Football's High-Tech Revolution

Technological Advances Bring Both Enthusiasm, Fear in Football World


Nov. 24, 2008—

Football may be one of America's most treasured sports, but this traditional pastime is getting a high-tech makeover that is moving the game from the gridiron to the Internet and even video game consoles.

For many college and pro coaches, technology is a necessary tool to connect with players in the digital age. Some coaches acknowledge that there can be a digital divide between player and coach, and say that it has become increasingly important to engage their players online.

Kevin Morris, the offensive coordinator of the University of Massachusetts football team, has recently started using OnePlaybook, an interactive online playbook that helps coaches manage teams and communicate with their players. Morris says the program, which allows him to upload opponent video and other coaching materials to a secure Web site, has encouraged his players to plug in and spend more time reviewing plays before game day.

"What it allows us to do in this day of the instant access is get our kids to get online and watch video of the opponents from their rooms," Morris said. "They're all online these days. They have Internet on their phones. It's ridiculous. Now they can just sit in their rooms and click to view game material ... and they are better prepared for Saturday."

Brian Manning, the creator of OnePlaybook, says the program offers coaches another teaching tool.

"[The Internet is] a medium that players are really used to. They get information that way all the time, so it makes sense for coaches to leverage that," Manning said. "People learn a lot of different ways. Putting coaching material online is another way for players to learn."

XOS Technologies, one of the leading providers of sports technology to professional and college teams, not only hopes to leverage the Internet, but is also trying to teach players through another medium they may be familiar with -- video games.

Coaches Using 'Madden' Game as a Training Tool?

Partnering with EA Sports, XOS recently unveiled the play action simulator, which enables players to review specific plays in a simulator modeled after the popular football video game "Madden."

Matt Bairos, the director of product marketing at XOS, says it is successful because "the player basically doesn't have any learning curve because he grew up playing ['Madden']."

Bairos says XOS, which works directly with college coaches in product development, has dramatically increased the complexity of its technology in recent years. Coaches have been the driving force behind the company's transition from developing products that were essentially "glorified VCRs" eight years ago, to the integrated systems centering on reports and statistical analysis it sells now.

"The amount of data they work with now is overwhelming and the amount of content that they can sift through has changed significantly," Bairos said. "[A coach's] need to have instant access to always try to get a leg up on the opponent has really driven our development process."

Technology in the Football Fraternity

But what if technology is so sophisticated and precise it tells coaches things they don't want to hear?

Frank Frigo, who helped create a computer program called ZEUS that analyzes close football calls, such as whether a coach should go for it on a fourth down or punt, says it has the potential to prove some of the best NFL coaches wrong, which might be one of the barriers to it catching on.

Frigo, along with partners Chuck Bower and Bo Durickovic, promoted a beta version of ZEUS in 2002, and said he believes it has the potential to help coaches win more. But so far, no one is buying it.

ZEUS incorporates a team's specific characteristics and several years of National Football League statistics, to replicate how two teams would match up in a game. Frigo says that by running hundreds of thousands of simulations, coaches can better determine the play that gives the team the best chance of winning.

Frigo and Bower often play Monday morning quarterback with ZEUS second-guessing coaches. While they say that some coaches have expressed interest, their findings don't always make them popular among the NFL elite.

"We visited with a whole bunch of folks and tried to tell them that the way they were looking at the game is wrong," Frigo said. "Some listened more than others."

The NFL and NCAA ban the use of computers on the sidelines, but Frigo still thinks his product can be used in post-game analysis that would give coaches a leg up against their competition. He says many coaches haven't bought the product because they're wary of taking risks, have an old guard mentality or are preoccupied with job preservation.

"It's not all about winning," Frigo said. "As a coach, you have to answer to the media, to the fans, the owner and general manager. In some ways it doesn't necessarily reward you to do something that people deem controversial."

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy disputes the notion that coaches care more about NFL politics than winning.

"They're concerned with that game, with that play, and they're so laser focused that they're not thinking about anything else other than how that particular play will affect the game," said McCarthy.

Because ZEUS tends to make calls that advocate coaches "go for it" more, Frigo believes it increases a team's chances of winning. But he admits that when the play is not successful, teams following ZEUS' suggestions may not only lose, but lose big, jeopardizing their statistics and reputation.

Frigo thinks the NFL culture doesn't always embrace new ideas, but McCarthy says that, while the NFL tries to "strike a balance between technology and tradition," the league is constantly encouraging the use of new technology.

"We do embrace innovation," McCarthy said, citing new technology approved this year that allows coaches to talk to defensive captains through helmet microphones, and possible future projects, like a microphone that would enable quarterbacks to communicate plays to their teammates without anyone else hearing.  "The commissioner has challenged all of us in the NFL -- players, coaches and the competition committee -- to innovate and find ways to use technology to enhance play on the field, and enhance fan enjoyment, both at the stadium and at home," said McCarthy.

Frigo says it's only a matter of time before ZEUS catches on.

"If you look at the history of technological revolutions, if somebody has a really good idea and there's a better way to do something, it will be adopted sooner or later," he said.

But regardless of how sophisticated sports technology gets, many coaches believe the sport could never be fully mastered by a machine.

"At some point, it's still a human game," Morris said. "It still comes down, you have 11 players on the field. In college, they're young kids, 18- to 22-year-old kids. And you never know what they're going to do, so how can you predict that?"