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Tackling Tech: NFL Tablet Video Replay Plan on Ice

In this week's piece, Bob looks at the evolution of an effort to stream video to tablets to help replay officials shorten the review process.

After further review, it appears that an initiative to stream video to tablets with the goal of helping replay officials speed the review process faces an uncertain future. The focus after meetings months ago was instead on a decision by some NFL coaches to put off sideline video for coaching until next year. 


The high-profile vote to delay sideline video while coaches take a harder look at the "competitive impact" of viewing videos of past plays, instead of relying on color still images on their Microsoft Surface tablets, came as a surprise to many. The league called the process "game ready."

In contrast, there was almost no profile for the instant replay on tablets which was designed to save time by replacing the need for the replay official to go under the hood. NFL Spokesman Brian McCarthy said of the effort; "nothing happening for the regular season."


The NFL tested the use of tablets to assist replay officials in the 2015 Pro Bowl and again during at least 10 games during preseason last year. Both opportunities - and the annual combine - are used as proving grounds or a testbeds for technology use to optimize current processes.


The league will, however, continue to test the coaches' tablets (sideline video implementation) throughout the 2016 regular season, he added. Based on recent changes to the instant replay process, it's unclear when or if we'll hear of its wireless video counterpart.

Instant Replay Latest

As requests to use instant replay for more or all plays piled up, the league resisted such changes but has enabled communications between the replay headquarters in New York and officials on the field during the review process. The stated goal is to keep reviews to 60 seconds according to the league.

Here's the verbiage from the rule amendment: The Replay Official and designated members of the Officiating Department at the League office may consult with the on-field officials to provide information on the correct application of playing rules, including appropriate assessment of penalty yardage, proper down, and status of the game clock.

The stated goal is for each review to be a maximum of 60 seconds in length, timed from when the Referee begins his review of the replay at the field-level monitor.

That's an important change, though many in the league expected the sideline video coaching introduction to be a slam dunk. Though it had been tested much of last year, tablet video for replay officials didn't seem to show up on radar.

A Closer Look

But as part of its evaluation of technology for game use, NFL Football Operations conducted a proof-of concept and repeatedly tested video instant replay on tablets.

In the test, a staffer with a backpack full of wireless gear would shadow the replay official throughout the game, handing him the tablet when needed to handle a replay. Because of the need for video in near real-time, the staffer had to walk a tablet to the official.

(AP Photo/Gene Puskar, File)

When NFL Operations looked at tablet video for instant replay, it was likely anticipating greater usage of the instant replay system for any number of reasons. The unit had already taken steps to shorten and streamline the review process, by using tech to help refs get going on this task more quickly.

In the name of shortening the process, being handed a Surface with the video views needed to make a decision on a review to the official. That would be in place of him or her heading from wherever to the replay booth, going under the hood, watching camera views and running back out to announce the decision.

This process enhancement would seem to be just what the doctor ordered with the league deciding that reviews would be capped at 60 seconds apiece. That seems short when you consider the rule amendment approved in May. 

Uncertain Future

The future of tablet video for replay officials is uncertain. Perhaps the league has too many items on its to-do list and/or it wants to take a look at how the enhanced process works in regular season game conditions before considering any changes at all.

(Scott Boehm via AP)

It's also possible that since the competition committee didn't expand the number/type of plays that can be challenged, that handling more plays faster initiative has diminished in value. 

It's also quite possible given the involvement of the commissioner, blue-ribbon panels and earlier this year that the top focus in 2016 will be in processing and applying the definition of the long-controversial "catch rule."

When it comes to video on tablets, it seems the coaches/owners are much more concerned with what had seemed to many as a lock for this season: enabling coaches to view video clips of past plays on their tablets. This is designed to upgrade the current practice of reviewing color still images on the portable devices. 

Fans will have to wait and see what they think of the enhanced instant replay rule in action and determine if the time it takes for reviews is an issue of concern.

Stay tuned!

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology redefine the way sports fans interact with their league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

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