Why NFL coaches keep fighting in-game video access

Should NFL teams have access to film on sideline? (1:08)

The SportsNation crew discusses Mike Zimmer's comments that having video on the sideline would help bad coaches. (1:08)

ORLANDO, Fla. -- This is a story about traditionalists fighting back against technology. And winning!

For much of this decade, the NFL has pushed for video access on sidelines during games. It seemed logical. Coaches and players spend hours every week studying video. They still call it "film" or "tape," of course. By any name, it is an essential part of reviewing the previous game and preparing for the next. Why not have it available in real time, to help with in-game adjustments or on-the-fly matchup evaluations?

So at last week's owners meetings, for the second time in three years, the NFL competition committee proposed a bylaw change to add video functionality to select Microsoft Surface Pro tablets already used to view still images on sidelines.

Coaches? They lost their dadgum minds.

They reacted so forcefully, in fact, that committee chairman Rich McKay tabled the proposal and said it likely wouldn't be addressed before the 2018 season. Investigating this fracas at the annual meetings proved to be an amusing journey into the deep but occasionally absurdist minds of the top 32 football coaches in the world.

In essence, NFL coaches think video would make in-game adjustments too easy for the ill-prepared slappies among them. (Themselves excluded, of course.)

"If I'm looking at the video, I'll never be wrong," Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "I'm against it because I think it takes some of your true coaching skills away and it makes it even for everybody, for good coaches and bad coaches."

This viewpoint is less a manifesto on the intrusion of technology -- although most coaches hate that, too -- and more about protecting what seems to be the tiniest slice of a winning edge.

Coaches have spent years honing their ability to recognize crucial in-game insight, be it a formation on the other side of the field or a "tell" given away on the still photographs they now view on tablets. At times, they base their game plans on the introduction of a strategy that appears confusing to the naked eye but would reveal itself easily -- but too late -- in next-day film sessions.

Adding video, coaches said, would risk the leveling out of that advantage. It's part of the same mentality that compels them to obfuscate their injury reports, to close practice for all but warm-up drills and to refuse to identify their starting nose tackle. Winning is not a single-thrust event to them. It is the sum of everything that happens during the week, major or nearly irrelevant, real or perceived.

"We come in on Monday morning and start watching the tape," Zimmer said, "And you say, 'Oh that's what they were doing.' Now, you wouldn't. So I can do this at six minutes in the first quarter and say, 'Oh here this is what they're doing. Here's how they blocked this.' And I can coach my guys on what's happening. Whereas in the past, you have to rely on your skills to figure it out.

"It takes coaching and all of the things out of this when you go and sit there and watch it. Anyone can do that. I can bring [anyone] in there [to watch video] and say, 'The left guard is pulling, and they're blocking down in a combination down on the linebacker.' Anyone can figure that out [with video]. But that's what we're supposed to do as coaches."

Quite reasonably, the competition committee's McKay said that "really good coaches will find a way to use [video] to their advantage." But the coaches weren't having it.

The Green Bay Packers' Mike McCarthy views in-game adjustments as a matter of concise communication. Can a coach, in a manner of seconds or a minute, talk through a development with a player to fix a problem or change a strategy? Video would show them an indisputable answer, but could perhaps eliminate the essential verbal communication. (Parents of kids with any type of electronic device would understand.)

McCarthy said he understood the natural evolution of technology for football operations, but rued the possible loss of competitive edge.

"If this makes coaches and players not use their ability to communicate off of pictures," he said, "I'm not for it."

McCarthy was speaking a few hours before the issue was introduced for discussion last Tuesday morning. Unprompted, and to his dismay, McCarthy said he thought it would pass. The competition committee had attempted a compromise by limiting the number of video-enabled tablets to five on the sideline and two in the coaches' booth, and there was an unspoken understanding that the NFL's $400 million sponsorship with Microsoft was in play as well. Under the proposal, All-22 video would be loaded instantaneously into a dedicated app and "tracked" so that users could find an individual play without having to manually toggle.

But as it turns out, opposition was widespread. Owners have the authority to decide any vote, regardless of internal opposition, but chose not to die on this hill. In fact, even the youngest and presumably hippest coach in the NFL was in no rush to transition to video.

The Los Angeles Rams' Sean McVay made clear he is happy to stand on the sideline, in the year 2018, viewing still photographs on a tablet. McVay is 32 years old, placing him squarely in the smartphone generation. But when you learn at the side of old-school coaches, as McVay did, you tend to endorse their rhythms as well.

"[Video] allows you to see the entirety of some of the things that maybe you didn't see," he said, "but I think what you respect about this league is that we see it in live action, make adjustments and are able to adapt as you go. ... I think we're all a product of the experiences and the environments we have. So all you really know is the pictures and kind of being able to take that snapshot.

"I think just personally, the way that we've operated, I would love to be able to continue to do that."

Not every coach was sweating it, of course. The Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll, who is 66 years old and has been a witness to massive change in the game over his career, seemed to have been preparing for it.

"We have had experience with using video in practice," he said, "so guys are already starting to adapt. Some coaches use it more than others and some players take to it more than others. ... It's just more information, which sounds classic for our time, but I think it will work out fine."

Indeed, it's easy to imagine a day when no one has the energy to fight a proposal that isn't going away. Perhaps it won't arrive until after this generation of coaching traditionalists have moved on. Sideline video is hardly the most pressing issue in the NFL. But every now and then, we get a clear glimpse into how its most powerful people think. This one was revealing.