It was the morning after the Washington Redskins‘ preseason opener at the Buffalo Bills, and linebacker Lorenzo Alexander didn’t have to go to the team’s practice facility to review his game performance. He could do that in his basement, or over a bowl of cereal.
“I was able to wake up, watch the film, what I did wrong and already had an idea what I was going to hear from the coaches or things I needed to work on before I even touched the facility,” he said.
That’s because of the Redskins‘ implementation of iPad playbooks and video apps, a trend in the NFL that has started to make the paper playbook a thing of the past.
“It’s way more efficient than having a huge playbook to carry around, it’s way easier to get from play to play. You can search, you can find plays. We can put all our film on the iPad. Guys can watch film wherever they’re at. It’s the new game of football.”
At least 29 NFL teams use iPads in some way, and the Redskins joined that group this training camp. Each player was issued one of the devices with a case featuring his jersey number, a playbook app and the Hudl video app installed.
There is no chance to watch movies or play Angry Birds, just the opportunity to study every aspect of football, 24/7.
“I look at it as someone working at a 9-to-5 job and having a work computer, so to speak: You’re not allowed to check personal email and stuff,” safety Madieu Williams said. “It’s no different for us; we’re not allowed to use it for any purposes other than studying and watching video and things like that.”
But players voiced widespread support for the iPad playbooks, which make life and learning easier despite some hiccups along the way.
Playbooks are as central to football as it gets, no matter the level. Scripting plays on paper and handing out giant books was just the natural way for coaches to disseminate information and for players to soak up knowledge.
Laptops have been around, but Apple’s introduction of the iPad in 2010 changed the game. At a shade more than 1 pound, an iPad is sleek and light enough to carry just about anywhere.
“Basically, that device is a one-stop shop for everything. You can have your playbook, you can have your videos, you can have your calendar, you can have everything,” said Chad Q. Brown, business director for DragonFly Athletics, which supplies playbook apps to seven NFL teams. (The Redskins are not one of the seven.)
“The teams being in the NFL and being proactive, a couple teams took that initiative,” Mr. Brown said. “And in that league, in any sports league, when someone else does it, it’s an advantage. So some teams got wind that a team was doing iPad playbooks, people did research. They realized how slick and efficient it was.”
Front office executives and coaches didn’t shy away from it, even if they’re not part of the iPad generation, ex-Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian said.
“We had already at the Colts discussed it with football people and some learning specialists from Big Ten schools, and the general consensus was that because kids use this virtually from grade school now, it is the way they learn. And just that alone makes it more efficient than having them use a playbook and paper and pencil,” he said.
On the video side, the evolution has been more visible. Quarterback Rex Grossman said he remembers when teams would send tapes through the mail, and VHS cassettes and DVDs were the primary ways to watch footage up until a few years ago.
Now, so much of it can be done with just the iPad and material saved online via cloud storage servers.
“The cloud and the iPad working together, we provide access to any coach, to any administrator, to any player, to their internal coaching content anywhere in the world: a hotel, their house, the meeting rooms, their car,” Mr. Brown said.
Hudl does that for 10 NFL teams, including the Redskins, working with a video editing company called XOS Thunder.
“We basically help pull that video, take it securely and place it in a cloud so that players, coaches, scouts [and the general manager] from the Redskins can all access that video no matter where they are across the Web,” said Matt Mueller, vice president of business development for Hudl. “[Teams] are really looking for the same things: How do we get away from DVDs or just extra effort from a video staff, and how do we make ourselves more efficient and give our players more access to film in an easier way.”
How it works
Even some veterans said they adapted right away to using an iPad.
“It’s the technology generation; everybody has an iPad, so it’s very easy to get into it and understand how it works,” said Alexander, 29. “Younger generation is more technology-driven. And I think they’re just more amped to pick up an iPad versus a playbook.”
It’s just like reading a book.
“If you’re electronically savvy at all, you click ‘Day 1 passes’ and there are the Day 1 passes,” Grossman said. “You flip [pages] like you would a book on iPad. There are like six plays on a page. You can zoom in and then hit the stylus thing that says draw on it, and you draw your notes underneath there. Zoom out, save it, next page.”
Forget about trying to remember what play is on what page and wasting time getting there.
“You don’t have to flip through every page,” Alexander said. “You can just hit search, bam, it’s there.
The team’s video staff has the ability to integrate video with the playbook, too. But even before that, there was value in the Hudl app when it comes to players learning on the fly.
“You can also simulate certain formations that you might see in practice,” Williams said. “You can line up against that certain formation on your tablet and draw it in versus a certain defense. It makes studying a lot more effective.”
For coaches, having the iPad streamlines the process of making changes.
They don’t have to wait until the Wednesday or Thursday before a Sunday game to introduce a new scheme or game plan. Instead, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and others can make changes almost until the last minute before a meeting.
“We spend a lot of nights putting the game plan in and then we come early in the morning and we have a bunch of adjustments and our quality control guys are scrambling at the last second because whatever adjustments we made, they’ve got to go to the 50 books and pull out that page and put in new pages,” Shanahan said.
“The iPad is pretty nice because I can give them a change 10 seconds before the meeting and they just push ‘update’ and all the players have it updated.”
In meetings, players can follow along more easily and can take notes on the iPad. But some, such as Cooley and fullback Darrel Young, still carry notebooks because they feel it’s more natural and comfortable.
Although there is no proof that iPads speed the process of knowing a playbook, learning specialists have found it has a positive effect.
“There is no team not looking for the best of the best to help their team win and learn better,” Mr. Brown said. “We don’t help anybody win, but we do help people learn better.”
Helping ‘quality of life’
Just from a mental standpoint, players don’t want to trudge to Redskins Park if they want to do some studying, Alexander said. Now it’s possible for them to lie on the couch, watch TV and still review plays.
Being more accessible helps beyond learning plays and being able to check out video.
“Football always has had the rules where you go in, you’re the first guy in, you’re the last one to leave, you’re living in that office,” Mr. Brown said. “I think this device could actually help coaches in their quality of life, help players in their quality of life because they can do things, like the corporate world, in a virtual environment.”
There are still long days. That’s inevitable. But now those days can include more work from home.
“Guys have families,” Young said. “It just makes it more convenient to be at your house and Coach sends everyone an email on the iPad because it’ll ring regardless and say, ‘Hey, this is what the install is. We’re going to change this blocking scheme for today.’ Before they teach it, we can get a look at it.”
What’s the downside?
One consideration was the distraction potential.
“The idea that guys in meetings could play games on them or communicate or use Facebook or whatever social media they were involved in in meetings, that defeats the purpose,” Mr. Polian said.
The Redskins and other teams solved that problem by issuing devices with just the playbook and video apps installed.
No problem; players can’t tweet from meetings, and iPads are barred from the sideline during games, as most other electronics are, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
But issues still crop up.
It’s a problem “when you don’t charge the iPad and you need it for meetings and your battery is kind of flickering,” Williams said. “There’s a [power] strip in the locker room where the guys in the IT department make sure our stuff is pretty charged every day.”
‘Everything can be hacked’
Outside the practice facility, the iPad can be a target for theft, just like a traditional playbook. But, as Young pointed out, an iPad lying around is much more likely to get taken.
The idea that an NFL team’s confidential information can leak out to the world is a nightmare for executives and coaches.
“Could you secure it in such a way that nobody else can hack into it? I’ll be very frank; that worried me greatly,” said Mr. Polian, now an analyst for ESPN. “We know everything can be hacked.”
DragonFly and other companies worked with teams to build in multiple layers of protection. If a Redskins player forgets his password and fails to log in five times, the entire iPad is erased.
In the event of roster turnover, there no longer is the danger of DVDs and playbook pages falling into the wrong hands.
“The key security method is what we call a kill-bit system. It’s kind of like a remote detonator,” Mr. Brown said. “When people leave the team or a guy would get traded, a coach would leave the team, get fired at the end of the year, the video director can flip a switch, kill an account, and that video is gone from the iPad.”
Players were threatened with hefty fines — Mr. Brown said in the neighborhood of $9,000 — if they didn’t turn in their playbooks when cut or traded. With the likelihood that an iPad then becomes an expensive paperweight, there is less incentive to keep it.
Mr. Polian brought up WikiLeaks as an example of how even government documents can be compromised. In the unlikely event that an iPad playbook is hacked, Grossman said, “Even still, football is football. Even if they did know our offense, you go play.”
Said Alexander: “It’s actually harder for you to actually steal it now if you really wanted to take and maybe scan it or something. You can’t do that anymore.”
Mr. Brown sees the cost of iPad playbook and video technology coming down as it becomes more widespread. Right now, the subscription cost per team is based on factors such as cloud storage space and the number of users.
But the future of this kind of technology can be even more expansive.
“Nobody has integrated a Skype or a video chat with the playbook yet,” Mr. Brown said. “The coach is talking to a player from the house, that kind of thing. I think that’s where it could go next.”
As recently as three years ago, even this kind of technology was hard to envision having a practical application in the NFL. But with teams looking for the latest competitive advantage, expect more evolution with iPads.
“I think this is a pretty cool first step,” Grossman said. “Who knows? A virtual reality practice where you can step in and see stuff? I don’t know. It’s just a cool learning tool. It just makes life easier.”