A regular analysis of strategy, decisions and calls that impacted the week of NFL play -- with help from ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke among other resources.
As promised, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was back to shuffling printed photographs on the sidelines on Sunday. For some, the sight painted Belichick as a 64-year-old contrarian fuddy duddy. For me, it was a reminder of how severely the NFL is underutilizing the Microsoft Surface Pro tablets that he shunned in viral comments last week.
The truth is that using a tablet to store and view still photographs isn't a substantive upgrade over how Belichick and his coaching compatriots did it for decades prior. Production is a bit faster, the photographs might be better organized, and zoom capabilities are nice. But principally, the content is unchanged. If Belichick prefers to see them on paper, so be it.
The ultimate vision for these tablets has never been simply photographs, of course. It has been about video from the moment the NFL signed its $400 million exclusivity deal with Microsoft. Allowing coaches and players to review game film on the sidelines is the true game-changer, so much so that the NFL competition committee has delayed approval because of its potential consequences.
The league conducted a one-week experiment during the 2016 preseason, and both sides have declared the technology ready to go. Those within the NFL who have technical and/or marketing backgrounds consider it an inevitable development. But in a true demonstration of contrarian fuddy-duddiness (yes, I made up a word,) protests from those with football expertise have stalled progress.
"It's all ready to go from a technology standpoint," said Jeff Tran, Microsoft's director of sports marketing and alliances, when I spoke to him this summer. "It is available and we'll follow the NFL on that, but the aspiration of the NFL appears to be to continue to evolve the usage of our technology for other purposes. We've gotten in the reps for photos, and now there is an appetite for video."
To be fair, there are some practical matters for the NFL to work out. Most notably, the league must ensure that coaches couldn't use the video to decide whether to challenge a play. A brief upload delay probably would take care of that. Microsoft also must adjust its screen to allow players wearing gloves to swipe it, an understandable barrier voiced last week by Seattle Seahawks players.
When and if video is made available, traditionalists such as Belichick would have no choice but to embrace the tablets -- even if he doesn't like them. (At the moment, coaches don't have access because the tablets are custom made with only NFL-approved applications installed.)
I've heard coaches musing about the possibility for years, even in public when the New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton appeared at the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. At the time, Payton was envisioning using real-time data to help evaluate matchups while also diagnosing opposing game plans and adjusting in near real time. Even now, only the best coaches are adept at in-game and halftime adjustments. For most, opponent strategy -- and ways to combat it -- doesn't reveal itself until Monday film sessions.
That's why Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, among others, has pushed back at the concept. Arians, who also happens to be a member of the competition committee, said in August that the technology will neutralize the advantage good coaches have over bad ones. A blitz that takes six hours in game-planning to perfect, Arians said, could take minutes to diagnose and adjust to if viewed on video from the sideline or the coaches' box.
"That's not what it's all about," Arians huffed.
It would be everything, of course, for those who love strategy and would be intrigued by how Arians and other smart coaches would respond. Would they introduce wrinkles in phases? Could they anticipate adjustments and practice counters? Other than inconveniencing and forcing change on those who prefer the status quo, I can't think of a disadvantage to this development.
Despite relatively powerful opposition, you can rest assured that this initiative won't be dropped. I'll leave you with what Brian Rolapp, the NFL's executive vice president of media, said in February during a roundtable discussion prior to Super Bowl 50.
"There's a fundamental rule of technology," Rolapp said, "that whatever can be done will be done."
Video on the sideline of NFL games? Oh, the humanity.
Bobby Wagner's leap: Legal!
It was amazing Sunday night to witness the initial and continuing confusion over Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner's pair of leaps over the Cardinals' line on field goal attempts. Broadcasters, learned social media analysts and even Arians himself had trouble absorbing the rule that governs such situations.
The ideal NFL vision for this scenario is that a player can leap cleanly over the line to block a kick. It's true that Wagner's foot touched a Cardinals blocker in each case, but the NFL rule book expressly allows that kind of incidental contact and makes clear that it is a foul only if he lands on another player.
Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(s) of the NFL rule book states that it is unsportsmanlike conduct when a player is "running forward and leaping in an obvious attempt to block a field goal or try kick and landing on players." A player also can't jump or stand on a teammate or opponent to gain leverage, nor can he pick up a teammate to block the kick.
Wagner clearly did not land on a player in either situation. In the case book that accompanies NFL rules, there is an example in which a player leaps and has "little to no contact with a teammate or opponent." That seems to describe Wagner's act. The ruling? No foul because "the contact was … incidental."
After the game, Arians said he expected a "bulls---" explanation from the league about Wagner's contact.
"He touched him," Arians said. "You saw it. Did you see it? Didn't he touch him? Yeah, he sure did. It sure looked like it to me, but it was not ruled that way, same with the last [field goal attempt in overtime]. He definitely touched him."
This isn't to call out Arians as much as it is to note that, plainly, Wagner was allowed to make incidental contact. The rule book defines it as "little to none" and makes clear that landing on a player is what would be considered impermissible contact. As senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said on Twitter: "You have to land on a player for it to be a foul."
The NFL rule book is complicated and at times unclear, and "leaping" issues don't arise often. In this case, referee Terry McAulay and his crew officiated the play correctly.