NFL experimenting further with sideline tablets


By Barry Wilner - AP Pro Football Writer



NEW YORK (AP) — Coaches, players and game officials will be allowed to examine video on the sideline during preseason games. There’s strong thought they will be able to do so in the regular season by 2016.

NFL teams began using Microsoft Surface tablets last year to examine photos of plays, and the feedback was so positive that Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson said, “It’s a difference maker for me.” In several preseason games this summer, reviewing video of plays will be tested on new Surface Pro 3 devices.

Video was available on the tablets on an experimental basis for last January’s Pro Bowl, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees credited being able to review it as leading to a touchdown pass.

Officiating crews will use the Surface Pro 3 to conduct video reviews rather than going “under the hood” during the preseason.

“We will use the tablets in 10 games through the first three weeks of the preseason,” said Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “The goal is to be more efficient in administering replay reviews. Rather than going under the hood, the referee will have the tablet brought to him so he can review the play, similar to what was done at the Pro Bowl.

“Having New York involved in the replay review process for the first time last season was a very positive factor in streamlining the process, and we would like to determine if using the tablets could streamline it even further.”

If all goes well, Microsoft, in the midst of a five-year, $400 million deal with the league, will make presentations to the NFL’s competition committee and then to the owners after the season.

“The NFL has a process in implementing new technology and paradigms to the game,” ”said Jeff Tran, Microsoft’s director of sports marketing and alliances. “Part of that process is the preseason test to ensure everything works without a hitch.”

There were few hitches in using the tablets last season.

“As technology advances, so will the ability of our coaches, players and officials to adapt and adopt new uses,” Troy Vincent, who oversees football operations for the league, has said. “The future of the sideline is very exciting and promising.”

The new tablets also have been upgraded with a system allowing reviews and marking up of full-color images of plays following each series for use during the regular season. Tran said the review process is seven to 10 times faster over previous use of printed pages.

Other enhancements made to the Surface Pro 3:

—The pen used on the tablet now has color codes for coaches and players to make annotations.

“It sounds minimal and trivial, but this was done from feedback they gave us,” Tran said. “They are now able to identify specific players and plays by color: blue, yellow, orange and green.”

—A full whiteboard feature has been added on which coaches and players can annotate messages or create plays, or draw to illustrate some facet of the action.

—While there were few complaints about glare on the tablets caused by the sun or inclement weather, that issue was addressed and improvements were made.

—The upgraded tablet can handle both lower and higher temperatures on the sideline.

Microsoft spoke with more than 50 NFL players about various activations to gauge how the Surface tablet affects the game. Adding video drew the most support.

“It helps them save seconds, which ultimately leads to minutes. It’s a game of inches, but it is also a game of seconds and minutes,” Tran said.

“I always say: KTN. Keep taking notes,” Wilson added. “I even take those notes while playing the game.”

In addition to working with players, coaches and officials, Microsoft has addressed the fan experience. As part of its effort to look to “The Next 50” and future of football, Microsoft is incorporating Next Generation Stats into its NFL app on Xbox One and any Windows 10 device, for this season. The app will be launched this month.

Starting this season, players will have a tiny microchip in their pads to collect data that will show every single movement. The chip will provide information on their speed, velocity, location, and distance traveled. For example: Just how fast is Pittsburgh All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown?

“It’s great for fantasy and general football fans to marvel at the athleticism of some of these players,” Tran said. “And to see the positional data, so fans are able to see how a play unfolds.”

All of these upgrades — whether involving the people playing the games, coaching in them, officiating them or simply watching them — no longer are the wave of the future. They are the present.

By Barry Wilner

AP Pro Football Writer

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