Ford Field Jumbotron
 
 
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

It was, to the naked eye, a forgettable play in a forgettable loss in an extremely forgettable season. And yet, it sparked a revelation.

In the sixth game of the 2004 season at Detroit, Tiki Barber caught a screen pass from Kurt Warner and found himself completely lost. He had no idea where his blockers were.

"I didn't know where I was because I ran into the back of my lineman," the Giants running back remembered earlier this season at Giants Stadium. "The JumboTron was literally right there, so I looked and said, 'Oh, there they are.' "

Barber, matter-of-factly, reports he often uses the big screen as a frame of reference during actual plays.

"Pretty cool, huh?" he asked.

Running the football in the NFL is difficult, as Seattle's Shaun Alexander (concussion) and Carolina's DeShaun Foster (broken ankle) discovered in the divisional playoff games. With 300-pound defenders bearing down with evil intent, concentration is a critical factor in self-preservation. How, then, can a running back take his eyes off the field, so to speak, focus for a split second on the big video screen, assimilate the information, return his attention to the field and then make the appropriate adjustment?

Barber smiled and shrugged. "Trick of the trade," he said, emphasizing he uses it only when he's in the open field.

It's a startling demonstration of hand-eye-brain coordination -- like a baseball outfielder glancing away from a fly ball to gauge his distance from the wall -- and it likely happens in nearly every NFL game. By breaking the video down (and slowing it down) you often can see the unmistakable tilt of the head upward toward the screen. Today's athletes, part of this technological, video-oriented age, say they use the big screen during plays to give them an on-field edge. And there's more. The JumboTron, developed for the entertainment and edification of fans, has become an interactive tool for coaches and players to improve their chances of winning. Used for between-play adjustments and replay challenges as well, the big screen -- all-knowing, all seeing -- is changing the way the game is played.

"Who doesn't look at the JumboTron?" Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said.

"It's fun to watch after the play," said Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher, "if you make a good play, or if you get jacked up, you want to see how bad it was."

On Nov. 13, Minnesota's Mewelde Moore, experienced a JumboTron moment. He gathered in a punt at Giants Stadium and took off down the sideline.

"Everyone knows when it is just you and the kicker, it's really nonexistent," Moore explained last month. "So, I give him (Jeff Feagles) a little dip and come back out into the open field. I'm just looking up into the crowd and I spot the JumboTron. And in the JumboTron there is nobody behind me -- that's when you see me throw up the [No.] 1. I was like, 'Yeah, we got this one.'

"It's a moment where everything is clicking. You kind of zone out and get into a zone so everything moves in slow motion."

The play was good (very good) for a 71-yard touchdown. What was Moore thinking about when he saw himself on the screen?

"Aw, man," Moore said. "You are really thinking about what you are going to do when you get into the end zone."

Moore isn't the only player with that mind-set.

"If I'm run blocking, I can look at the JumboTron to see where the running back is," Vikings receiver Marcus Robinson said. "And if there's a man chasing you, you're looking at the JumboTron to see where he is. If you're running, instead of turning around and [slowing], you can look up at the screen and see if he's gaining, or if he's coming in a different direction.

"You have to take advantage of all your opportunities."

Back on Sept. 18, Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson burned the Vikings by collaborating with quarterback Carson Palmer on a 70-yard touchdown only 52 seconds into the game.

"I caught a deep ball and I wasn't sure how far Antoine Winfield and Darren Sharper were behind me, so I used the JumboTron to look up and got myself in the end zone by [knowing] which way to zag, left or right."

High resolution

Mark Steinkamp is the marketing and sales support manager at Daktronics, a Brookings, S.D., firm that next season, when it installs a system in the Arizona Cardinals' new venue, will have its big screens in half of the NFL's 32 stadium.

"They use it during plays?" Steinkamp said last week, sounding surprised. "It's obvious they use it between plays as a tool, but I didn't realize that, to be honest."

Steinkamp refers to his company's products as "wide screens." JumboTron is a product of Sony, which pioneered the electronic message board technology first seen in many stadiums. Now, JumboTron seems to have passed into colloquial language, like Scotch Tape and Coke, just as it seems to be passing out of NFL consciousness.

If you're lucky enough to hold tickets to Super Bowl XL in Detroit, you'll spend a lot of time watching the matching Daktronics screens at Ford Field. They are 27 feet high and 97 wide and the resolution is, quite frankly, amazing.

In the spring, Daktronics will install two screens (50 feet by 137 feet) at Dolphins Stadium that will be the first truly capable of transmitting high-definition images. This technology is a long, long way from those Polaroid stills that once represented a team's only way of instantly understanding the formations opponents were using. Today, teams print out video captures on the sideline, but players say that the big screen gives them almost immediate feedback between plays.

"After a play sometimes you say, 'Maybe I should have cut here.' Or 'Where did that guy come from?' If they replay it, you can look up and catch the tail end of it and say, 'OK, this guy came from here,' " said Falcons running back Warrick Dunn. "I try to use it in that aspect."

Dunn's Atlanta teammate Michael Vick also watches replays on the big screen -- for two reasons.

"Maybe if it is an incomplete pass, just to see my mechanics or what I did that was wrong," Vick said. "But most of the time to look at myself, and make sure that I'm looking good in my uniform."

In the Giants' huddle alignment, quarterback Eli Manning stands with his back to the big screen -- affording his 10 teammates a wonderful view of the video screen.

"So we run a play and say it doesn't work," Barber explained. "I immediately look to see why it didn't work, so when we run it again I will have a better understanding of what the defense tried to do to us.

"It happened against the Chiefs [in Week 15]. There were a few plays early in the game that they were stopping us on. We were trying to hit them play side and I was like, 'We can't do anything.' Looking at the JumboTron, you could see they were attacking the play side as soon as we had movement toward it. So we started running misdirection plays and, 215 yards later, we realized that was the way to go."

Excuse the slight exaggeration. Barber was held to 13 yards on his first 10 carries, but after that midstream adjustment, carried 19 times for 207 yards. It added up to 220 yards and broke a 55-year-old franchise record.

Sometimes, instant gratification can be a bad thing. The live-action angles, Barber said, can be a little deceptive.

"You will sometimes see I am running straight ahead and I will start to reach my hand out before I am getting tackled," Barber said. "I know he is coming, and sometimes it messes me up. Sometimes I will swing and I will miss because I am seeing it, but he really is not there yet.

"It helps, but it [also] hinders, because sometimes you end up taking your eye off the goal."

Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott pointed out another potential downside.

"If there is a holding call," Alstott said, "you are peeking up at the JumboTron, going 'Did I do it?' "

Alstott, for the record, does not watch the video screen while he is running or blocking -- "You are getting a little too far-fetched," he said -- but he appreciates it for entertainment value.

"There are a lot of TV timeouts, and during that time we're standing on the sidelines or in the huddle," Alstott said. "On our JumboTron we have the three boats and the Coke and they are racing through Tampa Bay. You will look over at a player and say, 'I got Coke.' "

Says Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden, "We have some cool stuff up there, so I try not to get distracted."

Red-flagged

Some teams have built-in home-field advantages. The Dolphins have the debilitating moist heat of Miami in September. The Patriots have thrived in the snow of New England. The Seahawks similarly seem to love the rain in Seattle. The Broncos routinely leave opponents gasping in the thin, mile-high atmosphere at Invesco Field.

And now, courtesy of the new technology, we bring you a more subtle and insidious home-field advantage -- the clever big-screen operator. Meet Mark Eisenstadt, the Jacksonville Jaguars' senior producer of game day and special entertainment. He has two objectives for each game.

First, give the fans something viewers can't see at home. Second, assist the home team.

"The best thing is when you look down at the field and you see Coach [Jack] Del Rio looking up at the video board, wondering whether he should throw the red flag or not," Eisenstadt said.

At that point, Eisenstadt's crew hustles to get the video up so that Del Rio doesn't have to wait for TV to go to replay.

"There is a great sense of accomplishment when he actually does throw the flag based on our replays," Eisenstadt said. "Any time we can help our team win on the field, it's just added satisfaction for us."

"The guy who is tapped into the JumboTron," said Jim Mora, the Atlanta Falcons head coach, "is like the guy from the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. I use it in almost every game. My vision is better with JumboTron than it is on the field, especially on offense when I know where the ball is going to go."

It's fun to watch after the play, if you make a good play, or if you get jacked up, you want to see how bad it was.
Bears LB Brian Urlacher

There is nothing specific in the NFL rules regarding video screen operators. The league considers it an acceptable home-field advantage. And so, it is no surprise when a questionable call goes against a home team, the operator invariably gets various angles quickly to the screen. Conversely, when a shaky call goes in favor of the home team, replays that might potentially reverse it are rarely seen until after the call is challenged.

"Plays happen quickly," said Bears head coach Lovie Smith. "You always think you saw a certain thing, but it's always good to reinforce it. If you are looking to challenge, it's good to see it right away."

One NFL head coach told ESPN he has a secret signal to cue replays when he thinks they will be advantageous to his team.

Mike Tice, the former Vikings head coach, made headlines earlier this season when he complained publicly that the Metrodome video board operators habitually ignored his pleas to stop showing replays that could help opposing coaches decide whether to challenge on-field officials' calls.

Sometimes a zealous operator can create an advantage that almost seems overboard.

In Week 14 at Philadelphia, Giants place-kicker Jay Feely was lining up the potential game-winning field goal in overtime when the Eagles called a timeout.

While Feely continued to go through his usual pre-visualization exercises, the big screen at Lincoln Financial Field featured some lowlights from two weeks previous: One, two, three missed field goals at Seattle by Feely that cost the Giants a victory against the Seahawks.

"That was bush league, but what else do you expect?" Strahan said. "We are in Philadelphia and we're the Giants."

What did Feely -- who sensed what was happening but claimed he didn't look up -- think of that astute operator's sense of timing?

"I might not call him astute," Feely said, laughing. "I might call him a different A word.

"Why not put somebody's ex-wife up there, or find out if someone is having an affair and put their girlfriend up there? You could have an influence on someone's performance because they are worried about what their wife is seeing up on the JumboTron."

In the end, Feely made the kick.

"It was a clever move on their part and, fortunately, it didn't work," Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. "The 12th man is definitely the fans, and if there was a 13th man award, the JumboTron would probably get that award."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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Chad Johnson

Ford Field

Mewelde Moore

Desmond Howard

Jack Del Rio

Jay Feely

Tiki Barber