Published: July 13, 2012 at 4:30 p.m.

Touch Football

How the iPad is revolutionizing playbooks for NFL players and coaches, instantly bringing the intricacies of the sport right to their fingertips

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Jeff Darlington

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NFL.com & NFL Network

The drop-off would take place most Wednesdays during the season. Steve Boxer, then the Denver Broncos’ video intern, would snag a laundry bag from the team’s equipment room, fill it with a slew of Betacam SP video tapes and search for his guy.

This is the way John Elway, nearing the end of a Hall of Fame playing career as Denver’s quarterback, would take advantage of the day’s technological advances. This is the way he’d be able to break down game film in the comfort of his own home.

“He had a machine at his house,” says Boxer, who has risen through the ranks from intern to director over the past 15 years. “John and I still talk about it. I’ll say, ‘Remember those bags of tapes I’d give you?’”

If there was ever a year when this pair of longtime Broncos contributors could laugh about an era of old, it’d be this one. This offseason, Elway (now the team’s executive vice president of football operations) delegated Boxer to purchase 130 iPad 3s that in May were distributed to every player on the team.

No longer must Boxer – or anyone – seek out a player to deliver game film. It can be remotely uploaded to a player’s iPad while they are in their own living room through a WiFi signal. No longer must the “drop-off” take place on Wednesdays, either. Players will have their edited material uploaded 2 ½ hours after a game.

The iPad revolution is upon us.

After a 2011 season in which two teams – the Baltimore Ravens and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – experimented with team-regulated use of tablet technology, the rest of the league is now taking it to the next level, transitioning everything from playbooks, film study and even scheduled notifications of team meetings onto the iPad.

“When I got here, we had one computer in the video room,” Boxer said. “We had tape decks galore – 20 or 30 of them – and a bunch of Beta recorders. We had one laptop in the whole organization.”

Three video decks remain. Hey, everybody needs a few antiques.

Major Undertaking

The concept might seem simple: Head to the nearest Apple store, pile up enough iPads for the whole team and find a dude wearing a blue polo to check you out on one of those handy little devices. Bada bing, bada boom. And it’s done.

But what happens next? How does a team securely upload hundreds of pages worth of playbooks? What application do they use? And all of that video – how could a typical wireless server handle hours of game footage multiplied by 53 players?

Enter Russ Trainor, the Broncos’ vice president of Information Technology. Yes, he’s the equivalent of your company’s life-saving IT guy, except he also happens to be radically altering the way players prepare for your Sundays off.

“From a certain perspective, I’m sure it looks like, ‘Oh, they’ve got iPads going,’ but there’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes to get it where it needs to be before something like this can happen,” Trainor said.

Trainor, for starters, is nearly finished with a massive overhaul of the wireless system at the Broncos’ training facility that accounts for one of the biggest costs of this transition. The old consumer-level WiFi has been ripped out and replaced with the “latest and greatest technology from Cisco.”

Extra “hot spots” have been installed in the locker room, where the signal needs to be the greatest because of the high concentration of iPads that will often be housed there. Same goes for team and positional meeting rooms.

So now the iPads are up and running. The signals are strong. What’s next?

There's an App for That

Apple’s iPad was first released April 3, 2010, a time of year that was really too late for any team to practically begin exploring its use at an institutional level for that upcoming season. One year later, two teams tried it.

Only two years later? So many teams are either jumping on board or at least exploring the possibilities that it’d be difficult to pinpoint another technological trend that has overtaken the league this quickly.

“I think the entire NFL will be on an iPad platform across the board by the end of the 2013 season,” said Chad Q. Brown, director of business operations for DragonFly Athletics, a company that specializes in digital video exchange services for pro and college football teams. “If I’m wrong, I’d be off by three or four teams at the most.”

The trend is creating another obvious software demand that is being answered by several different companies, including Brown’s own. His company has jumped into the development of an app for the iPad that allows teams to manage video and playbooks through the tablets. Several teams – including the Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams – now utilize DragonFly technology.

“We had eight NFL teams last year during the season purchase our product,” Brown said. “I’ve never seen that, where a team purchased the product during the season. But the players were really pushing the movement. They were asking how they could watch video on their iPads. So we did an integration system.

“We gave them the ability to take all of the work they’ve already created in their video department and push it out to their iPads remotely.”

ipad-by-team

DragonFly isn’t alone. Several other companies are also jumping into this fast-growing industry, whether it means providing video integration services or a way to transition entire playbooks from paper to digital – or both. It’s a major reason for the rapid transition toward the new technology.

The Broncos, for instance, chose a company called PlayerLink to design their app that allows players to watch edited cut-ups of plays from any number of game situations (down and distance included) or flip to another element of the app that displays specific plays in .PDF format.

“It’s just so much more convenient,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said. “I don’t have to even go to the facility to be able to watch film. It makes things a lot easier. Last year (on the personal iPads), we were able to get the film. But we weren’t able to have the playbook or write notes.

“They’ve added a lot more to it – and made it a lot easier on us.”

Business Equipment

When students began bringing their laptops to college lecture halls, the concerns were pretty obvious: Would technology divert attention away from the task at hand toward sites like Facebook instead? The wonders about the NFL’s latest movement aren’t very different, since iPads provide inconspicuous access to plenty of distractions.

After all, you’re not going to find Angry Birds on page 473 of a hard-copy playbook. So many teams, like the Broncos and the Dolphins, are making sure to provide plenty of incentives toward resisting such temptations.

“They gave us a long list of things you’re not supposed to do,” Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill said.

Break the rules, which include forgetting to bring it to a meeting or downloading Angry Birds, and you’ll be coughing up a team-issued fine of – gulp – $10,000.

The Broncos have instead found ways to simply restrict certain download capabilities although Apple still sees to it that not all purchasing functionality can be disabled by teams, since that’s a major money-maker for the company.

While the potential fines might seem steep, players still don’t seem to mind the risk considering the reward, particularly the freedom and convenience it provides players to be able to study at any time in any place.

“We went from a playbook that was five inches thick to a thin iPad,” Tannehill said. “It’s a lot easier to carry around and study anywhere. Plus, when it comes to film, you can watch it on the plane, take it to your house, wherever. You don’t have to be at the facility.”

Garrard, a much more experienced veteran than Tannehill, is also finding major benefits despite years of getting acclimated to a paper playbook.

“If I want to watch a practice from yesterday or last week, I can cue it up within seconds,” Garrard said. “Time is important to us – and this makes it very helpful and very quick to do a lot of different things.

“You just need to make sure you keep it charged.”

Security Issues?

This summer, in a move that surely caused a few collective head shakes across the NFL, Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams tweeted a photo of his iPad that displayed several of the team’s defensive plays from the digital playbook.

Really, it had nothing to do with the iPad itself since Williams could have just as easily snapped a photo and tweeted the picture from a hard-copy playbook. But the incident was nonetheless the type of issue that creates hesitation for any old-school coach having a difficult time embracing this new-school world.

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The Broncos provided their players and coaches with instructions on how to use the iPad application, which houses not only the team's playbook but also detailed game footage of their opponents.

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Is it totally rational? No. Is it slightly nearsighted? Yes. But this is new technology, so it is reasonable to wonder about all of those security-type questions. Most everyone who is currently using them, however, says there’s nothing to fear.

“What if a player gets traded?” Brown said. “What if an iPad gets left on a plane? What if someone hacks into the playbook? I understand the question. But there’s plenty of security in place.”

In fact, as several people explained, the iPad might actually be more secure than a hard-copy playbook, particularly those issued by teams like the Broncos. Information can be wiped from an iPad from anywhere, which means a waived player could have his playbook erased before he ever even reaches the coach’s office to get the bad news.

“The big difference and benefit we have now is, there’s no security on a personal iPad,” Boxer said. “Now, we have a COBOLT Device Management system so we can secure what’s out there on the devices. It’s all highly secure. We can wipe an iPad from anywhere in the world, and it now has two passwords on it. It has a four-digit keycode and password required to access the actual app.”

As for the prospect of hacking? The encryption currently being used to secure the iPads on a remote level is equivalent to the military grade. So while the idea of SpyGate II might be something nobody will want to discount, it hasn’t created enough concern to steer most teams away from the technology at this point. Not considering the security currently being utilized.

Rules in Place

Given the rapid transition toward institutionalized iPad use, it’d be easy to assume the NFL would have a difficult time keeping up with the latest trends. However, the league is actually directly connected with everything that’s occurring, even if it is generally allowing teams to make many of these decisions on their own.

Several new rules – rules very few might have otherwise even known existed – have been implemented over the past 12 months that have changed the way teams are able to utilize technology.

In fact, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, it wasn’t until October 2011 that clubs were formally permitted “to distribute their playbooks to players and football staff in any manner they wish; however, it is strongly recommended that security measures be taken.”

The new rules extend well beyond playbooks. For instance, it used to be that teams could only drag and drop video onto a device, such as a laptop, for film study purposes if it only included their own team’s footage. This rule applied to players and scouts, requiring teams to physically mail hard drives filled with scouting material on them to the homes of regional scouts scattered across the country.

The advent of the digital “cloud,” which can remotely store video for use by anyone with secure access to it, caused the league to also reconsider in October. The improvements now allow IT and video departments to quickly and remotely share video at the touch of a button, creating a much more expeditious process.

One interesting rule as it pertains to the iPad? Teams are still not allowed to have their iPads on the sidelines during games, which could require some hard-copy playbooks to be distributed for reference sake.

However, the league is currently looking into possibly replacing the printer systems on sidelines (which allow players to look at still frames of formations during games) with tablet technology. That still would not necessarily allow actual video, though, to be viewed on sidelines.

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This is a screenshot of an opponent's game footage, which can be viewed as edited cut-ups from any number of game situations or as .PDFs of specific plays.

The Time is Coming

A survey of the NFL’s public relations directors across the league elicited some interesting responses as it pertains to their current perspective on iPad technology.

Some teams – like the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals, Rams, Saints and Broncos – were clear and definitive that their players are already using or will be using iPads for the 2012 season for playbooks and film study. No qualifiers – done deal.

Then, there are those teams currently exploring it. It has been “strongly considered” by the Kansas City Chiefs for institutional use. In the meantime, they’re still working toward investing in an app to allow players to watch video on personal iPads. Also falling into the “exploratory” side of things: the San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers.

Finally, there are the teams that have held discussions – like the New York Giants, for instance – but have decided this isn’t yet the appropriate time for the move. While those teams didn’t provide deeper feedback, the decision doesn’t exactly make them dinosaurs.

This, after all, is a brave new technological world. It is one that is creating fast and rapid change worth constant evaluation and analysis. But one thing, based on the rave early reviews, seems generally clear: The iPad isn’t going away.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘How are the iPads going?’” Boxer said. “What is interesting, the first iPad was geared toward a consumer, but it wasn’t necessarily geared toward the professional vision.

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The playbook application that the Broncos use also features statistics for opponents and allows the user to make notes along the way.

“Now, it has emerged in professional, everyday business that we do.”

Who knows where it will take us next? Will players be awoken by an alarm clock remotely set by the team to make sure they aren’t late for early-morning meetings? Could they be used by the league to inform players of fines with a simple push notification? Recently, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told SI.com’s Peter King that tablets could be used on sidelines to administer concussion tests on players.

The ideas seem limitless.

This much is certain: On a Wednesday afternoon in the near future, no longer will Boxer be seeking out Elway to hand over a laundry bag full of video tapes. These days, both men are serving very different roles in a very different era.

One that requires a few clicks, a strong signal and one amazing piece of technology.

“(Elway) isn’t just doing this to make it easier for the team,” Boxer said. “It’s also easier for him. He’s really embracing the technology. He wants all of the information on the iPad – offense, defense and special teams. He doesn’t have to have three playbooks.

“He’s got it all right there. All on his iPad.”

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