Technology in the NFL: Paper vs Tablet


Game Credentials

I had the opportunity to assist the Pittsburgh Steeler’s video crew (thanks Kory) in their August 9th meeting with the New York Giants, specifically with the distribution of Still Shot images. “Still Shot” refers to two images, one pre-snap and one post-snap, of in-game formations used by coaches/players for on-the-fly analysis. In the past this process involved the printing of images and manual assembly into a binder to be rushed to coaches/players- think the binder QB’s are typically shown huddled over on the bench (Roethlisberger below, left). This season, as part of a deal between the NFL and Microsoft, the paper process will begin to be replaced by Surface Pro 2 tablets (as seen in my hand below).

Microsoft Tablet

Microsoft Tablet with play loaded

Now, when Still Shot images are captured, instead of having to wait for them to print, put in plastic casing, organized by play number and distributed, the tablet automatically populates with the most recent play. Coaches can simply click the play they want to view and blow up the image or draw on it for teaching purposes. Unlike regular tablets, these game tablets have only a single photo app and will be owned by the NFL for privacy reasons. When talking to the rep from Microsoft, the only major question marks with the tablet system are weather related. The tablets worked perfectly on a clear, summer night but will they be able to withstand frigid, winter temperatures in Green Bay, not to mention torrential downpours in Miami? Also, even sunny days beg the issue of glare.

The Steeler’s coaching staff had a split preference for their first preseason game. Older coaches, such as Defensive Coordinator Dick Lebeau preferred paper to the tablet for the sake of familiarity. On the other hand, Ben Roethlisberger, clearly more in tune with today’s technology, had no problem using the tablet to show his WR’s what route they should have run. Special teams coach Danny Smith, who I worked with, had difficulty grasping the concept of the “+” button to enlarge photos. However, once he got a hold of the controls, preferred the tablet.

Big Ben and Offense

Big Ben using tablet with WR’s

Due to the variety of preferences throughout the league, teams will have both the tablet and paper option available throughout the season. Ultimately, I believe the tablets will prove beneficial for one reason: speed. Coaches want the plays, and want them fast. According to a article, “the new tech, at the very least, gets images to the sidelines 15 to 25 seconds faster than those Polaroid photos of old.” This is a low estimate. As long as it’s connected to the NFL’s private wireless network, the tablets will populate anywhere in the stadium. This allowed me to locate my coach and stand in his vicinity as I waited for the play to load- particularly useful if you are reporting to a mobile coach. I consider myself light on my feet but it is very difficult navigating through a sideline of NFL-sized players and angry coaches, especially when the masses are constantly shifting with changes in field position. In my opinion, the tablet saved 45 to 60 seconds as I could hover around my coach while I waited as opposed to behind the bench where the printer is located, away from the action.

Two years ago I was interning with a sports software company building the Still Shot machines that revolutionized the process of printing Polaroid images. Now, less than 24 months later, these machines could soon become obsolete. In a business such as the NFL where time is money and money influences wins/losses, I would not be surprised if all teams have switched to the tablet by the end of this season.

Here are some more pictures from the game:

Me at Metlife

Pregame at MetLife

Troy Polamalu

Troy Polamalu

Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger talk strategy

Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger talk strategy


Game Action

Big Ben

Big Ben and Antonio Brown


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