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Who’s Afraid of Tablet Tech?

Plenty of people in the NFL, it turns out. As a digital era dawns, coaches and players who fear information overload are pushing for a return to the pen-and-paper days.

Getty Images
Getty Images

When backup quarterback Scott Tolzien left Green Bay for Indianapolis this offseason, he decided to do something radical: He wrote down on paper everything he learned, and he got a binder in which to carry Indy’s plays. In the five years since teams started assigning tablets to players, the NFL, along with the rest of the world, has moved away from paper and toward screens. But not Tolzien, who started to realize “as I was getting older” that he wanted to write things down. (It’s worth noting that Tolzien is 28.)

Though tablet usage is now so pervasive in the league that players must informally request a different method if they don’t want to use a digital playbook, not everyone is comfortable with the increased reliance on the tech, or the ensuing shift in how coaches teach and players learn. Virtual reality training techniques continue to emerge, and there are seemingly endless ways to give players what they want on a tablet, but while football people are willing to admit that a tech-first life brings plenty of advantages, they’re still grappling with a core question: Is the tablet era actually making the bulk of players better or worse?

“We’re still a notebook-binder, three-ring profession,” said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. “And a highlighter.”

Teams embraced tablets because they make it easier and more efficient to get more information to more players faster. Players with tablets can access footage of their practice session within minutes of leaving the field and can study in the cold tub if they wish. They can instantly download an animated version of a play no matter where they are.

But there’s an issue, and it may seem counterintuitive: Coaches worry that players are missing major details when they rely too heavily on technology, because the new breed of playbook, they fear, can lead to information overload. In football, the fastest play is usually the best play, meaning any hesitation brought on by thinking too much could spell disaster. And when a plethora of information sits at each player’s fingertips, paralysis by analysis can set in.

Consider the following scenario, which on its surface sounds fantastic: Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner loves to run his trademark “bang 8” route, a skinny post down the middle of the field. If sometime this season Turner wants rookie wide receiver Laquon Treadwell to run that route against a team that features a cover-3, he can instantly pull and share five years worth of film of teams running that skinny-post route against that defense. This is a stark contrast to the pre-tablet days, when teams typically watched their opponents’ three or four previous games to prep, usually delivered via projector.

So what’s the rub? “Some of it you have to be careful on,” Turner said. “You have a Powerpoint and it’s easy to show multiple plays.” But? “It is really easy for a guy to skip the details.”

Turner said that coaches must remember to slow things down and not merely dump the information on the player, a pitfall when loading a play into a tablet.

“The one trap people fall into: You can acquire so much different stuff, you can put so many different plays together, if you’re not careful, your players don’t get better at anything,” Turner said.

In short, NFL meetings used to resemble a high school algebra class; now they look like a Netflix binge session. Microsoft Surface tablets are on the sidelines during games and can display still images. In the locker room, teams are free to use any brand of tablet to show video and plays. The tech is ever-present.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Turner believes that players armed with tablets are learning the basics, but not the concepts behind those basics, which actually leaves them less prepared for midgame adjustments. Pre-tablet, Turner would draw plays by hand, and though he admits it was a slow and inefficient process, he valued being able to verbalize what each player should be doing in each scenario. Now, with the ability to dump all pertinent information on players at once, it’s natural for some coaches to “whip through information, because they assume people know it,” Turner said. “You can’t assume players know it, it’s the little things we’re losing.”

Packers coach Mike McCarthy shares those concerns, worrying that dumping too much information on a player leads to “too much volume and multiplicity in your concepts. We want to be innovative, we want to be on top of what’s going on, but we never want to go too far down that road. I’m not going to be part of the hip, new way of how everything’s done.”

Despite those reservations, the Packers, like every other team, give out tablets with their playbook installed on them.

Of course, as Tolzien proves, coaches aren’t the only ones with concerns. The QB said that he went tablet-only while in Green Bay two years ago and initially embraced the change, but in the last year he’s decided that he wants a “more tangible” learning process. He finds putting pen to paper an easier way to remember and understand something. Tolzien still uses a tablet on some occasions, like when he’s rushed and needs to use the search function to find a certain play. But his preferred learning method is to see plays and routes drawn on top of film — something he notes is not terribly technologically advanced “because it’s no different from watching the broadcast and they use the telestrator,” but is nonetheless something “that helps me learn best.” His offensive coordinator in Indy, Rob Chudzinski, is equally old-school, saying he’s tried to adapt to the times, but “when I look at things, I like seeing them on paper.”

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, meanwhile, said that the biggest holes in the NFL’s tablet movement have arisen when it comes to scouting college draft prospects. “You can’t cheat the process,” he said, noting that teams now have the ability to use “cut-ups” of every prospect, but that these short snippets of a player’s film presented on tablets lack the context necessary to properly evaluate a player. He uses the example of a wide receiver: “You cut up the receiver’s catches instantaneously and watch his 50 catches in 20 minutes. … You have to find out what he’s doing when he doesn’t get the football. What’s his attitude like? Will he be supportive? Will he block? Why is he not in on certain formations? Did he not catch a ball because he was matched up against someone better?”

While Colbert worries that tablets are contributing to a new pattern of scouting centering on highlights instead of full game tape, Vikings assistant wide receivers coach Drew Petzing, who helps advise Turner on the best methods of implementing new technology, thinks some of the anti-tech criticism is overblown. The multitude of resources available on a tablet, he said, cover most players’ learning styles. He’s embracing new tech, but said the ideal teaching tool isn’t available yet: an advanced version of VR tech that could simulate everything on the field while keeping the player in the classroom. That kind of upgrade could be vital given how little teams can practice during training camp and the season, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement implemented in 2011.

Ultimately, Petzing is trying to find the right balance between efficient information dissemination and hands-on tutelage, and Colbert agrees: “I’m not anti-technology and not anti-analytics,” Colbert said. “I just want [the Steelers] to understand that technology is great, we just can’t use it for shortcuts.”