first used the system secretly in an exhibition game against the Detroit Lions. The Lions’ coaching staff noticed that Brown wasn’t substituting players as he usually did, and eventually spotted the transmitter behind a wooden light post on the sideline.
Other teams scrambled to devise their own units, but none were as effective as the Campbell-Sarles version. Even that device encountered technical issues — for example, the quarterback intermittently heard a nearby taxi dispatcher instead of the head coach. The Browns used radio helmet technology in three more games before NFL Commissioner Bert Bell banned its use leaguewide.
In 1994, with coaches still using hand signals and player substitutions to call plays, the NFL approved a new version of the system, available to all teams. Once again, coaches could communicate directly with quarterbacks between plays.
Why the change? The previous year, the league cut the play clock from 45 seconds to 40, but instead of speeding up the game, the change slowed it down. Teams had to call more timeouts because they were running out of time sending substitutions in with play calls for the quarterbacks. NFL officials hoped that the new communication system would help speed up the pace of the game.
The new system did reduce the need for timeouts, saving teams 8 to 15 seconds on play calls, Marty Schottenheimer, then the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, estimated at the time.
Letting every team use the system eliminated the competitive advantage that Brown initially sought in the 1950s. The system benefited from newer technology, along with better reliability and security: Messages now could be scrambled to keep other teams from listening in.
Since then the coach-to-player communications system has become a fixture, and the NFL continues to improve and refine it.
In 2008, for fairness and defensive play-calling security, the league allowed the system to also be used between a coach and a designated defensive player. In 2012, the headset signals switched from analog to digital, reducing interference and improving the sound quality (making it sound more like a phone instead of a walkie-talkie).
In 2014, after two years of testing, the league equipped all on-field officials with headsets so they can communicate with each other wirelessly, enabling them to coordinate more effectively before plays and discuss penalty calls more quickly after them.
Instant replay as an officiating aid follows a similar trajectory: The league didn’t fully embrace the system until advances in technology improved its effectiveness, integrity and impact on the length of games.
The league first tested instant replay during the 1978 preseason, but waited until the 1986 regular season to adopt it. The first time it was used, in a regular-season game between the Chicago Bears and the Cleveland Browns, it confirmed a call that a Browns player had recovered a botched Bears snap in the end zone for a touchdown.
The league rescinded the instant replay system in 1992, citing its impact on the length of games and complaints that reviews could be initiated only by an instant replay supervisor, not a coach or official.
The technology wasn’t up to speed either. Referees were notified by pagers equipped with minimicrophones when a supervisor initiated a review. The system was cumbersome and inefficient — but it was an improvement over the walkie-talkies that were initially used by the replay official and the referee.
In 1999, the league brought back instant replay with better technology and communications tools, as well as revisions to review rules. And the technology continues to improve. The high-definition video that came into use for replay in 2007, combined with freeze-frame capability and television cameras covering the game from all angles, has given officials an unprecedented ability to get the call right.
Since the return of instant replay, the league has continued to expand the types of plays that are automatically reviewed or subject to a coach’s challenge. In the 2014 season, new tools and proprietary NFL Vision software enabled officiating supervisors at Art McNally GameDay Central in New York to begin reviewing plays and talk to the stadium instant replay official and the game’s referee well before he goes under the hood. That shortens the length of a replay review.
More recently, the league demonstrated the ability to balance new technology with the best interest of the game when, in 2014, it introduced two Microsoft products — Surface tablets and the Sideline Viewing System — to NFL sidelines.
During games, coaches previously received faxed black-and-white bird's-eye view images of offensive and defensive formations to analyze on the sidelines between each series. Now, they get high-resolution color images transmitted immediately to secure tablets, allowing them to zoom in or draw on the screen while instructing their players.
The tablets remain in the league’s possession during the week so teams can’t modify them and are provided to teams before the start of each game. The tablets are configured so teams cannot access the Internet or install anything that might give them a competitive advantage; they can only be used for coaching. The league collects the tablets as soon as the game ends, and they are stored until the next week.
One day the Microsoft Surface tablets may replace paper entirely. The league is also looking at expanding the use of tablets to allow coaches to review video during the game, a concept that is currently being tested. As with its use of all technology, the league wants to walk before it runs.
What’s next? In a sense, in the ever-evolving NFL, the future is already here.
The NFL is experimenting with radio-frequency identification (RFID) transmitters using a system developed by Zebra Technologies. The league has permitted transmitters to be placed in each player's shoulder pads since 2014. Receivers installed throughout the stadium will use those transmitters to collect data on each player’s position, speed and distance, in real time, during the game. RFID transmitters are placed inside game balls to further measure location and performance data.
While the technology could be a boon for broadcasters, the NFL envisions its potential extending to team training, scouting and evaluation. Its universal application will hinge on how well the system works initially, agreements with the players union on how it can be used, and discussions with players and coaches about whether or how it could benefit them for training and instruction.
For fans watching at home, the NFL and Microsoft reached a deal in 2013 to deliver an enhanced, interactive experience via the Xbox One and other Microsoft devices. As part of the arrangement, users can get real-time fantasy football updates, track scores and stats, watch personalized highlights and replays, or interact with friends on screen — all while continuing to watch a live NFL game broadcast.
In stadiums, the league encourages clubs to provide a technologically rich gameday experience. This includes showing action and replays on enormous screens, making it easier to use smartphones and other devices by enabling better access to Wi-Fi, and providing real-time updates on fantasy football statistics and other games.
For players, the NFL has been considering and testing the use of head impact sensors, trying to determine whether they can feasibly and reliably provide data that can be used to protect players and improve the design of equipment.
The measurements often add drama to the game — the anticipation and the tension building as the officials stretch out the chains. The NFL’s Game Operations Manual even mandates that chain crews and players stand “well away” from the front stake during the measurement to allow stadium fans and television cameras to see it.
These are the types of values that the NFL, as the steward of the game, must consider as traditions bump up against technology.