How exactly will the work-from-home 2020 NFL Draft – the first-ever event of its kind in league history – actually work?
Try wrapping your mind around it this way first, and then we'll explore in further detail:
The Patriots have a big game this coming weekend, one that'll stretch over three days, rather than three hours. Beginning this Thursday night at 8 and finishing around 7-ish Saturday evening, it's not a game in the traditional sense, of course.
What's more, roles have been somewhat reassigned, with the coaching and scouting staffs serving as players, in some sense, and the team's Information Technology department acting as coaches. IT has assembled the "game plan" and will to some extent "call plays," while it's up to the football operations folks to execute.
In the role of Bill Belichick, if you will, is "head coach" Michael Israel, the team's chief information officer. IT specialist and "offensive coordinator" Dan Famosi will be this weekend's Josh McDaniels. To be clear, these men will NOT be deciding which players the Patriots select, so, please forgive what might be an inexact approximation. Nonetheless, it should help illustrate just how complex an undertaking this weekend will be.
A DRAFT, FAR FROM A BREEZE
As a result of the global coronavirus pandemic, we've known for about a month now that the 2020 NFL Draft would be different than normal. Even before then, it was going to be a new-look affair, originally scheduled to take place for the first time ever in "Fabulous" Las Vegas (new home to the Raiders franchise), as the glittering sign on the famous Strip proclaims.
However, with countries the world over forced to shut down almost entirely for weeks now, the league had no choice but to follow suit, announcing on March 16 that "NFL Draft events in Las Vegas… will not take place," but that the selection process would go on and be televised, as usual, albeit in some other "innovative" fashion. Details still needed to be hashed out.
Before that announcement, Israel admits, "We weren't really thinking about [the draft] from an IT perspective." Yet, it quickly became apparent to him and his staff that they would likely become central figures in the ensuing planning and logistics.
Israel, a longtime professional who most recently oversaw IT for amusement park giant Six Flags, is nearing the end of his rookie season with New England. Having started in Foxborough just after the 2019 NFL Draft, he gained valuable experience with the club during last year's training camp, regular season, and playoffs. He'd been planning for this, his first draft, to be an otherwise routine exercise in which he and his staff would be, as he described it, "making sure our lights are on and sitting back in case something happens."
In a typical year, teams across the NFL gather their top brass at their respective headquarters, with almost everyone in the same room, watching proceedings on television screens and manning phones to stay in contact with their handful of representatives at the draft site, as well as with league officials and the other teams. There's a central nerve system, a so-called "War Room," inside Gillette Stadium and the other 31 team facilities, where all the decision-makers are present.
"The first reaction," Israel explains, "was, 'Okay, how are we going to support a scenario in which we're all remote. We got thrown a further curve when the league turned around and said, 'You're not going to be able to work out of your stadium offices.' Originally, we thought we'd be able to be here [at Gillette], socially distanced, but in one building. We then got to a point where we had to determine what 'remote' means."
Two weeks ago, that finally became clearer, when the league mandated that every football operations staffer, including head coaches and general managers, must work separately from their own homes throughout the draft.
To carry an earlier metaphor further, Israel and his IT team now had an opponent: the relative unknown, the uniqueness of it all on such a large scale.
New England's IT staff quickly set about conceptualizing a mosaic of audio and video teleconferencing systems and platforms, available to every Patriots football operations staffer involved directly in the draft at their own homes. While designing this internal network, Israel and his team at the same needed to integrate a number of similar league-supported services.
This involved IT staffers visiting coaches' and scouts' homes to ensure that they had sufficient internet capabilities installed, and if not, to upgrade them where necessary. They also had to replicate, as best they could, football ops' individual office environments, in terms of phone systems, network firewalls, and the like. IT also established secondary and tertiary backups in case of technical difficulties with the primary systems.
"That meant working with their internet providers – such as Comcast and Verizon," Israel continues, "to make sure that 1) they had the right plan to support the added features they're going to have and 2) by working with the league, prioritize those home locations to make sure there's no disruption of service within those regions.
"There was a lot of cooperation from the telecomm companies… in one instance, I signed a contract at 3:30 in the afternoon last week, and at 5 o'clock, someone from Comcast was at our assistant coach's location installing the line."
Essentially, Patriots football operations personnel will gather in virtual "video rooms" this weekend while they're sequestered at their respective homes. This includes head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio, who'll have the ability to insert themselves in any particular room or discussion they so choose, and everyone will be able to see one another, just like they would if they were meeting in person.
To limit coaches and staff talking over one another accidentally, the Patriots will look to IT Specialist Dan Famosi. He's often seen patrolling the sidelines behind or beside Belichick on game days, making sure headsets, tablets, and other sophisticated equipment operate properly.
During the draft, Famosi, according to Israel, will be "acting as the lead moderator with all our coaches, to make sure no one's stepping on each other in terms of speaking, who to mute, who not to mute, trying to make sure they're all working hand-in-hand. He's got direct vision on what's happening within our coaching environment."
Simultaneously, football ops will have access to audio conference bridges with the league and with the 31 other teams, to maintain constant communicate about selections and potential trades. This will involve multiple programs, as well as devices.
"Most of our coaches have five or six different applications running simultaneously," adds Israel. "We have our own internal systems, then the NFL has several key systems that they're operating. There's an NFL website for the teams, an NFL Webex call that only certain individuals have access to, there's a specific trades line that is an open audio conferencing bridge."
Let's say the Patriots want to negotiate a trade with another team, or even a three-team deal. This will still be logistically feasible under the digital WFH arrangement. Teams can contact the Patriots, and vice versa, by phone, as usual. Israel and his team have also created specific lines of communication so that, with one click, the Patriots can reach the 31 other clubs individually.
"Coach Belichick or Nick Caserio can simply touch 'Arizona Cardinals' and he's connecting with his peer over in Phoenix," says Israel. "Nick can conference in Coach Belichick if he has to or other coaches if he has to, and they can work through those different conversations. If it's a three-way discussion – meaning a third trade team is in the mix – they can do that as well. When all is said and done, they hang up, pick up a different phone, and call the league to confirm the trade."
For the league's broadcast purposes (the draft will be telecast by a joint production of NFL Network, ABC, and ESPN), live streaming video of Patriots goings-on will come from cameras positioned at the homes of Belichick, Caserio, and Patriots ownership.
In these final days before the draft, it's been up to Israel and IT to coach the coaches on how to use and optimize these varied devices and platforms.
"We have been testing all of this," declares Israel, "for the past week. So far, so good."
READY FOR KICKOFF?
Nowadays, Bill Belichick is the putative best coach in football, perhaps of all time. By his own admission, he's also one of the game's most notorious Luddites.
Belichick, though, gained his deserved coaching reputation largely by being able to adapt, to change his game plans and his starting lineups based on his opponents. Israel maintains that Belichick, Caserio, and the rest of Patriots football operations have embraced this present-day challenge that could only be overcome with modern technologies.
"I don't think this is a scenario anyone would have planned for, invited, or would have wanted to do. But being safe and looking at a bigger picture, to protect our families and everything else during this type of scenario, you have to say, 'How do I best adapt?' Our coaching staff, Coach Belichick and Nick Caserio included, have gone above and beyond in terms of being open to 'Show us how we can extend the office.'"
But what if something does go wrong? Technology, after all, is imperfect. Plus, the complexity of juggling two or three phone lines, two or three computers at once, navigating from league systems to internal systems, and being on a time clock at the same time is likely to exert significantly more pressure on every team, not just the Patriots.
During the draft, Israel will be holed up in "a central location at our data center making sure our systems are operational. We then have support staff geographically located where our coaches and scouts are. If they need to be dispatched to someone's home, they can be. We have our virtual helpdesk center working to support anyone with issues during that time.
"We are not in the homes," Israel emphasizes, "unless we get a call that someone is having a problem. Most of the issues we'd be dealing with can be handled remotely. Most of it is monitoring system performance, making sure that folks are able to manage the different platforms."
He's come up with his game plan. He and his IT "coaches" have conducted practice sessions. Now, it's up to the real team – Belichick, Caserio, et al – to go out and perform.